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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real Estate Florida.)

Tampa’s University Mall has the distinction of being both the oldest and largest indoor retail shopping center in its market. The fact that it has survived nearly 35 years with few major changes is a story worth telling.

While other malls of a certain age throughout the Tampa Bay area have been either redeveloped into open-air centers or turned into other commercial uses outright, University Mall is making its latest comeback with a $10-million renovation by its current owners. Somera Capital Management LLC and Rockwood Capital LLC partnered to buy the mall from Glimcher Realty Trust for $144.7 million in July 2007 and hired General Growth Properties to take up management of its 1.2 million square feet.

“Mall shoppers’ wants, needs and expectations are always evolving based on the demands of their daily life,” says Tom Locke, the mall’s longtime general manager. “We continue to strive to fulfill those.”

Having been developed in 1974 by mall magnate Edward DeBartolo, University Mall, located along Fowler Avenue east of Interstate 275 convenient to the University of South Florida campus, has continued changing with the times but undoubtedly has never had to fight for survival as much as in the last several years. Its center anchor, Montgomery Ward, was lost to bankruptcy and replaced by Burlington Coat Factory, while end anchor JCPenney left for a newer lifestyle center in nearby Pasco County and was replaced by Steve and Barry’s. Its last remaining anchor, Dillard’s, has converted to an outlet center after opening a newer store in Pasco.

While other newer malls have opened within University Mall’s service area over the past decade, including Westfield Citrus Park and International Plaza, some of its aging indoor peers have fallen to the wayside. One such mall converted to a vertical office complex, another was redeveloped as an OAC and yet another was demolished to make way for the new headquarters and training complex of football’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

University Mall itself was marked for a similar fate, enduring persistent rumors that USF would buy and expand onto the 95-acre site. The chatter was finally silenced by last year’s sale and this year’s renovations.

Improvements to University Mall, designed by Dallas architecture firm Omniplan, are marked by revamped V-shaped main entrances combined with a monochromatic color palate, native Florida landscaping and new tile mosaics. Interior features include a remodeled food court, a soft-seating lounge area, a pirate-themed children’s play area and a Wi-Fi terrace offering free Internet access.

“As cranes arrived on our property and demolition began, change was evident to even the casual visitor,” Locke says. “The comments have been 100% positive and the amenities have received rave reviews, creating continued excitement and questions about what’s next, and putting the rumors to rest.”

Despite the recent trend toward de-malling and building anchors and other stores so that shoppers can park more closely, retail observers believe revamping University Mall is a sound move on the current owners’ part. The mall has benefited all these years from its location alone, enjoying heavy traffic, population density and proximity to a major college.

“That has been a retail center of gravity for a long time,” says Justin Greider, associate director with Holliday Fenoglio Fowler in Orlando and a noted researcher of Florida retail markets for the International Council of Shopping Centers. “Even with other more exciting malls opening nearby, people will still drive out of their way to shop there. Plus, everybody knows college students like to go to the mall.”

While University Mall does not disclose specifics on sales or customer traffic, Locke says it has received a welcome boost from the current holiday shopping season after completing renovations in early November. “In light of these trying economic times, we were pleasantly surprised by Black Friday weekend results that exceeded our expectations,” he says.

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