Finard Properties’ vision for the future of University Mall


University Mall: A Changing Landscape

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Thursday January 21, 2016

There’s an air of optimism in South Burlington. The Form Based Code District is under city council review and plans for City Center are on the cusp of moving forward. One of the city’s top economic drivers, the University Mall, is part of the aspirational conversation, as Todd Finard, CEO of Finard Properties LLC in Boston — owner of the property — prepares to unveil a fresh outlook on revitalizing the University Mall.

Finard shared his hopes for revamping University Mall last year, and he returned to South Burlington to discuss plans to-date with the South Burlington Business Association (SBBA) on Tuesday, January 19. Over one hundred SBBA members were in attendance to hear Finard’s viewpoint on the state of retail in Vermont and the future of the mall. His message offered a positive perspective of having done business in South Burlington since 1979 and how his family hopes to continue doing business for the next 50 years by implementing mixed use opportunities and a modernized look at retail.

Changing Climate

The University Mall, which was last renovated in 2005, finds itself in a similar predicament to many other businesses that are looking for ways to adapt to a changing society, Finard explained — and it’s not just the University Mall; in the retail world, it’s the term “mall” as a whole.

The mall has been through the renovation process before; Finard’s father initially took over the development in the late 1970s. Finard explained that in the 70s and 80s, the concept of an enclosed mall was an exciting prospect. Over the past few decades, that’s since changed.

“The paradigm has shifted,” he added. “I don’t think you can blame the demise of the mall on the internet. I think it’s bigger than that. What it takes to now get people interested and to be compelling is not just a collection of 68 stores. That’s just not enough.”

To help shape the idea of growth and development, a Form-Based Code District in the future City Center has been a main focus for South Burlington. Form-Based Code is a zoning tool that focuses on the look of a building and the environment as a whole rather than use; this subsequently allows for a number of different uses.

The planning commission completed the City Center Form Based Code District section in the draft Land Development Regulations, which is currently in the public hearing stages at the city council level. Now that council has officially warned a public hearing, under state law, the new regulations are in effect, as well as the existing regulations.

This aligns perfectly with the needs of the mall, Finard said. “When Form-Based Code began to take shape, we realized that this was the gateway we needed to better the property.”

But what will attract and retain the attention of Vermonters and visitors? Finard believes the site, as an extension of Market Street and the anchor of City Center, would create a sense of place by offering a wide mix of uses that would have broad appeal, and create energy centered on entertainment as well as retail and dining.

Some possibilities include entertainment features like skating rinks, skateboard parks, outdoor music area, conversational fire pits, dining areas, and movies in addition to retail. Residential, office use and hospitality are also in the picture.

“We’ve been flying all over the country looking at best-in-class lifestyle features,” he said.

Some places where Finard has drawn inspiration include Bayside, Wisconsin; Mizner Place, Florida; Rancho Cucamonga, California; Arlington, Virginia.

“I’m not in a position yet to issue a site plan,” Finard stated. “What I am comfortable doing is showing a little bit more of what has inspired us, and the real purpose of addressing the state of retail today along with my perspective on where retail is going tomorrow.”

A Hypothetical Look at the Future University Mall

“First and foremost, the mixed use of components is key. I think that we need to program this property in a way where it has energy, an energy that is present throughout all parts of the day. What that translates to is adding residential, adding office, even perhaps adding municipal uses, which will ensure that there is a degree of activity that’s far more spread across the day.”

Finard continued: “How you layout the retail in terms of co-tenancies that are immediate and proximate, is very important. Ultimately, we want to present a plan that has streets and avenues that each, in some ways, take on their own personalities. Some are more oriented to food, some are more oriented to fashion, some of what we build will be oriented to best-in-class Vermont with some of the brands that are authentic and from Vermont represented on site.”

“How we put those pieces together and then infuse hospitality, like a hotel on-site … with an element of entertainment like movies, bowling, and gaming, that all gets mixed together in a thoughtful layout which will feel more urban than suburban, but because we’re talking about a critical mass that we believe will be possibly in excess of a million square feet, that it’s done in a thoughtful way where all the uses are built to succeed,” he said.

Finard said that he has plans that have ranges from 800,000 square feet to 1.2 million square feet. The mall is currently over 610,000 square feet.

Regarding cost, a $92 million loan, due in April 2017, has been placed into special servicing in order to rework the loan with these development plans in mind. The bondholder is LNR Property in New York City. The project will likely be over $100 million, but there are multiple factors that go into that, he said. “if you can tell me where all of the anchor tenants need to meet up, then I can begin to tell you how much it will cost,” he said. If an anchor store stays in an existing location and doesn’t need to move to another space, that has a different cost than if another tenant needed to move or undergo renovation.

“The most ambitious plans we’re looking at will require us to come to the table with tens of millions of dollars, and the debt will have to be reworked to accommodate more square footage.”

Greater Burlington Malls Making room for the Market

While Finard has talked about redeveloping the University Mall, Don Sinex of Devonwood Investors LLC in New York, is brewing up similar hopes for the Burlington Town Center.

“The experiences may be slightly different, but there is reason for both properties to be redeveloped and to exist peacefully,” Finard said. “There are tenants we are both talking to, but based on the square footage they’re contemplating, and the square footage we’re contemplating, there are enough tenants to go around.”

“At the end of the day, I hope we have a handful of anywhere between 6-10 restaurants, and I imagine that the downtown mall may have a similar number if not slightly fewer.”

Certainly, both locations share similar interests — both are courting Apple, for example — but it’s too early to tell what will end up where.

“We’re going to get a few and Don’s going to get a few, and it will all work out great,” he said.

Finard said they’re vying for tenants that are unrepresented and should be here, citing H&M as an example. He said that even tenants from the downtown location that may be relocating, like Willams Sonoma and Pottery Barn, “have every reason to still be in this market,” and could find their home in South Burlington.

Finard also stated that there will not only be a range in uses, but a range in scale. For example, in terms of a food establishment, ideas could range anywhere from a Dave and Busters to the Alchemist Brewery.

This will be a phased project, carefully executed to keep the mall open throughout the process, which may begin in late 2016 as the conceptual framework for development is considered. Finard looks forward to a collaborative effort, saying he is approaching the project with ‘ears wide open’.

“These are very exciting times in greater Burlington, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it,” said Finard.

Finard is hoping to share his ideas with the city at a February 1 council meeting.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent