The Mall gets a make-over Construction: $150 million renovation spurred by competition, time-strapped shoppers


George Sterner made his way through the extensive construction outside The Mall in Columbia last week -- only to face more traditional shopping perils.

"I've been looking for my wife for 15 minutes," Sterner, 71, said as he wandered through Hecht's. "I'll start to whistle soon."

He eventually found her, and they went about leisurely buying clothes and cosmetics.

Malls throughout the country are trying to find more shoppers like the Sterners. The dump trucks and dust that dominate the landscape at The Mall in Columbia are part of that search.

Today's time-strapped consumers want merchandise quickly and increasingly are looking to catalogs, warehouse-style "power centers" and, to a lesser extent, the Internet.

The malls, many of which are entering their third decade, face a choice: fight back or fade away.

In Columbia, the fight is a $150 million renovation and expansion that residents can see as they drive through Town Center.

The mall's owner, the Rouse Co., will lay down a temporary parking lot just east of the mall in time for the holiday shopping season. In January, Rouse will rip up that lot and begin building a Lord & Taylor store and two parking decks.

Rouse will build another deck on the west side of the mall and will expand parking lots north of the mall. The real estate company, which owns 58 malls across the country, also is firming its opening dates for the two new, upscale anchor stores.

Lord & Taylor is expected to open in November 1998, and a Nordstrom department store is scheduled to open in September 1999.

"They're bringing in some big cannons," said Eugene Fram, a business school professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and an authority on malls.

The two stores are known to draw shoppers, particularly Nordstrom, a 95-year-old chain based in Seattle.

Any inconvenience from the renovation hasn't upset many mall shoppers, based on conversations with them last week.

But one merchant, speaking on the condition that her store not be identified, said that foot traffic has declined around the construction area and that renovations are hurting sales at her store.

One entrance on the east side of the mall essentially is closed as workers tear down a parking garage to make room for Lord & Taylor.

David L. Tripp, a Rouse spokesman, said that no merchant had complained to the company and that most are looking past the construction to the renovated mall.

"It hasn't been all that bad," Tripp said.

Virginia Cheak, assistant manager of the Naturalizer Shoes store, said the renovations hadn't been a problem. She ranks the mall about average in the area and said Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor will put it among the top malls in the region.

"It's going to get us up with the rest of the malls in the area," Cheak said.

In addition to the new anchor stores, one of the mall's existing anchors, Hecht's, has expanded, to three new floors now open, although parts are hidden behind plastic curtains.

The store still is building merchandise displays and expects to complete its renovation by the holiday shopping season.

Rouse also plans to add 10 to 20 smaller stores and -- in a deal that has not been made final -- the first warehouse-style store for the 26-year-old mall.

Such stores have been developed on the edge of Columbia -- in some cases by Rouse -- where they are pulling shoppers from the mall.

Unlike most malls, built on the edges of communities, The Mall in Columbia was designed to be the heart of Columbia's Town Center.

Not surprisingly, many of the planned community's 85,000 residents take it quite seriously -- some looking at its problems the way big-city residents might perceive a deteriorating downtown.

For years, they have said the mall lacked upscale merchants to serve the relatively affluent population. They also have complained about the dated interior of the mall.

Rouse officials acknowledge that they haven't offered enough high-end or "lifestyle" shopping, a category that includes such stores as Crate & Barrel and the Pottery Barn.

During recent public appearances, Rouse officials also have said it was time for the drab, brown-brick floors to go.

"The bones of the mall are good," Linda T. Lo Cascio, Rouse's development director for the Columbia mall, said in an interview Friday. "But the whole place needs a face lift."

Rouse officials hope the renovated mall will be much more than Columbia's center, that it will draw shoppers from all over Howard County and elsewhere in the region.

The new anchors and renovations are critical, national retail experts say. "They have no choice," said Fram. If they fail to act, "it's going to die."

Rouse officials say that might be overstating the problem. But they acknowledge that consumers are changing their ways.

In 1992, the average shopper spent 72 minutes on mall visits. Three years later, the stay was down to 66 minutes, Fram said.

In another study, consumers reported spending three hours a month in malls last year, down from 4.3 hours in 1995.

Shoppers also have more choices. In 1965, there were 4 square feet of retail space for every American. In 1995, there were 20 square feet.

"We're overmalled in the United States," Fram said.

So retailers are trying new approaches.

"The biggest trend in retail is not to build at all," said Jeffrey Humphreys, a business professor at the University of Georgia and an authority on malls. He pointed to the growth of catalog and Internet sales.

Other analysts say the Internet has yet to arrive as a major factor. But times have clearly changed since 1971, when The Mall in Columbia opened.

"The business is tougher, no question," said Rouse's Lo Cascio. "Culturally, there's been a big shift in discretionary time."

She is trying to make parking as convenient as possible, something that has boosted power centers such as Long Gate, just north of Columbia, and Columbia Crossing and Snowden Square in eastern Columbia. Those malls have huge stores such as Borders Books & Music, Barnes & Noble and Target.

For the Columbia mall, the competition from those stores will become more intense.

At Long Gate, an Old Navy clothing store opened last month. Another Old Navy is planned for Columbia Crossing.

Other new stores coming to Columbia Crossing include a Crown Books, Bikes USA, Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Blinds to Go, Rack Room Shoes and a Commercial & Farmers Bank branch.

Still, retail experts say the renovated mall in the middle of Columbia is in a good position to attract affluent shoppers with discretionary income.

Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Growth Inc. a Lutherville company that places retail executives nationwide, said that for years, many Columbia residents made good money and lived in good homes, but were tied up with mortgage payments.

"They're through all that," Millman said. "Now they're spending money."

Pub Date: 8/31/97

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