Building a new retail project in the midst of a persistent recession could easily have been a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, this was not the case with Legacy Place, a $200 million project by WS Development. The 675,000-square-foot mixed-use project proves that experience and perseverance — combined with solid demographics, location, an exceptional tenant lineup and a long-term hold strategy — can conquer even the most adverse economic conditions.
Location and History
Debuting in 2009, Legacy Place is located at the intersection of I-95 and Route 1 in Dedham, MA, approximately 10 miles Southwest of Boston. The project features more than 80 shops and entertainment venues, including Showcase Cinema de Lux, L.L. Bean, Kings, Apple, J. Crew, Sephora, Whole Foods Market and many more.
Just a few years ago, the site where Legacy Place currently thrives consisted of an outdated cinema surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking. Since the late 1950s, the 31-acre property had been owned by theater giant National Amusements, the parent company of both Viacom and CBS Corporation. The property was significant to National Amusements as it was the location of its original drive-in theater and home to its corporate headquarters.
Even as the drive-in evolved into a 15-screen multiplex over time, National Amusements realized that the site was vastly underutilized.
More than 10 restaurants can be found at Legacy Place, including the locally-owned Parisian bistro, Aquitaine. Photo courtesy of Michael Blanchard.
For decades, various retail developers had been eyeing the Dedham market, ideally as a location for an enclosed regional mall.
From Mall to Lifestyle Center
While the mall was never built, substantial retail that typically feeds off of super-regional centers was built on surrounding parcels along Route 1. “Because of its exceptional location and its importance to National Amusements and the Town of Dedham, WS knew it needed to build something special on the site,” said Jeremy Sclar, president, WS Development.
In 2004, WS Development and National Amusements created a joint venture based on an entirely new idea for the property: an open-air, lifestyle-oriented retail destination.
To build it, WS examined its own experience, focusing on a pair of successful lifestyle centers it opened in 2004: Derby Street Shoppes on the south shore of Boston; and The Shoppes at Farmington Valley, just west of Hartford, CT. In addition, WS learned by visiting some of the best lifestyle centers in the country: Easton Town Center; Columbus, OH; Deer Park Town Center, Deer Park, IL; Kierland Commons, Scottsdale, AZ; and The Grove, Los Angeles, CA.
While different from previously developed retail projects, Legacy Place represented a natural evolution for WS, which had been building successful open-air centers since the early 1990s. “When we first brought the open-air concept to the region, not everyone believed it would succeed,” recalls Tom DeSimone, partner, WS Development. “Our success at centers like Derby Street Shoppes proved that retailers were seeking locations beyond the mall, and that our customers truly enjoyed the outdoor shopping experience.”
Vertical Development in the Suburbs
When designing Legacy Place, WS began by focusing on the location of the center just outside Boston, immediately adjacent to solid suburban demographics.
“To us, urban meant building a project that was dense, vertical and active, with varying architectural styles, a great sidewalk experience and high energy. Suburban meant convenient, accessible and comfortable,” said Dick Marks, partner, WS Development. “By combining the two, WS strove to bring the city to the suburbs.”
Working with architect Prellwitz/Chilinski Associates (PCA), WS selected a double-quad design organized around two market squares with surface parking encircled by pedestrian-friendly walkways and tree-lined drives. WS believed it could create much of the intimacy of a main street project without sacrificing the convenience of being able to park and walk right into a store.
To add to the energy, WS created a venue that morphs from day to night. Legacy Place is open 17 hours a day, from early morning when Whole Foods Market opens, until late at night when the restaurants, Kings and the cinema are most active. As dusk arrives, the music becomes livelier, the lights come on, and the drama of the outdoor experience intensifies.
Building 675,000 square feet on 31 acres was not an easy task. To do so, WS relied on two measures: two-story retail and structured parking. First, it collaborated with the anchors to occupy upper level space. For example, Showcase Cinema de Lux located on the second floor, while L.L. Bean occupied a two-level space.
