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Seattle Center Reflects Harmonious Diversity

University Village, a 400,000 sq. ft. retail center five miles outside Seattle near the University of Washington campus, was built more than 40 years ago. Originally designed according to 1950s modernist sensibilities of size and structure, the center remained essentially unchanged in its look until about five years ago when the property was acquired by new ownership.

An outdoor center, it included a grocery store, department store and hardware store among the primary tenants, along with a mixed bag of convenience-type store fronts such as a dry cleaners and a post office, and a number of mom-and-pop specialty merchandisers.

Although a number of other enclosed shopping centers had sprung up in the region over the past four decades, the Village had been able to maintain a strong presence in the surrounding community, with retailers in the property generally reporting good earnings and profitability.

It was thus a property with both promise and problems. Chief among the problems were the center's dated aesthetics and lack of pedestrian connections, says Tom Croonquist, development director of University Village.

"Everything was whitewashed stucco with heavy overhangs," he recalls. "It looked drab and sleepy. And yet, when you got into it, you found all these jewels of retailing."

In fact, the center was filled with ironies. A number of existing retailers performed well but the Village looked and felt dated. Community loyalty was strong, but there was a feeling that the demographics would support a higher-end presence. Of course, new upscale tenants would be reluctant to consider a center whose ambiance did not coincide with their own image.

The new owners considered a complete makeover, but the existing tenants were strong and had considerable time left on their leases. Thus, it would have been impractical to buy out all open leases in order to shut the center down and perform a property-wide renovation.

In many ways, the redesign of University Village was a cooperative undertaking between tenants and landlord, an approach taken for practical as well as philosophical reasons.

"As much as possible," notes Croonquist, "we wanted all the tenants to have individual identities within the center."

There would be guidelines and review standards, of course, but the philosophy was to turn away from the late-1950s concept of building a big box and plugging in retailers. The aim was toward recapturing the small-town feel of a community retailing and gathering place, a place that grew up in stages over a period of years with what might be called harmonious diversity.

Perked up with Starbucks In 1994, the window of opportunity for the renovation opened when the lease expired on Lamont's department store, freeing up a 105,000 sq. ft. site. Barnes & Noble, which earlier had expressed interest in this location, designed for the Village the largest store in its chain at that time. Soon after, Eddie Bauer brought a flagship store, and the Gap and GapKids signed leases.

Apart from the Barnes & Noble renovation, the first Village remodel of single-story space was Starbucks. The coffee retailer was one of several existing tenants that had responded to requests from center management for ideas on how they would revamp their exteriors if given a free hand.

Before the renovation, the University Village Starbucks was patterned after the corporation's then-standard 1,000 sq. ft. espresso bar. But Starbucks wanted a high-end flagship store for the Village, since it was (almost literally) in the backyard of Starbucks owner-founder Howard Schultz.

So when the Village's new owner asked for suggestions from key tenants, the Starbucks folks came back with a most dramatic concept.

"They cut off the big overhang, raised the parapet and put in a wonderful glass awning," recalls Croonquist. "It really opened up what had been a dark, dreary corner location."

The store's area was tripled to more than 3,000 sq. ft., with tables and chairs, a reading and music listening area, and merchandise racks in addition to the traditional espresso bar. Although center management felt some trepidation in relocating a tenant that had been doing well, the larger space and updated look of the new Starbucks store connected with customers.

"To everybody's pleasure," says Croonquist, "it took off like a rocket."

Tenants and designers give and take The renovation has been a multi-year, multi-phase project, with work still ongoing. It began in October 1994 with the gutting, seismic upgrading and renovation of the former Lamont's space, and to date has been completed with the renovation of the 42,000 sq. ft. former Ernst Hardware store.

The project architect for the first phase of the renovation was Seattle-based Zimmer Gunsul & Frasca. Subsequent renovation phases were guided by GGLO architectural firm, also of Seattle.

The overall design goal was to create an environment that had the grown-in-place, traditional feel of Main Street USA, explains GGLO partner Bill Gaylord. To visually disperse the mass of the main building structures, Gaylord proposed fronting the structures with pre-cast stone in various patterns and reliefs. The result would be a series of streetfront facades each with their own visual identity but built of the same material.

Anytime a national chain - particularly one with a strong sense of corporate identity and design - comes into a center with drive-by visibility, there will be issues of maintaining design integrity, both from the merchant's side and from the property owner's side.

Such was the case at University Village, where two of the three new tenants in the West Building wanted to change their store frontage from the original design plans proposed by Village ownership: Pottery Barn did not want the pre-cast stone and instead proposed a mustard stucco finish; Restoration Hardware went with a white traditional stucco facade and a higher cornice.

