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At age 50, Franklin Park Mall tries to swim against the retail current

What kind of birthday gift do you buy for a shopping mall?

In the case of Franklin Park Mall, which reaches 50 years old July 22, the answer is probably a dozen or so new tenants to help put it on the path toward another half-century.

But Toledo’s premier shopping venue didn’t survive this long without knowing how to fend for itself.

Over its retailing history, Franklin Park has reinvented itself twice well in excess of $117 million, grown from a planned 300,000 square feet to the current 1.3 million square feet, replaced large department store anchors five times, and expanded to over 150 retailers from an original 75 — only four of which remain: J.C. Penney, General Nutrition, Lane Bryant, and Spencer’s Gifts.

Now under the direction of Pacific Retail Capital Partners, the fourth management company since its doors opened in 1971, the mall is moving into uncertain territory.

Enclosed malls like Franklin Park, at 5001 Monroe St. at Talmadge Road, are disappearing annually as customers turn more to online shopping and bargain retailers. The recent pandemic did it no favors as the mall was forced to close for a time, and even though it has reopened, some customers remain reluctant to go into indoor spaces.

Its operating hours have been limited, and even as the mall looks to stay open an hour later (until 8 p.m.) starting July 12, “now hiring” signs can be seen in the windows of many of its stores.

“I would say there’s more stores able to be and that are open more hours, but there’s definitely hiring lags,” said Casey Pogan, Franklin Park’s marketing director, who is also its interim general manager until a permanent general manager can be found.

“We’ve talked about doing a job fair, but you’ve got to get people here for a job fair,” she added.

Fortunately, however, the buyers, window-shoppers, and mall walkers all are starting to return. At noontime Tuesday there was brisk and growing traffic in Franklin Park’s four corridors and at its food court, a sign that consumers are growing more comfortable at being in crowds again.

“We have seen our traffic returning to 2019 levels. Many stores are happy with traffic and their sales,” Ms. Pogan said. “They’re meeting their plans and performing well despite just re-opening their doors with post-Covid restrictions.”

Pacific Retail Partners, which became Franklin Park’s management company in December after Starwood Capital, the prior owner, was pushed out the previous June because one of its subsidiaries, Starwood West Limited, defaulted on $254 million in bonds used to buy Franklin Park and six other malls, has a strong reputation on the West Coast.

And according to Ms. Pogan, the El Segundo, Calif. company, “gets it” when it comes to managing malls — a good thing because the pandemic hurt many malls, including Franklin Park, by pushing dozens of national retailers into bankruptcy. Franklin Park has 13 major empty spaces right now, including space the Banana Republic clothier recently vacated.

“The good news is [Pacific Retail] believes strongly in marketing and being a community hub. They believe in art — and we have a mural project going on right now for our 50th [anniversary]…. But Pacific is really focused on driving customer traffic, which leads to store success,” Ms. Pogan said.

The first part is learning.

“Pacific is obviously focused on leasing, both national and the importance of regional and local. But I think one of the differences is Pacific has a more decentralized management style, meaning they engage the local teams to run the properties in a way that makes sense for their market, because an Ohio property isn’t the same as a California or a Florida [property],” Ms. Pogan said.

“They are really invested in what we think is best for our property and our community,” she added.

Of the seven Starwood-owned malls that Pacific Retail is now managing, Franklin Park is in a unique position. Several executives at Pacific Retail were intimately familiar with the Toledo mall because they were previously employed by Westfield America, which acquired Franklin Park in 2001 from original owners the Rouse Co.

Westfield irked the Toledo customer base by insisting on calling the mall Westfield Shoppingtown, later Westfield Shoppingtown Franklin Park. Westfield later sold the mall to Starwood in 2013, but not before making a $117 million investment in 2005 by adding a 238,000 square-foot wing, a decked parking garage, a new 12-bay food court, and a second level theater now owned by Cinemark.

“Several of them are very familiar with the property from their days with Westfield before joining Pacific. They do have a connection and history with Franklin Park Mall in particular,” Ms. Pogan said.

Whether that translates into a greater marketing push and the ability to cut better deals to lure tenants to the mall remains to be determined.

For now, Ms. Pogan said, Pacific Retail is still trying to learn more about the Toledo property it now controls, and making sure the level of quality and cleanliness that customers expect remains constant.

That means cutting the lawns, keeping the parking lots in repair, cleaning the floors and bathrooms, and doing the little things that customers expect when they visit. “It’s not as sexy as bringing in a new store, but it has to be done,” the interim general manager said.

One thing that hasn’t slowed is the mall’s leasing agents’ commitment to finding new tenants.

On June 10, the mall welcomed Blended, a locally-owned store that features products from over 30 Ohio-based artisans and vendors. Next month retailing leader the Shoe Dept. will open a 14,000-square-foot store in the J.C. Penney wing.

