Amid ongoing cosmetic and walkway improvements at the Mall in Columbia, mall owner General Growth Properties will open several new retailers and restaurants within 100,000 square feet of leased space over the next year and a half.
There are currently about 200 retailers and restaurants across the 1.4-million-square-foot shopping center, with 13 opening in the last year.
"The thing about the Mall in Columbia is that our sales remain strong and there's a great deal of retailer interest in the center," said Barb Nicklas, senior general manager of the mall. "Retail is evolving fast. In order to enhance our experience, the customers want more restaurants and the entertainment is to give them more experience."
Sub Zero Ice Cream opened June 15, while Z Gallerie home decor will arrive on June 30 on the first level next to Nordstrom.
Uno's Pizzeria & Grill, a restaurant that left its space on the mall outskirts in March, will be replaced with The Walrus Oyster & Ale House late this fall, offering seafood dishes and craft beers. Shake Shack fast casual restaurant will also open this fall in a portion of the space left behind by Champps Americana.
Inside the mall, Sears is downsizing to just the first floor. GGP announced in April that Main Event Entertainment, a Dallas-based company, and Barnes & Noble will fill the top floor of Sears. The entertainment center will feature bowling, laser tag, billiards, video games and a full-service restaurant. Barnes & Noble will expand on its traditional bookstore cafe with an all-day restaurant, including wine and tableside service.
A third tenant, Uncle Julio's Rio Grande Café, was recently announced for the former Sears location. The restaurant will serve Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes in an indoor and outdoor bar, private dining room and side walk café.
The three tenants are expected to open in the late summer or early fall in 2018, Nicklas said.
Nicklas said many current retailers have recently reinvested in their space, including American Eagle, which is being renovated; and H&M, Forever 21, Finish Line and Build-A-Bear Workshopwhich, which were all renovated.
"The retailers are seeing the Mall in Columbia center, the property itself and the market as being strong and an opportunity for them," Nicklas said.
Nicklas would not comment on recent profit margins or visitor numbers at the mall, but said "even without the actual numbers, the evidence of stronger retailer interest in the property is the number of new stores, the stores that are reinvesting in the property via renovations and expansions, and the quick back-fills of vacancies with highly desirable retailers."
In the last three months, the Mall in Columbia has seen the departure of its large central fountain as well as an expansion to a second-floor bridge.
On June 13, shopper Diana Saltz gazed at a large empty space across from Kay Jewelers and The Children's Place – the former location of the mall's 46-year-old iconic fountain. Saltz, a Columbia resident since 1973, said she shared many fond memories of the mall relic.
"It was a kind of a gathering place. That's what I really, really liked about it," Saltz said. "I loved it at Christmastime with the poinsettia tree. It had some soul and this has no soul whatsoever."
Nicklas said the fountain was removed to improve foot traffic and provide space for additional seating, as frequently requested in customer surveys. Shoppers will still see the poinsettia tree during the holidays, she said, and possibly some kiosks in the future.
"Taking the fountain away really opened up that space," Nicklas said. "That also enhanced the pedestrian experience [and] we're going to add customer amenities and seating in both of the center court areas."
Sophanny Iorizzo, who works at Kay Jewelers at the mall, said "it's much better" without the fountain because the running water was "too loud."
"I couldn't hear customers and customers couldn't hear me. We always had to scream and shout between the water fountain and [blenders running at] the smoothie stand."
Saltz said she'd like to see another art installation at the fountain's former location rather than an empty space or small vendors stands.
"I would like to see, maybe, another fountain, like an above-ground fountain if they can't excavate," Saltz said. "A sculpture would be lovely and more greenery. That would be very nice, just no more vendors."
Previously, visitors would toss change into the fountain, which was donated to Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia. Nicklas said the mall will continue to support the nonprofit throughout the year, sponsoring the organization's Soup'r Sundae fundraiser and donating proceeds from the mall's Breakfast with Santa event.
Outside Victoria's Secret on the first floor, tenants also commented on the darkened walkway created by the nearly completed bridge expansion on the second floor, which was undertaken to improve foot traffic. Construction began at the same time as the fountain removal, Nicklas said, with final touches on the railings to be finished in the next two weeks.
Crews worked on the expansion overnight, she said. Nicklas would not comment on the cost of the project, but said that it was an internal project between several contractors.
Julia Fitch, manager of Champs Sports on the second floor, said construction didn't impact business since crews worked between store closings and openings. Fitch has worked at the sports apparel store for the last few months and said she's worked inside the mall since 2011.
"I guess people were getting tired of walking all the way down to Coach to walk across to the stores over here like the Gap, Champs, Justice and Kids' Foot Locker," Fitch said. "[Before], it was a small, little walkway. I think it's definitely an improvement. A lot of customers do enjoy it as far as I can see."
Larger bridges tend to feature small vendors, like smoothie stands.
"We have a lot of interest in retail kiosks. These aren't the carts, but are actual permanent retail kiosks in the common area," Nicklas said. "We don't have confirmed deals that I can report on, but we [expanded the bridge] to bring more retail kiosks into the property."
More additions will join the Mall in Columbia in the foreseeable future, Nicklas said.
"This is a strong mall and there's a lot of interest from the retailer community in coming to this property."