Parking lots don’t lie — one glance at Christiana Mall’s 6,700 spaces tells a happy tale for tenants and developers near the colossal mega-center — it’s packed. And there’s more to come.
Officials from Allied Retail Properties (ARP), developers of Christiana Fashion Center adjacent to the mall and across from Pier 1 and Dick’s Sporting Goods said the first phase is scheduled for completion by fall of this year. It’s a 200,000-square-foot project that will include Nordstrom Rack, The Container Store, REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) and other big-box tenants that will each occupy space at the new location.
That’s a fraction of the 600,000 feet of stores and restaurants that will comprise this project on Center Boulevard upon completion – significantly upping the retail space that heralds the entry to this regional retail hotbed.
Two additional phases include 200,000 square feet to be completed in the fall of 2016 and another 200,000 in the Spring 2017.
Once completed, the fashion center is expected to employ 600 people.
“Christiana Mall has long been a very successful mall,” said Jim Oeste, vice president of real estate at ARP. “Its location and proximity to three or four states is a draw. But being at the corner of Routes 1 and I-95 is a good address.”
The prime location and improving economy mean it’s a great time to open the center, said Oeste, who added that he’s careful about the selection process when it comes to retail space. Six additional retailers could be signed within the next few weeks.
“We’re being selective, we want it to be the right mix,” he explained. “When you’re doing a new development you’re looking to have a balanced mix of tenants.”
Calling the area a two-store market, Oeste said it’s not uncommon to have two big-name stores in the area, like one in Christiana and the other in north Wilmington.
Nordstrom Rack, The Container Store and REI will be the first in Delaware.
More than 75 percent of Christiana Fashion Center retailers will be new to the market, according to Oeste.
It’s a long way from the farmlands that once comprised this vital corner, before the mall was constructed in 1978. The original footprint has morphed several times to include a wide variety of restaurant and retail businesses that now punctuate the original property.
The 500,000-square-foot Cabela’s opened last spring and the long-awaited Cinemark 12 opened its 50,000-square-foot location in November. For those keeping count, that’s a whopping 1.3 million square feet of commercial and retail offerings.
That number does not include Christiana Fashion Center, Don Pablo’s or any of the other retail businesses outside the ring of the Christiana Mall main property.
The flyover from Route 95 South offers a staggering look at the mall, once farm fields framed by I-95 on one side and Route 40 on the other. Local lawmakers always knew it offered great potential, according to state Sen. Karen Peterson, who sat on the New Castle County Council during the mid-80s when the draw of the new mall almost immediately demanded decisions about access roads and rezoning for access and expansion.
“We knew we could have something that would draw from three other states,” said Peterson.
Nearly 36 years later, the original mall has undergone several remodels and expansions that support roughly 18 million visitors each year.
“Our goal when we did this was to broaden our offerings to include shopping, dining and entertainment so that it was more of a place you would come and spend more time and a variety of different options,” explained Christiana Mall General Manager Steve Chambliss.
Chambliss was brought on board seven years ago to oversee the mall’s overhaul and expansion of its anchor stores and food court as well as the addition of retail shops and entertainment closer to its outer ring. The closing of Strawbridge’s and Lord & Taylor in 2006 gave them the opportunity to introduce Nordstrom – and design the rest of the mall accordingly.
According to Chambliss, Christiana Mall is the most desirable and tax-free fashion destination between Philadelphia and Baltimore and one of the highest productivity malls in the country. The popularity of the area has continued to spark interest in developers eager to join commercial forces.
It’s a good address that ultimately contributed to the need for a $150 million transportation reconfigure of Routes 1 and I-95 – a redress of ramps and a flyover aimed at streamlining traffic problems that had become a staple of the Churchmans Road area.
The flyover and new ramps have significantly altered the drive for commuters looking to bypass the mall traffic and find their way home or to points south, but access ramps to the commercial center are still jammed with vehicles and parking spots not always easy to come by. It begs the question: Is there a saturation point?
“In the short term we’re finished, there’s no immediate plans for any expansion,” said Chambliss. “All future expansions would require finding additional property or building parking decks.”
But Chambliss and Oeste were careful to add there are stores in the Philadelphia and Baltimore markets that have not yet made their way to this area and that might be a good fit.
“Other limits are road structure and population,” said Chambliss. The flyover and off-ramps have been opened a year, but Christiana Mall finished their own traffic –based projects in November, when they opened the theater and the access roads.”
Oeste, whose company also owns the Christiana Towne Center on Route 273 as well 12 other area shopping centers, believes there is a limit.
“It’s getting close,” he conceded. “Eventually, that’s what will happened and you’re going to have other shopping centers that will have vacancies in them.”
In productivity, it’s one of the top-ranked malls nationally, and the New Castle County Economic Development Strategic Plan included “areas near Christiana Mall” as “Opportunity Areas” suggested for particular attention.
ARP owns and manages more than six million square feet of commercial space in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland. ♦