Second, the majority of the customer parking is structured. WS chose to build the 1,350-space, three-level garage directly above retail. Although the cost premium exceeded 50 percent, the parking structure preserved valuable development space. It also provided a welcome customer convenience and an important sense of arrival; in glass-enclosed vertical cores, customers first experience the center from above, and then ride elevators down to surrounding ground level shops and restaurants.
Movie entertainment has evolved from a drive-in theater to a 15-screen multiplex at the site of Legacy Place. National Amusements, parent company of Viacom and CBS Corporation, was committed to better utilization of the 31 acres. Photo courtesy of Kevin Forti.
“These approaches allowed for a density that is twice what WS would build in a strictly suburban location,” said Marks.
Surviving the Great Recession
The Great Recession was gaining traction when Legacy Place broke ground in April 2008, about a month after the Bear Stearns collapse. During the 16 months until its grand opening in August 2009, national unemployment hit a 26-year high; the Dow Jones Industrial average declined by more than 24 percent; and Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG all collapsed in a 10-day period in November 2008.
Though retail expansion was at a virtual standstill, WS Development continued to sign important leases during this time with key retailers such as Apple, Yard House, H&M, Brooks Brothers, Williams-Sonoma and others.
In addition to retailers, WS added Citizens Bank in November 2009. Citizens Bank leased 45,000 square feet of office space on the second level of the centrally-located Pavilion building to house employees from three departments: Consumer and Business Banking, Consumer Finance and Marketing.
Determining the Tenant Mix
Of course, project success is nothing without the right tenant mix. Here, WS focused on two criteria: what the customer needs, and what the customer wants.
The needs category includes the iconic New England outdoor retailer, L.L. Bean, and the 60,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market, the largest and highest grossing in New England.
“At a regional mall, a department store brings the core customer to the center two to three times a month,” said Sclar. “In contrast, Whole Foods Market brings our core customer to Legacy Place two to three times each week.”
The majority of customer parking at Legacy Place is structured. At an expense premium exceeding 50 percent, it allowed for a density that is double what WS Development would build in a strictly suburban location. Photo courtesy of Kevin Forti.
The wants category features the 15-screen Showcase Cinema de Lux, a premier theater brand for National Amusements; Kings, where bowling alley meets nightclub; and a wide selection of best-in-class apparel and specialty stores, such as Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Williams-Sonoma, J. Crew, Banana Republic, Sephora, Brooks Brothers and Apple. Yet another anchor is the exceptional collection of more than 10 restaurants, including Legal C Bar, Yard House, and the locally-owned Parisian bistro, Aquitaine.
“Meeting needs and wants helps us draw customers more often and for more reasons than other shopping centers, translating directly to the bottom line,” said DeSimone.
Lesson Learned: Generating Ancillary Income
As an open-air retail developer, prior to Legacy Place, WS Development did not have much experience producing supplemental income from its properties. In fact, sponsorship programs and advertising platforms were developed post opening, which led to some problems and lessons learned. For example, when preparing to add digital screens to the sidewalks, WS realized there was no power available at the target locations.
Today, pre-planning for ancillary income opportunities is second nature for WS, which now develops programs and incorporates feedback from its operations and marketing teams at the outset of the development process. This planning and feedback is being incorporated into new commercial projects throughout New England.
Legacy Place was 93 percent leased at its August 2009 opening. Today, the project is 98 percent leased, despite the loss of Borders, which closed nationwide in 2011. Additionally, the center’s foot traffic and retail sales have increased each year since its debut.
The center has received several honors, including “Best of the New” by Boston Globe Magazine, and a Gold Award for Innovative Design and Development, and a Silver Award for Sustainable Design, both from the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC). WS has kept the project fresh introducing new retailers such as J. Crew, Sephora and Carhartt. Recently, Make Meaning, a new retail concept that encourages children of all ages to express their creativity through a unique style of craftmaking, recently joined the tenant roster.
As a long-term owner and operator of the centers it builds, WS Development will continue to invest in and evolve Legacy Place, learning from the urban/suburban retail experience.