When Downtown Is in the Suburbs
EVERY time she ventured to downtown Boston during her 16 years in the suburb of Wayland, Mass., Claire Sandell drove past the old Wonder Bread factory in Natick, next to the Natick Mall. “All you could smell was the bread baking,” she said.
But when the factory was razed in 2004, the dusty smell of construction rose instead. On the site of the factory and a former Filene’s department store, once part of Natick Mall, 215 condominiums are under construction and set to be completed next year. Known as Nouvelle at Natick, they are believed to be the first built within an older enclosed shopping mall, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers; the original Natick Mall was built in 1965, then razed and rebuilt in 1994.
The transformation of the mall is less revolutionary than evolutionary. Almost no one builds malls anymore, or even calls them that. Only one enclosed shopping mall was built in 2006, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, and none are planned for this year. Many old malls, meanwhile, have added hotels, or residential developments have sprung up around them.
But General Growth Properties, a mall developer based in Chicago, believes the old paradigm for a mall can be transformed further. Applying the lifestyle-center model, where upscale retailers, sit-down restaurants and condos are built around what looks like a city street, General Growth Properties has embarked on a $370 million Natick Mall expansion and makeover.
Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Betsey Johnson are among several retailers that have set up shop there, along with restaurants like Prime Blue and Sel de la Terre, according to John Bucksbaum, the chief executive of General Growth.
Using the old mall as a place to redevelop has its advantages. “Malls were always placed at highway interchanges,” said Thomas J. D’Alesandro IV, a senior vice president of General Growth. “They’re the best regional transportation access of anything in the suburbs.”
What was once a lonely regional mall is now prime real estate. “The mall is the modern town square in most of America,” said Joel Kotkin, the author of “The City: A Global History” (Modern Library, 2006) and a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University.
But without enough 120-acre parcels to endlessly create lifestyle centers, and limited developable land left around existing malls, the only choices for developers of older malls are to reinvent them or raze them altogether.
Ms. Sandell, who described herself as 50-something, said she had not planned to relocate from her 2,400-square-foot town house in Wayland, but she could not resist the chance to live in a downtown atmosphere yet still remain in the suburbs. She bought a 1,700-square-foot three-bedroom, two-bath condo; three-bedrooms are listed from $800,000 to over $1 million.
Residences at the 12-story Natick Collection range in price from $425,000 to $1.6 million, depending on size and location (some have views of the Natick wetlands). Buyers are given a private entrance to the mall, along with access to a gym and Club Nouvelle, a social club with a screening room, game room and wine bar. Perhaps the most coveted amenity is a private parking spot, erasing the misery of searching for a car in a sea of parked cars.
The development group is banking on what it perceives as women’s love of shopping at the mall, so its target market is decidedly female. Tamara Roy, the architect of the project, loaded the design with what she feels are women-friendly features, like full-length mirrors in the bathrooms, curving plaster walls and flowers dotting the facade of the parking lot.
Still, women are not the only ones excited about the development. “We were calling them, hounding them to get in last February before they even opened up the sales office,” said Michael DuGally, 39, the president of an office furniture company. Along with his wife, Kellie, 37, the president of an online media distribution company, he bought a penthouse unit for $1.6 million.
New residents see the development as the best of both worlds, with a downtown downstairs. “It’s like having the city come out to the suburbs,” Ms. Sandell said.
The DuGallys’ new home is a five-minute drive from their favorite yoga studio and a five-minute walk from California Pizza Kitchen, neither of which they had in their industrial loft in the suburb of Everett. And living at the mall, so close to the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 9, cuts their commute in half.
Mr. DuGally does not think of the mall in its classic sense, but rather as a town center. “People want to live there because it’s classy and yet a hip, urban environment,” he said.
Buyers might find the mall appealing because it offers a more protected version of city life. “Here, we’re sitting out in the woods, but we’re in a mall,” Mr. DuGally said. Woodlands, in fact, are part of the development. Residents are given access to a private roof garden, along with a membership to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
Still, living on the site of a former Wonder Bread factory in a town that, according to the 2000 census, was 92 percent white, with a median family income of $85,715, might leave some buyers worried about, well, a “white bread” experience.
But Mr. Kotkin, the author, said, “Any society that’s adding lots of population and changing rapidly is always going to have a certain amount of this sameness.” He noted that many cities are so laden with chain stores that they resemble shopping centers themselves. “You end up with a Whole Foods on Bowery and people living in lofts at the mall.”
Though only 15 percent of the units have been sold since they went on sale in March, early buyers feel camaraderie, spurred by their shared experience as pioneers. Ms. Sandell has already dined with many of her future neighbors, having met them at groundbreaking events. (Groundbreaking took place in August 2005.)
Not everyone shares the DuGallys’ and Ms. Sandell’s enthusiasm. Concerned about increased traffic, the nearby town of Framingham filed a lawsuit appealing the Natick Planning Board’s approval of the mall’s expansion. In a settlement, General Growth agreed to pay the town nearly $1 million for infrastructure and transportation improvements.
The development’s success will ultimately be measured by whether it inspires changes in General Growth’s more than 220 other sites, and the industry at large. The company started with a healthy mall in a tight real estate market; the demand was a given.
Is this type of project a solution for other enclosed malls? “If it’s successful, you’ll see it replicated across the country,” said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the shopping center trade group. “But there are 1,200 enclosed malls in the U.S. It’s not going to be a solution for all of them.”
It was Ms. Sandell’s solution. “It’s going to always be a place to people watch and get an ice cream cone and go to the bank,” she said. “You can still go into Sears and buy a screwdriver. You can still go into CVS and buy a toothbrush.”