Photo courtesy of Miosotis Jade via Creative Commons License
Local developer Chuck Whittall reportedly has a plan for the future of one of the City Beautiful's cultural touchstones – Orlando Fashion Square Mall.
reports that Whittall, the president of Unicorp National Developments, and who's commonly known as the developer behind the Orlando Eye, wants to purchase the property and turn it into an outdoor entertainment development that includes shopping, dining and apartments.
Whittall reportedly already has a contract to buy the land on which the mall sits and has started purchasing discussions with Bancorp, which began leasing the property after foreclosing on the last developer who bought the mall.
"I think the reason it has failed is others are looking at how to fix the mall," Whittall told WESH. "'What can we do to make this mall work?' The reality is that the mall is not going to work. The mall needs to come down. It was built 50 years ago, so it needs to come down, and something else needs to go in its place that does work today."
Whittall adds: "It's 50 acres. Fifty acres of indoor property, right in Central Florida."
However, such a feat is easier said than done. For Whittall to pull it off, his company would have a heroic amount of details to iron out: For one, though Fashion Square sits on a large swath of land, the real estate underneath the anchor stores (Macy's, Dillard's Clearance Center, JCPenny's) is owned by each respective company – some of which have 20- to 50-year leases on the property. To get the ball rolling, Whittall would have to finesse a deal that tickles every Fashion Square property owner's capitalist fancy.
"You'll have an owner of the mall and then you'll have the department stores owning maybe their own separate patch," David Marks, president of Marketplace Advisors, told Orlando Weekly
in June. "So going through the process of redeveloping the property is complicated because you have multiple parties that have to agree on how you're going to execute that."
Also not taken into account in Whittall's ambitious proposal is how there are still shop tenants with active businesses inside Fashion Square, even if a stroll through Fashion Square might suggest otherwise.
Owen Beitsch, a senior director at the engineering firm GAI Consultants and an affordable housing scholar, notes how if a tenant's space is inside a mall, by law, the landlord can't actively and purposely neglect the tenant.
"But [the landlord] is free to move you, typically, inside the space and into another," Beitsch says. "So what that would mean is that certain parts of the mall could be mothballed as more active parts of the mall are kept open and engaged. But in effect what you're saying is you do have to mothball part of the facility, and you can't interrupt, at least legally, near the ongoing operations of the tenants you have."
Beitsch says this a factor in why you don't see mall operations such as Fashion Square closing up shop as easily as Whittall's plan might suggest.
But Whittall does have a point: As he told WESH, in all likelihood Fashion Square's business model is destined to fail. The commercial real estate firm CoStar estimates that nearly a quarter of malls in the U.S., or roughly 310 of the nation's 1,300 extant shopping malls, are at a high risk of losing an anchor store, which in turn means they're at an even higher risk of eventually going under.
That is, unless a replacement anchor store is found.
The latter of which, of course, is highly doubtful. From 2002 to 2017, according to most estimates, department stores lost 448,000 jobs, a 25 percent decline. Meanwhile, a report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners estimated that the number of Amazon Prime memberships in the U.S. jumped by 35 percent up to 54 million, which translates to about half of American households having at least one Amazon Prime members.
In other words, American consumerism is evolving. But malls aren't.
Stay on top of Orlando news and views. Sign up for our weekly Headlines newsletter.