Tenant trade

0512_Dispatches_Retail_04Malls and shopping centers adjust leasing strategies to fill vacancies.

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By Christina Cooke

LA Fitness has filled a vacancy at the Lloyd Center mall in Portland.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina

You can still buy shoes and shirts at the Lloyd Center mall in Portland. But, as of the last few years, you can also sculpt your biceps, get a pelvic exam, have your cavities filled and watch football on TV.

To cope with vacancies left by the recession, the urban mall has added non-retail establishments such as LA Fitness, the Johnson Center for Pelvic Health, Carrington College dental and nursing schools and the Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar to the retail mix.

We’ve got the advantage of being in the Lloyd District, so there are a lot of uses that can cater to the people who live and work in the area,” says T.J. Drought, the director of leasing for Glimcher Realty Trust, the Ohio-based company that oversees the mall.

When regional vendors of specialty goods and national big-box stores like Borders, Linens ’n Things, Circuit City, Blockbuster and Hollywood Video succumbed to the ailing economy, Oregon mall and shopping center landlords had to adapt their leasing strategies to fill the vacancies.

Many responded by bringing in service providers, especially medical and dental clinics and fitness centers, and adding entertainment venues like bowling alleys and sports bars.

I’ve worked with a lot of owners who have learned to look outside the box,” says Dan Bozich, senior vice president of Urban Works Real Estate. “As the economy got more difficult, they started to look at nontraditional tenants as more of a positive and less of a negative.”

Valley River Center in Eugene temporarily housed Grand Slam USA batting cages. Pioneer Place in downtown Portland leased empty third-level atrium spaces to temporary art exhibits and the Dollar Book Fair. Tanasbourne Town Center in Beaverton, Keizer Station outside Salem and Eugene’s Valley River, as well as multiple urban shopping centers, welcomed dental clinics to their properties. And in Vancouver, the Living Hope mega-church took over the former Kmart on Andresen Road.

“The good thing about those uses is typically they’re more short-term leases, and it creates flexibility for the landlord,” says Alesha Shemwell, a senior leasing manager for The Macerich Company, which works with Washington Square and Valley River. “It keeps the occupancy the mall needs to continue to attract customers.”

2009: More than 1.8 million square feet
2011: 541,296 (much of which is under negotiation)

With some national retailers back in expansion mode — and redeveloping existing real estate rather than investing in new construction — most of the state’s retail centers have hit bottom and are climbing back up to normal, brokers say.

Yet while luxury properties once again have their pick of retailers, Class B and C establishments, whose locations and existing tenant mixes may be less than ideal, are still struggling to fill the empties.

Even so, many people in the commercial real estate industry are wary of nontraditional tenants. Because patrons of places like fitness centers and doctors’ offices tend to come and go (and take up parking spaces in the meantime) without stopping to shop, anchor store contracts often prohibit owners from leasing to non-retail tenants.

“It’s a slippery slope,” says Suzanne Mulvee, a national retail expert with the commercial real estate information company CoStar Group. “Once you bring in a lesser-quality tenant, the overall quality of the center can continue to deteriorate.”

CenterCal Properties CEO Fred Bruning, who oversees Bridgeport Village in Tigard, does his best to avoid “the progression to mediocrity.” When the Borders at Bridgeport closed last fall, the center resisted offers from a gym, a sporting goods store and several discount retailers and mass merchants.

“We really wanted to hold out for something that would uphold the integrity of the leasing at the center,” Bruning says. The center has lined up a tenant that complements the space well, he says, but it has not yet made the deal public.

Other retail areas can’t afford to be as choosy, though. When the Linens ’n Things near Clackamas Town Center went dark, a Salvation Army moved into the 40,000-square-foot vacancy.

“We had to discount the rent by 10% or 15% from what we were getting before, but it was certainly better than an empty box,” says Mark New, president of New & Neville Real Estate Services. “As long as you’re not trying to put those guys next to your high-end luxury goods, you can create a symbiotic relationship.”

0512_Dispatches_Retail_GraphIndeed, some nontraditional tenants, such as the Lloyd Center L.A. Fitness, do benefit the establishment as a whole by producing traffic that would not otherwise exist, says T.J. Drought of Glimcher.

When neighborhood residents come to the gym to work out, he says, “it’s just another time during the week when our shopper is going to be at the Lloyd Center.”

Though Oregon retail centers have had to adjust their leasing strategies, they have fared far better than their counterparts in other parts of the country who have filled vacancies with enterprises like indoor gardens, putting greens, dog runs, aquariums and casinos.

While the average retail vacancy rate in the U.S. peaked at 7.9% during the recession, it only reached 6.7% in Portland, 6.6% in Salem and 5.4% in Eugene, according to CoStar. (The vacancy rate in Atlanta, by contrast, peaked at 10.7%.)

Oregon suffered less in part because its cities’ urban growth boundaries prevented the type of endless, sprawling development that breeds an overabundance of shopping malls. Because of this supply constraint, retail inventory in Portland only grew by 13% over the past decade, compared to 17% nationwide. (Portland is the only Oregon market for which CoStar provides comprehensive coverage.)

“The local government and culture in Portland tends to backlash against large developments such as Super Wal-Mart and Target that the rest of the country loves,” says Carlos Ortea, a CoStar real estate economist. “It’s more of a culture of wanting to have smaller spaces, and less.”

Jesse Tron of the International Council of Shopping Centers says it’s too soon to know whether nontraditional tenants will become long-term fixtures in the shopping centers they are currently inhabiting.

“My guess is that a lot of centers would bring back the more traditional retail tenant,” he says, “but it all depends on if they see added value with nontraditional tenants in the mix.”

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