Unicorp's Whittall finds west coast inspiration for Fashion Square Mall redux

Orlando developer Chuck Whittall said he's looking to Southern California for the inspiration and model to rebuild the struggling Orlando Fashion Square mall from the ground up.

"There's really two that come to mind," he told GrowthSpotter. "The first is Fashion Island at Newport Beach. The other is Irvine Spectrum Center. They're both open-air developments  that combine shopping, restaurants and entertainment."

Both are owned by The Irvine Company, one of California's most established and respected land developers. Each center is decades old but has maintained its status as a shopping destination by mixing high-end retail, highly curated dining and entertainment options and integrating residential and hotel uses within the development. They attract 16-17 million visitors per year.

Whittall said his Unicorp National Developments is the right company to infuse life into a mall that's "quickly spiraling out of control." The best-case scenario would be to start over with a blank slate. 

Whittall said he has a purchase agreement "for the underlying dirt" of the nearly 50-acre site on Colonial Drive. His deal differs from Tampa-based DeBartolo Development, which had been negotiating with The Bancorp, which holds the lease interest in the mall itself as part of a bankruptcy settlement with the former owner. 

"Their contract lapsed," Whittall said. "They walked away from the deal because they couldn't put it together."

Whittall said he's now in discussions with The Bancorp. "What we're trying to do first is get the deal structured. Then we would start the land-planning part of it," he said. "If we're able to piece the puzzle together, it would close in the first or second quarter of next year. So there's a limited amount of time to figure it out, but I'm going to give it a good college try."

The success will be largely contingent on Whittall's ability to get buy-in from the mall's department store anchors: Macy's, J.C. Penney and Dillard's. None of the three owns its building, but they all have long-term leases in place. Whittall said destination centers like the one he envisions don't need department stores as anchors -- a high-end bowling alley, specialty grocer or food hall could attract just as many shoppers, he said.

"It's advantageous that they don't own the real estate," he said. "Retail has seen a lot of change and will continue to change. They need to adapt to the new type of development that's experiential and that gets people in the door. I think they would welcome the opportunity to stay and be a part of the new development."

The Irvine Spectrum, one of Whittall's inspirations, replaced a former Macy's anchor with 30 new merchants as part of a just-completed $200 million expansion. A Virtual Reality gaming center moved into a former Red Robin location. 

While the mall has stagnated, the area around it has seen significant new investment. Multifamily developer The Cornerstone Group is building a 361-unit luxury apartment complex just north of the mall and recently acquired a pair of office buildings on the 3600 block of Maguire Boulevard. 

New York-based REIT Seritage Growth Properties has lured new restaurants -- Longhorn Steaks, Mission BBQ and Olive Garden -- to its adjacent 18-acre property.

Construction was halted on a new Orchard Supply Hardware store on the former Sears pad, but the new $20 million Floor & Decor store opened last month. Whittall said he'd like to acquire both and figure out a way to work them into his master plan. 

"We would love to acquire all that interest from Seritage and figure out what to do with it," he said. "We think this is an opportunity to elevate the whole area. It's a 50-acre piece of urban infill area in the heart of Central Florida. Opportunities like that don't exist."

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407) 420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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