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BEVERLY HILLS, CA-The party is over for retail developers, and those looking to survive and even thrive will have to adjust to a smaller, smarter industry, said speakers at the Urban Land Institute’s “Reinventing Retail and Mixed-Use” conference, which concludes here today.

“In the last 40 years, we’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing today,” said Rick Caruso, conference chairman, and president and CEO of Caruso Affiliated, Los Angeles.

With capital constricted, vacancies rising, values dropping and transactions down, developers are dealing with an industry that is overbuilt and over staffed.

“We have collected a lot of retail space, a multiple of space over any other society,” said Kenneth P. Wong, vice chairman of The Related Cos., New York City. “Our challenge is how to thrive while getting smaller.”

“This business looked very, very easy in the last five years,” said Patrick S. Donahue, president and CEO of Donahue Schreiber Realty Group, Costa Mesa, Calif. Now, Donahue has moved his development staff into leasing, and does not expect to acquire much in the current climate.

The industry is no longer about the size of a company’s portfolio but the strength of its balance sheet, Caruso added. It’s back to fundamentals: strong anchors (though not necessarily retailers) to encourage frequent visitation, leasing based on solid research, and creative retailing and dealmaking.

The key, Wong said, is to build quality projects with a sense of place, which include a strong anchor that will bring visitors regularly.

“Call me a traditionalist, but we do need a core reason for people to repeat visitation, and they’re called anchors,” Wong said.

While in the past that likely was a department store, anchors today can be theaters or civic uses. Medical offices are anchoring projects in Brazil, noted Lee H. Wagman, CEO of The Martin Group, Santa Monica, Calif.

Creativity also is important: For too long, developers have relied on the same group of tenants to occupy their projects. And while the importance of anchors will increase the appeal of stronger chains such as Target and Kohl’s, developers should judiciously take a risk on entrepreneurs.

In addition, Donahue said, developers must carefully research retail competition, avoiding leasing to the weakest competitor in a sector.

Now, in fact, is the time to be proactive about renewals, said Brian J. Ratner, executive vice president of Forest City Enterprises, Cleveland.. Tenants looking for rent relief should make concessions regarding co-tenancies. Lenders who may reject one project may need a developer’s help with another deal.

After all, developers are not alone in their tribulations–investors who do have money also have problems.

“Our partners need us more than ever,” said Morgan Dene Oliver, CEO of Oliver MacMillan, San Diego.

Yet optimism isn’t completely dead. “This is a global meltdown,” Oliver said. “But no one thought we’d come out of the early 1990s. This period of abundance is likely over.”

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