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CENTER PROFILE: Raising the roof

Sooner Mall lightens up and attracts the college crowd with an overnight transformation.

For years, consumers in the bustling college town of Norman, Okla. drove right past their local regional center, Sooner Fashion Mall, to shop at newer, trendier properties in nearby Oklahoma City. The 25-year-old mall's sales figures were bruised by a tenant lineup and dated design that branded the center with a second-rate image. The future looked dim for the 518,637-sq.-ft. property.

Then Chicago-based General Growth Properties acquired the mall in 1996 and set about righting the center's wrongs. "Sooner was a tired, one-level mall with 1970s wood trusses on the ceilings that looked like railroad tracks," says Bill Moston, vice president of development at GGP. "We saw the potential to improve the center. Its trade area is strong - 400,000 people with an average household income of more than $40,000. Population growth in the Norman area has grown 2.1% each year since 1990."

Eliminating the mall's dreary atmosphere was the first step. To achieve this end, GGP commissioned Dallas-based Omniplan Architects to rethink the mall's design. After reviewing the project, Omniplan architects decided the mall's cluttered, low and sparsely lit ceilings had to go. The company designed a scheme to completely remove the mall's roof to create open, sky-lit concourses and increase storefront heights by two feet.

"All the work was done while the mall was open for business," says Tipton Housewright, principal at Omniplan. A new, vaulted ceiling that created a more open space and allowed more natural light into the center was constructed.

"The solution was executed without taking the old roof off the mall, and done on the outside so shoppers weren't aware of the work until the old one was lifted off. Construction workers walked on top of the old roof to install lighting and other utilities into the new one. "The final removal of the old roof and trusses made for a dramatic overnight transformation," Housewright says.

The renovated center needed a renovated name, so Sooner Fashion Mall became simply Sooner Mall. "We decided to capitalize on the mall's relatively smaller size and focus on convenience," Moston says. "A key part of our strategy was signing new tenants to increase visits from our core Norman customers." GGP rounded up a group of hot tenants including Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Steinmart and a 35,000-sq.-ft. Old Navy and expanded existing anchor Dillard's by 35,000 sq. ft.

Improvements include the addition of a family restroom complex; a children's soft play area; new floor tile; carpeted seating areas with upholstered furniture; updated mall entrances and exterior site graphics.

After the construction ended in November of 1999, Sooner's sales soared, and continue to. "Sales at Sooner are up 54% over 1997 figures," Moston says. "Occupancy is also up 10%. The mall is now 90% occupied."

GGP's investment in Sooner's renovation was minimal compared to the high-priced make overs of other malls in its portfolio. Sooner Mall's new look was accomplished with an economical price tag of around $11 million.

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