Natick Collection: Build it, and the shoppers will come
Shoppers on Friday will gather a collection of their cash and credit cards and head to a new-style mall that is 50 percent bigger and filled with high-end anchors and boutiques.
By adding a 550,000-square-foot wing with anchors Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus and 98 other Newbury Street-style specialty shops and restaurants to its existing 1.1 million-square-foot center with 135 anchors and stores, mall owner General Growth Properties Inc. hopes its Natick Collection will enter a new retail league.
Besides the upscale shops set in an open, naturally lit environment thanks to massive skylights, what also drives the buzz about the "new" mall is the dining experiences General Growth is presenting with local concepts like Sel de la Terre, The Met Bar & Grill and Finale.
The Chicago-based company is also attaching a $170 million, 457,000-square-foot luxury condominium building called Nouvelle at Natick with 215 units, a 65,000-square foot lifestyle center called The Promenade, facing Rte. 9, and a first-class hotel to different wings of the Collection.
"We've positioned the Natick Collection to be one of the premier shopping centers across the country," said Jim Grant, General Growth's vice president of development. "We really think we're going to vault past a lot of properties with the mixed-use component we've built. We think we'll be the most desirable in the Northeast by far, but we think it goes beyond the Northeast."
In partnership with its lead contractor, Dimeo Construction Co. of Providence, R.I., General Growth spent about two years and $500 million building out a design that was first mentioned to the town in the spring of 2002.
The expansion was built on the site of an old Wonder Bread factory and modeled after the company's Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Va. The Natick project required zoning changes by town and state lawmakers and countless hours of review with town planners, who ironed out every detail with the company's engineers.
General Growth also renovated the two wings of its existing mall to bring it up to a higher standard. It was the first major renovation of the mall since 1994.
The expansion could "catapult this asset into the league of such prestigious assets" as Short Hills in New Jersey, King of Prussia in Pennsylvania and Ala Moana in Honolulu - malls that "have become household names," according to a research report by Morgan Stanley & Co.
Michael Tesler, an analyst at Retail Concepts Inc. in Norwell, said what makes the expansion most exciting is: "It isn't the same old, same old.
"From the street in, General Growth is offering a different experience," he said. "Plus they're mixing residential and commercial and it's not strictly retail to begin with."
Tesler said the Natick Collection is providing a mix of stores not found at other malls, with the state's first Nordstrom paired with Neiman Marcus, another luxury department store. He said the company has brought in local talent with the new restaurants. The Apple Store is "hot," and Zara, a Spanish retail chain, is probably "the second hottest store in the world." Juicy Couture has been around, but is "hot, hot, hot" and existing mall stores LEGO and Club Libby Lu are also big, he said.
Grant praised General Growth's leasing team for attracting some of the retailers they secured, especially some of the European fashion stores such as Gucci, Armani and Luis Vuitton.
"It wasn't easy, it was difficult," he said. "But once we did the tour of the shopping center, and told them what we were doing, showing them the market demographics, they were impressed.
"If they were on the fence and we showed them the space we were thinking for them, we didn't lose one of them," he added.
The expansion has also attracted new entrants to the U.S. market, such as Fruits & Passion. The Montreal-based lifestyle retailer has 150 stores in Canada, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but the Natick Collection store will be the company's launch point for a U.S. expansion of 50 to 200 stores in the next few years, according to Heather David, the company's director of business development.
"We think Natick is a great mall, we love the Boston area, we love what General Growth is doing with its expansion and who the other co-tenants will be," David said. "When customers come into a Fruits & Passion store, they'll find something new. The body-care line touches on what we do, but no other store worldwide offers a complete lifestyle concept."
The company's Cucina line, for example, is a series of hand creams and soaps for the executive chef or the cook at home. The company has a Hot Dog line of dog shampoos for the growing market segment.
Nancy Larson, general manager of the Natick Neiman Marcus store, said the mall's store mix will bring even more well-traveled, affluent and knowledgable customers.
"It enhances the environment where your store is located," Larson said. "Even if it's a 40- or 50-minute trip, customers will come to visit the boutiques and they'll visit Neiman Marcus as well."
Larson said the Natick Neiman Marcus has its own touch that will separate it from elements found in the company's Boston store, including a Chanel boutique, a children's room, a treatment center and a men's club.
Nordstrom will still bring in a different merchandise mix from its nearby stores in Connecticut and Rhode Island for "anyone who loves fashion," according to John Bailey, a Nordstrom spokesman. Later, when the retailer opens four other stores in Massachusetts, it will still try to differentiate its offerings, he said.
What will become a challenge for retailers at the Natick Collection is holding onto talent with so much competition, according to Grant.
"Some stores will hire short staffed, or they'll hire people who won't stay very long," he said. "Within a month after opening, they'll be trying to find new people to supplant the people who don't work out for them."
Maureen Dunne, an economist with the MetroWest Economic Research Center at Framingham State College, said retail jobs in MetroWest pay more than they do in other parts of the state. The average wage (including both management and entry-level) is $33,800, compared with $27,500 statewide, according to the latest data available.
"We are a high-wage part of the state, and to attract workers to the retail trade you have to pay more than in other areas," Dunne said. "While some of the workers are seasonal and part time, the core workers are full time. To attract and keep them, especially with more stores opening, you have to pay them a higher wage."
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said hiring won't be an issue for these stores. "They're going to do well and will have their choice of the best candidates," he said.
After its condo complex is complete next year, General Growth will generate at least $2 million in additional property tax revenue for Natick, on top of its current annual assessment of about $2.4 million, according to Jan Dangelo, the town's director of assessing. That number doesn't include personal property taxes that each retailer has to pay, she said.
On top of that, the expansion will generate building permit fees and at least $11 million in one-time mitigation payments, according to acting Town Administrator Martha White.
"The revenue we're going to see from the mall will be a wonderful help to the town, while it will not by any means be a solution to the town's financial challenges," White said. "The money we receive will be well in excess of the burden the mall will create in terms of services."
Some of the mall's one-time contributions were already devoted to improvements to Speen Street from Rte. 30 to Rte. 135. That road work is scheduled to be done later this month.
Patrick Reffett, the town's community development director, said the expansion is part of the "urbanization of Natick." Whether that is good or bad depends on your perspective, he said.
From Reffett's perspective, the expansion not only brings the Natick Collection up a notch compared to other malls, but also elevates the town.
"Every community likes to look at themselves as unique, and in a lot of respects they are, but I can't think of one that's unique in the way Natick is," Reffett said. "Given the massive mall and the level of development in this community, the quality of life is as good as it is anywhere. We have great schools, great parks, great neighborhoods and it's a great place to do business."
(Andrew J. Manuse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-626-3964.)