The final result of the give-and-take between tenants (existing and prospective) and the design team was not exactly what was originally conceived. Still, Gaylord notes, the philosophical look of a built-together center was maintained and in many ways strengthened.

Islands are bridged, shored up Bringing the outlying buildings into the same overall visual theme was more challenging. Says Gaylord, "In the northwest quad where Ernst Hardware used to be, we had to create a whole new identity and also get shoppers to make the trek across parking lots and a main driveway."

To unify what he calls "a series of island buildings with a sea of parking around them," a network of lighted and tree-lined raised pedestrian paths was built. Also constructed was a string of smaller "stepping stone" buildings, which house tenants ranging from 350 sq. ft. to 2,500 sq. ft.

These buildings lead from the main bulk of the center to the 42,000 sq. ft. Northwest Building, which had been renovated from one large space into eight tenant spaces. This northwest corner of the property also features a newly constructed plaza, with an interactive fountain, liberal plantings of magnolia grandifloras, and plenty of places to sit and gather.

"We're not trying to fool anyone," says Gaylord. "Most people come here by car. But we really felt we needed to connect all of the buildings, which are separated by large parking lots, with walkways where the pedestrian doesn't feel like they're going out into traffic."

All construction for the project was handled by Seattle-based McCarthy general contractors. Among the challenges McCarthy faced: bringing the buildings up to current seismic standards for the region; and coordinating all renovation work in such a way that existing tenants could continue operations.

University Village was built on soft soils created in 1916 when Lake Washington was lowered because of a ship canal built to connect Lake Washington to Puget Sound.

Thus, all the center's structures were supported by pilings that went down as far as 50 feet to reach solid ground.

And, while the structures were built in compliance with codes in effect in the 1950s, guidelines for seismic stability had tightened since then, requiring extensive upgrades to the structures.

For example, the original structure of the Lamont's store was essentially a large concrete box with few windows or other openings, explains Scott Akre, senior project manager at McCarthy. When the structure was renovated to include the more open design philosophy, shear value was lost by cutting the additional window openings.

To compensate for this loss, support pilings were added in order to meet more stringent seismic standards. In the case of the West Building, that amounted to 90 new pilings in all, as well as major shear walls at each facade.

Like missing a front tooth The renovation project was phased according to a number of variables, such as the expiration of existing tenants' leases and when new tenants could be signed. Thus, McCarthy priced out the project on a phased basis.

There were five phases to the renovation, and after each phase the team would regroup. "We would do overall budget pricing for the project early on when it was in the concept stage," says Akre. "Then, as the design for each phase got refined, we would price them out individually."

Specialized subcontractors were hired to handle construction of some architectural elements, such as application of split-face concrete block on one of the building facades. Also, with the Village chosen as the first location outside Utah to host Robert Redford's Sundance Store, a facade of hand-hewn Utah sandstone and rough-sawed barn timbers was added.

Demolition and renovation took place alongside center merchants remaining open for business as usual.

"It's always a challenge doing a remodel in a shopping center that continues to fully function," notes Akre, "but University Village being in a residential area just added to that challenge."

City ordinances limit heavy construction in residential areas to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Normal business operations further collapsed the window of opportunity, with construction halting at 10 a.m. Larger crews were precisely scheduled so that all disruptive work (from a dust and noise standpoint) were completed before the Village opened each morning.

As it turned out, both the phased renovation and the tenants' participation in the evolution of the design concept were a recipe for success.

The strategy was to revamp spaces as they became vacant, install in those spaces a few key tenants with whom they had close ties (e.g., Starbucks and Eddie Bauer), then hope their success attracted other high-end tenants.

"We knew there were going to be times when the center would look like a youngster with his front tooth knocked out, but it's going to grow back," Croonquist says.

Village experience With a current GLA of 400,000 sq. ft. and covering 33 acres, the Village now boasts a tenant roster that includes Anthropologie, Williams-Sonoma Grand Cuisine, Abercrombie & Fitch, AnnTaylor and Fitigues. Center management reports current revenue of $550 per sq. ft., compared to $330 per sq. ft. when it was acquired in 1993.

According to University Village marketing director Janet Bayne, the influx of new upscale retailers has helped strengthen and refocus the center's attraction to the surrounding community. Before the renovation, retailers typically promoted individual sale events; now, the Village projects a more united identity to the community.

"It's the Village as a whole," she says. "Not only do we offer wonderful retail, but the message is the enjoyable experience that a shopper can have here, sitting outside, enjoying the fountains and bronze sculptures. You can do your grocery shopping, get your dry cleaning done, and sit outside with friends and enjoy a latte. We have quality retailers, but it's still approachable."

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