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Real Estate - Commercial

New Owner Reveals Plans For Independence Mall

By Cece Nunn, posted Jun 28, 2017
Independence Mall in Wilmington could look very different in the coming years if plans for a transformation by the mall's new owner come to fruition. (File photo)
The new owner of Independence Mall has revealed its plans for the property on its website, including updating and turning the more than 1 million-square-foot enclosed mall into an "open-air retail destination," along with adding a grocery store anchor.

"We are currently conducting a sweeping redevelopment of this mall, which will transform it from a fully enclosed space into a modern, open-air retail destination," the Rouse Properties website says. "The redesigned space will feature a grocery-anchored power center, a completely updated enclosed mall corridor, a modern lifestyle streetscape of upscale dining and retail options, and a multi-tenant building complex that houses a wide array of specialty service providers."

Court documents last year in the mall's foreclosure proceeding named Fresh Market as a potential tenant.

Rouse Properties purchased the mall, 3500 Oleander Drive, for $45 million, according to a report this week. That's after the previous owners defaulted on a $110 million loan on a portion of the mall, and foreclosure proceedings went on for a couple years.

Workers broke ground on Independence Mall in July 1977. The Dillard's wing was added around 2001. Before that, when one of the owners of the mall, Westfield, wanted to make some changes, including renovations and adding Dillard's, "the city was very cooperative and worked with them," said Charlie Rivenbark, a Wilmington city councilman and commercial broker with Maus, Warwick, Matthews & Co.

He said the mall in subsequent years has become increasingly institutional, with a church and a cosmetology school leasing some of the spaces vacated by retailers. While those type of tenants might have helped the mall stay afloat, "the mall is built for retail," Rivenbark said.

He said he remembers the excitement that the community felt when the mall was built four decades ago. "We were so proud of it, that we finally had our own mall. It's not going away. It would be too expensive to start over, so I want the mall to succeed."

Of Rouse's plans, Rivenbark said,  "I think it's going to be wonderful to pump some life back into it . . . I think with the coming of places like Mayfaire and The Pointe at Barclay, it's given national retailers a second and third option, but the mall is still the mall, and I don't want to see it dry up and drift away. I want to see it vibrant like it once was."

Wilmington-based developer David Swain, founder of Swain & Associates, said Rouse might face some challenges.

"Everybody in our industry right now needs to bring excitement to a property. They're certainly going to do that by bringing upscale dining. Retail options are more limited than they've ever been before due to the online opportunities for people buying through Amazon, and most of the major retailers will sell online. That becomes an issue as to who you can attract and what type of tenant is most appealing to the general public, but they're saying the things that we are all trying to embrace right now," Swain said of Rouse's plans.

Rouse's reputation will help, he said. Owned by affiliates of Brookfield Asset Management, the real estate investment company has 34 retail centers in 19 states, including two other malls in North Carolina.

"They have some major properties all over the United States," Swain said. "If you have major malls across the country and they're successful, you'll have a reputation. And some of these retailers will come to them just purely because of the reputation of the developer."

Rouse is also working with a location that can't lose with Independence Mall, said Swain, whose company developed The Forum at 1125 Military Cutoff Road.

"The best thing they've got going for them is a wonderful piece of real estate, and if you've got a centrally located, attractive parcel of real estate, no matter what the building is on it, you've got a lot to work with," he said.

Terry Espy, president of MoMentum Companies and a commercial broker, said she was thrilled by the news of Rouse's plans.

"Any investment group would see the value of that surrounding neighborhood and community. People from four and five counties come to Wilmington and travel to that area to shop," Espy said. "That property is prime for that type of redevelopment."

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