City Place Mall plan aims for the sky
Office tower, new entrance part of developer's vision for mall
When Walt Petrie bought out his development partners two years ago to become the sole owner of City Place Mall in Silver Spring, he had a vision to revive the 27-year-old mall, which suffered from vacant or temporarily leased storefronts and dwindling shoppers.
As part of that vision, a 210,000-square-foot, nine story office tower would finally be built on top of the mall, after years of delay. A prominent new façade on the corner of Fenton Street and Colesville Road would welcome shoppers inside, an upgrade over the drab, concealed façade that currently goes unnoticed by the thousands of rush-hour drivers that crawl past it.
A big-name retailer would occupy 100,000 square feet over two floors of the mall and serve as an anchor tenant that other potential retailers would rush to stand beside. Even the name, currently prone to derisive and vulgar nicknames rhyming with "City," would change.
All of those plans still exist. But with a struggling economy, a poor commercial market and a 15-percent retail vacancy rate, there are no signs of Petrie's vision yet at Fenton and Colesville and an uncertain timetable on when anything will be seen.
"I bought out all my partners two years ago with the intent of remerchandising and bringing City Place up to where I thought it should be," said Petrie, an Annapolis-based developer and now the sole owner of the project's developer, City Place Air Rights, LLC, when he spoke to the Montgomery County Planning Board Thursday.
The board approved plans for the all-new façade and entrance at Colesville and Fenton Thursday, the final leg of the approval process before City Place can be redeveloped.
"Unfortunately, the market has been difficult to say the least; retailers have stopped expanding," Petrie continued. "... We have a phenomenal geographic location, but we have to find a reason for people to come into City Place."
Petrie helped develop City Place in 1992, well before Silver Spring's redevelopment into a highly-populated urban center. Major retailers like Sears, J.C. Penney and Hecht's had all just left Silver Spring, and renovations of the American Film Institute's Silver Theater nearby had halted.
"Nobody wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole," said Gus Bauman, Petrie's land-use attorney and a former chairman of the county's planning board, of Silver Spring at the time.
Since, Silver Spring has changed, but the mall hasn't changed with it, Petrie said. And while the open-air retail offerings along Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, managed by Fairfax, Va., developer Peterson Cos., entered downtown and became successful, Petrie says City Place isn't looking to emulate its neighbor.
City Place did lease to major tenants like Gold's Gym, Burlington Coat Factory and Marshall's "They aren't going anywhere," Petrie said last weekbut those big-box stores are now surrounded by several temporary retailers. Eighty-five percent of the nearly 500,000 square feet of City Place's retail space is leased, and 25 percent of that is occupied by tenants with a temporary lease, Petrie said.
In six months , Petrie said he expects to announce a lease with a major new retailer. Hopefully, the retailer will occupy 100,000 square feet on two floorssimilar to Target's occupancy at Westfield Wheatonbut 50,000 square feet is more likely, Petrie said.
With 500,000 residents within five miles of City Place and a Metro station within a few blocks, Petrie is looking to attract a broader customer base. For example, after he bought out his partners, Petrie removed an arcade, because "I didn't like the clientele it was attracting," he said. Plans for the new Colesville Road entrance would remove an existing fountain and large tree blocking the current City Place sign and move the façade closer to the road to highlight the mall's major retailers.
The goal is fewer impediments to pedestrians and a more visible presence to drivers passing by.
"This is a place where people walk through, and we wanted to make it as pleasant, informative and easy as possible," Joshua Sloan, a coordinator in the planning department's development review division, said at Thursday's planning-board hearing.
The board approved plans for the 210,000-square-foot office tower addition in 2007, after original approval in 1988 for 165,000 square feet of office space expired. In 2007, Petrie estimated the expanded office tower would cost $50 million and break ground in 2008.
Now, there is no timetable for construction or a definitive price tag. An office tenant will be leased before construction begins, Petrie said.
About 90,000 square feet of vacant space on the mall's fifth floor, which used to be a movie theater, could be renovated into office space as well, Bauman said. After the office tower is constructed on top of three aboveground stories of mall, City Place will stand 192 feet tall at Colesville and Fenton, eight feet below the maximum. In all, City Place would be roughly 650,000 square feet.
Quite the presence in downtown Silver Spring, as Petrie sees it.
"To get attention," he said, "we have to create excitement."