The Development Obstacle Race
By: Angelo Carusi, Cooper Carry
Wiregrass’ development dates back to 1984 when two developers were courting department stores for a new lifestyle retail development in the community of Wesley Chapel, part of what is now called North Tampa, Fla. Photos courtesy of Jim Roof©
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. In a development world that included stiff competition for retailers, rising construction costs, a time-consuming entitlement process and the reliance on a third-party infrastructure development, developing The Shops at Wiregrass turned obstacles into creative solutions.
As far back as 1984, two developers were courting department stores for a new lifestyle retail development in the community of Wesley Chapel, part of what is called North Tampa in Pasco County, Fla. Two sites started to attract the most attention, one at State Road (SR) 56 and I-75 and a second, called Wiregrass Ranch, three miles to the east at SR 56 and Bruce B Downs Boulevard. Developer The Goodman Companies had been negotiating with the Porter family to develop portions of their 5,000-acre Wiregrass Ranch in anticipation of the explosive residential growth happening -- and predicted to continue -- in the area.
Which Comes First – The Road or the Tenant?
As negotiations progressed, The Goodman Company created a joint venture relationship with Forest City Enterprises to develop an 800,000-square-foot lifestyle center as one of the developments at Wiregrass Ranch. The 5,000-acre former ranch was proceeding through rezoning and the Development of Regional Impact (DRI) entitlement process to create a mixed-use project to include a variety of commercial, residential, education and healthcare uses. The Forest City/Goodman team was focused on landing the department stores for the lifestyle center at Wiregrass Ranch in a race against the competing site at I-75 and SR 56.
Master planning of the commercial portion of the site began in earnest in July of 2003. At that time SR 56, a vital connection to I-75, terminated at the western end of Wiregrass with a future extension planned to the east along the entire southern border of the Ranch. The lifestyle component was being considered for the intersection of a new north-south road bisecting Wiregrass and the SR 56 extension. The extension of SR 56, an essential component to all aspects of the Wiregrass property, was to be funded by the developer of Wiregrass Ranch who was seeking approval to construct 10,000 residential units in the Wiregrass development. As the critical road extension was in the planning stages, the competition to attract department stores to the site was heating up.
Despite a water pipe leak that caused a sinkhole the day before, the project opened on time.
In order to provide momentum to the development, the team decided to carve out 36 acres at the corner of SR 56 and Bruce B Downs as a site for a JCPenney lifestyle format store. This Phase I development did not need to go through the DRI process due to its smaller size -- saving valuable time -- and it allowed up to 80,000 square feet of additional development until the DRI was approved. Successfully securing JCPenney gave the project an important boost. Concurrent with the signing, the team was meeting with other national department store companies. Dillard’s, who had been in negotiations to locate to the other site within Wiregrass, wanted to be closer to the SR 56 and Bruce B Downs intersection. Forest City agreed to a site adjacent to the newly created 36-acre development, making the SR 56 extension even more critical to the project’s feasibility. The road extension would provide a second major access road to the development, as well as visibility for the retail stores located directly east of the JCPenney parcel.
Now with two department stores committed, Cooper Carry, the design architect, scrambled to develop a new master plan to address the significant site constraints created by existing wetlands and limitations to site access from surrounding roads. Due to these limitations, the site could not be planned with a conventional straight “main street” spine or street grid. Instead, a curving main street was conceived. The JCPenney store, which would be built well in advance of the remainder of the lifestyle center, would be located to the west and the Dillard’s store to the east. A pad for a future department store anchored the center of the development. The crescent shaped street drew customers down the street and further into the development. At the apex of the crescent and in front of the future department store, a circular public space, defined by the building forms, was created to become the focal point of the community. This space, with seating areas, fountains and open space would eventually be tied further into the community of Wesley Chapel by creating a children’s play area themed in recognition of the Porters’ Ranch, previously located on the Wiregrass property.
