Developer Chuck Whittall has a deal to buy the land under Orlando Fashion Square mall, a key step to tearing down and redeveloping the ailing Central Florida shopping center.
Whittall, president of Unicorp National Developments, said he has a $23 million contract and has paid a non-refundable deposit for the 46 acres underneath the mall. However, he still needs to negotiate with the building’s owner, Bancorp Inc., for total control of the property. Bancorp did not return requests for comment.
Whittall’s plans call for tearing down the mall to transform it into a $1 billion community of retail, residential and office space.
“We're going to want to redevelop it into experiential mixed-use lifestyle center, including mid, high-rise apartments, office space, a movie theater, bowling alley, restaurants and a hotel,” Whittall said. “Our development will be an outdoor, open air, entertainment destination.’’
Orlando Fashion Square, the city’s oldest existing mall, was a regional shopping hub for decades after opening in 1973. But in recent years it has gone through a string of owners. Hurt by both the rise of internet shopping and shoppers fleeing to the suburbs and tourism districts, key stores such have Sears have closed.
Now dozens of spaces inside the mall are empty.
Even so, Orlando Fashion Square still has dozens of tenants and is anchored by Macy’s, J.C. Penney and a Dillard’s Clearance Center. Whittall said he is working on agreements with the tenants at the mall to make way for a total teardown. With a total of 917,000 square feet under the mall’s roof, there also is a movie theater and the mall is home to the National Entrepreneur Center. It has a parking garage, too.
“I was born and raised here, so it was the mall I went to as a kid,” Whittall said. “It’s actually right in the heart of Orlando, so it’s just a valuable opportunity.”
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the redevelopment of the Fashion Square site would have catalytic effects in the east Colonial Drive corridor.
"Taking what is now an underutilized site and adding additional amenities to further activate and connect the area could be truly transformational for our city,” he said.
Unicorp’s land purchase would include the mall and parking lots. Excluded are the former Sears department store space that was torn down and rebuilt as a Floor & Decor and an unoccupied spot once slated to be an Orchard Supply Hardware store before that concept was scrapped.
Whittall and Unicorp are the team behind Icon Orlando 360 on International Drive that includes the 400-foot observation wheel. They have also done projects such as the Dellagio’s restaurant complex on Sand Lake Road, the Griffin Farm at Midtown shopping center in Lake Mary and the Trader Joe’s and Bulla Gastrobar-anchored centers in Winter Park.
Orlando Fashion Square could be his biggest challenge yet as several others have tried and failed to revitalize the property.
Tennessee company Up Development bought the mall in 2013 but couldn’t succeed with plans to add entertainment options and a hotel. The lender, Bancorp, foreclosed on a $42.2 million loan on the mall in 2016 and took possession later that year.
That same year, Sears closed, and real estate spin-off Seritage Growth Properties turned it into big-box stores.
In early 2018, Tampa developer DeBartolo Development Inc. was looking to buy the mall building but backed out.
Jill Rose, vice president of retail services for Bishop Beale Duncan, is credited with putting the Unicorp deal together. She came up with the approach to buy the land first, believing it would put the new owner in a stronger negotiation position with Bancorp.
“I just knew Chuck was the right player,” she said. “He’s a visionary. I really feel like he’ll figure it out.”
In the past, Whittall has said Bancorp was asking too much for the mall building.
Bancorp actually had the first right of refusal to buy the land under the mall after Unicorp placed in under contract last year, but the lender failed to close on the deal. That allowed Whittall’s company to move ahead. To Whittall, that signals Bancorp is ready to deal, even though the two sides haven’t spoken recently, he said.
Whittall said he has in contact with Macy’s and Premiere Cinemas and both have indicated they are willing to remain for a new project. However, he said he has not contacted other tenants at Orlando Fashion Square mall.
“Whatever tenants are there that are doing well, if they want to stay we would like to incorporate them into a redevelopment,” Whittall said.
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