At the end of May, the mall welcomed DaVee Designs, a unique home-decor store that features African art, Demdaco merchandise, and other collectibles.

Owners Verna Smith and David Stovall said Franklin Park leasing agents were persistent and finally convinced them to add a second store in Toledo. Their other store is in the Livonia Mall in metro Detroit.

Franklin Park officials “came to us a year ago and we just weren’t sure about it. The second time they asked us we said yes,” Ms. Smith said.

“Malls are all disappearing,” she said. “But we checked it out. [Franklin Park] has a lot of potential people for us to reach. It was a good choice.”

Mr. Stovall, who is a craft artist, sells some of his own work at the store. But DaVee Designs is really about offering customers things they may never have seen before or will see elsewhere in town, he said.

Ms. Pogan said a store like DaVee Designs adds to the flair of the mall, which has tried many different things over the years, an aspect customers have come to expect.

“We’re proud of that. Retail in itself is changing and I think Franklin Park Mall has just done a great job of getting ahead of that curve and bringing the entertainment concepts, like the theaters and Dave & Buster’s, which are the things a customer wants,” she said.

Franklin Park was conceived and built on 66 acres by Baltimore-based Rouse and named for the former Franklin Airport that it supplanted. It draws 6 million visitors annually and has outlasted the three other Toledo malls from its era: Southwyck Shopping Center, North Towne Mall, and Woodville Mall, all of which have been torn down.

The original floor plan — and the mall’s original and uncomfortable floor was the biggest complaint by customers over its 50-year history — provided four court areas, the most prominent being Center Court with its 35-foot-high fountain that shot up into its classic suspended “sky cube” and second level mezzanine. When the 2005 renovation occurred, the sky cube was removed, cut up, and became part of the Monroe Street entrance.

A courtyard in front of the J.L. Hudson store, now Macy’s, had a “stabile” abstract sculpture by internationally famed artist Alexander Calder. It was commissioned by Hudson’s for $125,000 (about $830,000 today) but later donated to the Toledo Museum of Art. The museum later sold the stabile, named Oscar, to fund additional art purchases, but Oscar recently was restored and is now displayed by its new owners, the Carli Fine Art Conservatory in Carlsbad, Calif.

The Rouse Co. provided the first change to the mall in 1991 by adding an expansion wing, at an undisclosed cost, with 20 inline store spaces and a two-story 192,000-square-foot Lion Store. That took the 800,000 square foot mall to 1.07 million square feet and turned it into a superregional mall as defined by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Kevin Lent, who was the fourth of the mall’s now 16 general managers and was part of that first expansion project, said he thinks Franklin Park has survived — and will continue to survive — for two key reasons.

“One is location, which is always really crucial from a real estate perspective, and the demographics have remained fairly consistent and strong as a result. That’s a significant piece,” Mr. Lent said.

“The other piece — and [the late general manager] Mike Podracky led the way on this — is leasing superiority over time,” he said.

In the 1980s Mr. Podracky secured a commitment from the Eddie Bauer Co. to put a store in Franklin Park.

“That deal was the deal that actually turned the corners and helped Franklin Park start to outproduce Southwyck mall,” Mr. Lent said. “In the late ‘80s we were both doing about the same per square foot.”

“Then they brought in Ann Taylor and other top retailers. The Rouse company was trying to invest in allowance dollars to keep those deals happening. And that’s been maintained,” he added.

After a while, Toledo became a one-store market for many upscale retailers — and their only Toledo store would be at Franklin Park.

Mr. Lent remembers it being a heady time to be in mall management.

“I loved my time at Franklin Park. It was the most fun job and experience. Outside of owning my own business, it was the best 10 years I could have imagined working for somebody else,” he said.

Now involved in retail center development and franchising of Sola Salons beauty shops, Mr. Lent said he sees a similar commitment to keep Franklin Park relevant and alive.

“It’s been operated as Class A property, as it should be. The quality of cleanliness and upkeep is there. There’s a lot of things that people won’t see or notice, but when it’s not done it’s the first thing they notice,” he said.

“In the last 10 as I’ve thought about the enclosed-mall environment, I’ve wondered how far this paradigm shift will go. But there’s only room for one enclosed mall in Toledo. And I don’t think this need for centralized retail like in a mall will disappear from the American landscape anytime soon,” he said.

“I’ve never had any suspicion that Franklin Park would die because it’s been so strong,” he added.

For Ms. Pogan, a Toledo native, being Franklin Park’s manager — even possibly for a short time — has been an amazing opportunity.

“I grew up in South Toledo. Southwyck was always my mall as a teen. But it was always a big deal when we could convince our parents to take us out to Franklin Park,” she said. “It was bigger, cooler, just a different experience than Southwyck.

“Franklin Park was a true gem.”


Posted By: The Toledo Blade on July 3, 2021.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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