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VIERA, FL-With a resounding debut in Florida’s specialty retail markets, Atlanta-based Cousins Properties Inc. has opened the first 371,000-sf, estimated $33-million phase of the 415,000-sf the Avenue Viera here by preleasing 78% of the open-air shopping center project to 40 of the country’s top merchants and restaurateurs.

The Avenue Viera, 60 miles southeast of Downtown Orlando in Space Coast country, is Cousins’ seventh national Avenue-brand enterprise. Company officials declined to disclose the average asking base rent range and terms of the signed leases, but Orlando brokers familiar with comparable high-end projects tell the average rent is probably in the $25-per-sf to $35-per-sf range. Several brokers, however, tell that range is low and put the number at $30 to $50 per sf.

Cousins gambled on its open-air shopping center concept that showcases retailers’ stores located around a one-acre, heavily landscaped urban park. “Difficult projects are often the most rewarding, and weathering three hurricanes in six weeks certainly qualifies as difficult,” says Joel Murphy, president of Cousins’ retail division.

He calls the leasing effort, which has 82% of the total space committed by tenants, “outstanding.” The leasing deals were done “even as our opening date was repeatedly threatened by the storms,” Murphy says.

He adds the Avenue Viera “will become an integral part of the Brevard County community, giving friends a place to shop all afternoon and stay for dinner, and giving the community a place to gather.” The concept of Cousins’ Avenue-brand projects “places traditional merchants in upscale, open-air centers along side select local merchants and specialty restaurants,” Murphy says.

Tenants who have signed leases at the Viera project are Abercrombie & Fitch, Aerosoles, Ann Taylor Loft, Barnie’s Coffee & Tea, Bed Bath & Beyond, Belk Department Store, Bombay, Books A Million, Carlton Jewelers, Chico’s Chili’s, Cingular Wireless, Claires, Coldstone Creamery and Coldwater Creek.

Also: Ecco Shoes, Famous Footwear, Finish Line, Glad Rags, Jos. A. Bank, Kay Jewelers, Kirkland’s, Lane Bryant, Liz Claiborne Shoes, Longhorn Steaks, the Meltin Pot, Motherhood Maternity, Old Navy, Pacific Sunwear, Panera Bread, Patchington, Rave, Rave Theatre, Regis Salon, Select Comfort, Talbots, Trade Secret, Vitamin World and Yankee Candle.

Besides Viera, other Avenue undertakings include four properties in the metro Atlanta area such as the estimated $34-million, 356,000-sf Avenue Web Gin Corners; the Avenue East Cobb, 226,000 sf, estimated hard construction costs of $18 million; the Avenue Peachtree, 182,000 sf, estimated $14.6 million; and the Avenue West Cobb, 205,000 sf, estimated $16.4 million.

Outside of Atlanta there is the Avenue of the Peninsula in Rolling Hills Estates, Los Angeles, 374,000 sf, estimated $30 million; and the Avenue Carriage Crossing in the Memphis suburb of Collierville, TN, 800,000 sf, estimated $63 million. Cousins is co-developing Avenue Carriage Crossing with Jim Wilson & Associates of Montgomery, AL.

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