It’s a Matter of Infrastructure
Fountains, seating, open space and other amenities allow the local community to embrace The Shops at Wiregrass as their gathering place.
In June 2005, construction began on The Shops at Wiregrass with the JCPenney store. The 36-acre Phase I not only included approval of the JCPenney store but an additional 80,000 square feet of retail. At this time, the master plan for the entire project was gaining definition. In order to continue to meet the aggressive project schedule, Forest City, with the approval of Wiregrass Ranch and its partners, agreed to fund the infrastructure improvements on the remaining 40 acres despite not yet having received DRI/rezoning approval. These infrastructure improvements were defined as off-site horizontal improvements to support the additional Phase I retail. Construction began on these improvements around the middle of 2007. When Forest City sensed the DRI would likely be approved, they also authorized purchasing structural steel for the remainder of the lifestyle center. These capital costs were at risk since the entitlement process had not yet been completed.
The DRI approval finally came in August 2007, just over a year before the project opening. Around this same time, Macy’s began to express serious interest in the project, looking to locate a store in the future store pad that had been programmed, in the interim, as an outdoor market. Macy’s submitted to the county for site plan approval. In order for Macy’s to meet the October 2008 opening of The Shops at Wiregrass, they needed to receive county approval by March of 2008, which they accomplished.
The addition of Macy’s triggered the need for a parking structure to accommodate all of the new and displaced parking. Fortunately, Cooper Carry’s master plan already included a single-level parking deck. The development partners hired a design/build contractor to build the deck to tie into the upper level of the new Macy’s and the lower level of the Dillard’s store. Construction started less than 11 months prior to the grand opening.
Holding Steady Through the Storms
In 2007, the site was hit by two tropical depressions, Barry and Olga. These storms were quickly dwarfed by the financial meltdown of 2007-2008. The west coast of Florida had become the epicenter of the residential real estate collapse that was spreading across the United States. Retail leasing was becoming very challenging, threatening the financial momentum of the project. The developer charged with constructing the critical extension of SR 56 had to pull out of the project. Consequently, Forest City had to take the lead in construction of the six-lane highway. Vice president of construction, Jim Richardson, made a side wager with Forest City’s partner that the team would get it done despite the permit to build the road not being granted until June of 2008, five months before opening.
JCPenney is open and operating while the remainder of the center is under construction. Visible in the bottom portion of the photo is the SR 56 extension.
Now the race for road completion was the last known obstacle. Forest City approached the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) with a plan to have 1.5 miles of SR 56 constructed prior to the project opening, creating access points for the southern edge of The Shops at Wiregrass. Forest City proposed to set up barricades at the end of the road and to continue road construction after the project was opened. FDOT agreed to the plan and Forest City began coordinating the work. Grading of the road was well underway when Tropical Storm Fay hit the area. Development activity was reaching a crescendo with highway and building construction, tenant lease-up, landscape and signage installation all occurring at the same time. General contractor Winter Construction was able to secure the site and the August 2008 storm created only a slight delay. The project marched on to the grand opening and Jim Richardson won his wager on completing the road.
Then, on the afternoon before the evening grand opening celebrations were to begin, a water pipe in the main street developed a leak, creating a 20 x 20 foot sinkhole. Luckily, since road construction was continuing on the SR 56 extension beyond The Shops of Wiregrass, Forest City directed the available road work equipment to the site to repair the damage so the Grand Opening went off without a hitch.
Despite very difficult economic conditions in Florida, Forest City and The Goodman Company report that The Shops at Wiregrass is performing remarkably well. According to Jim Richardson, “The Shops of Wiregrass have run about 95 percent leased with no fall-off and sales are very good.” The resourcefulness demonstrated by the project team shows that encountering unforeseen challenges can result in unique solutions that ultimately benefit the project. By all accounts, The Shops at Wiregrass is not only a development success but has been embraced by the area, becoming the community space of north Tampa.