The bold headlines nowadays are scary for retail. “Is brick and mortar obsolete?” read one recent banner headline in Forbes magazine, which went on to answer its own question, noting, “Brick-and-mortar is not dead, just evolving.”
Tucson’s north-side upscale Foothills Mall is part of that evolution, with the latest iteration being approval of a rezoning request to change its designation from Local and/or General Business to Specific Plan, which allows the property owners to redevelop the 68-acre site into an “urban mixed-use environment” involving retail, residential, restaurants and entertainment uses, possibly even a hotel or two.
“And lots more,” said developer Don Bourn of Bourn Companies, along with FHM Partners. “Our plans continue to evolve, so I can’t say we have one set plan yet, but we have 51 acres, about 560,000 square feet under roof that we want to convert into more of a town center, a kind of urban node as part of the foothills.”
Bourn said they don’t want to just re-tenant the mall as it is, but convert it to where they think the world is going. The retail format has changed drastically, he said, and that’s the basis for their rezoning and project plans.
Pima County officials like the look of what Bourn is talking about.
“We could see a combination of uses here,” said Chris Poirier, deputy director of Pima County Development Services. “In theory it would be a place where people could live, work, and play in the same location.”
Poirier agrees with the contention of County Economic Development Director John Moffatt, who said that the redevelopment plan addresses many of the current workforce focuses because “there is something in this project for everyone.”
“I’m aligned with John on this one in that the sky’s the limit of what could play out here,” Poirier said. “The approved redevelopment plan accomplishes infill area revitalization, some real re-use and re-investment of an existing developed site.”
From a planner’s perspective, Poirier said that kind of project is exciting because the more investment you see in an infill area, the less pressure you see on the fringes of town for some type of sprawl.
Poirier said site already has the appropriate infrastructure to support the project, which means there’s no need to widen roads or run new sewer lines to deal with the new projects that could end up at the site.
“This is the first time we’ve seen a developer who came to us and said, ‘Look, we want to redevelop this mall that’s fading away and turn it into something new and different,’ and that fits into the county’s newly-adopted Pima Prospers plan, a long-range planning document full of policy to support this type of development,” Poirier said. “Bourn and FHM Partners aren’t speculators, they’re builders and developers and when they came to us, that made it a lot easier to work out issues directly. We had Pima Prosper in place—and the right applicant at the table.”
Bourn said he was happy to be doing an infill project. From an environmental standpoint, they’re not scraping desert, but instead re-using and updating assets already in place.
“We’re trying for creative re-adaptive reuse of existing structures, trying to maintain a lot of existing infrastructure already in place, things like parking lots,” Bourn said. “Parts of some buildings will come down with significant modification to some other existing structures as well as building new buildings.”
Over time, Bourn said the goal is to have multiple hotels, multiple residential projects, lots of offices and “still continue to maintain a major retail/restaurant/entertainment presence as well.”
“We’ve got the rezoning,” he said. “We could build up to four or five million square feet of buildings on site—not in the immediate plan, but in the long-term vision of what this project could be. We’ve got a lot of confidence in this live-work-play in the same location concept.”
Foothills Mall at West Ina Road and North La Cholla Boulevard opened its doors in 1982 as a small upscale niche outlet with frequent empty floor footage. When it was sold to developer Feldman Equities in 2002 for $54 million, CEO Larry Feldman called the property “outstanding…holding tremendous potential.”
In an Inside Tucson Business story, Feldman said he was “confident retail malls will continue to be successful through a possible recession.”
That prophesied economic crisis didn’t help, along with a revolving door of retail brand names and property owners who fled the site when Tucson Premium Outlets opened in Marana in 2016. It was then that the current owners purchased the property with an eye toward redevelopment.
“While a lot of pieces still have to be put in place, we hope to start working on the first phase of construction sometime mid-year 2019,” Bourn said.
Concerning total project cost, Bourn noted that considering the scale and duration of the project—conceivably something that will be built out over the next 10 years or so—the site will easily be a $500 million project, “an amenity for the whole community.”
Bourn said he hopes to create a “destination to visit.”
“Tucson is an emerging city on the national landscape and in order to be a world class city, you have to have world class projects,” he said. “Our goal is to build one of those in Foothills Mall.”