Columns » Max Brantley

Target: Midtown

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Though a legal squabble between the land owners and University Mall operator Simon Property Group continues in court, talk of redeveloping the languishing mall continues on other fronts.

A template for the future can be found in a consultants’ report for the Midtown Redevelopment Advisory Board, which was created by the city to plan redevelopment of the University Avenue commercial strip north of the Mills Freeway.

The short form of the report is this: The University Mall property is prime real estate with good access to an affluent market. The mall should be replaced by a “pedestrian friendly” mixed-use project with “midtown scale and density.”

The advisory board’s vision includes offices, residences and new shopping, with the anchor a Target store. This wouldn’t be a typical big box Target, but a multi-story Target with a smaller footprint, most parking in a deck and a scattering of small “teaser” parking lots amid the landscaping.

The advisory board report is only a dream, but spokesmen for Simon say a mixed use redevelopment is precisely what Simon wants and is similar to several Simon projects elsewhere. Nobody is building new enclosed regional malls anymore, though many, such as Simon’s McCain Mall, remain profitable.

Simon will unveil its “vision” for the property at a meeting of the Midtown Advisory Board Dec. 8. It will be more detailed than the hastily sketched drawing of a Target store presented in court as evidence of Simon’s desire to redevelop the deteriorating mall.

Simon is trying to improve its image. It wants to send a signal that it doesn’t want to abandon the University Mall property, even if it’s not salvageable in its current form. It needs a lease extension or to buy the property to achieve its aim.

The meeting with the advisory group and Simon’s recent willingness to meet with the press — after years of limited communication — is intended to build leverage on the University Mall landowners to strike a deal apart from the lawsuit pending before federal Judge George Howard. The landowners, of course, are seeking leverage, too. A total win in their lawsuit about mall management would be for the judge to find sufficient violation of the lease by Simon to void it.

No need to choose favorites just yet. Anything that hastens redevelopment of University Mall is good for the central part of town, recently enhanced by the new “lifestyle” center across from Park Plaza, Pottery Barn and all.

The redevelopment envisioned by both the advisory group and Simon would put homes, medical offices and other permanent inhabitants in place — a ready market to shop Target and patronize new restaurants.

The land clearly has high value; else its control wouldn’t be so contested. Remember that fact should somebody be heard to say that the redevelopment options are exciting, but too expensive to undertake without taxpayer subsidy. Nobody has said such a thing directly yet, but there have been hints. After all, Rogers, Jonesboro and North Little Rock have eagerly turned over school tax money to developers in tax increment finance schemes.

Little Rock might be a tougher mark because of the signal voters sent in rejecting the Summit Mall. It was a University Avenue-killer that would have, incidentally, put Simon in charge of a new mall out west. It may be time to let Summit Mall bygones be bygones. But eternal vigilance and all that.

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