Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Thought Bubble: Cielo Vista Mall Needs Major Upgrade

Cielo Vista Mall on El Paso's east side is the city's largest and most popular shopping destination. With 1.2 million square feet of leasable space, it is considered a Super Regional Mall by the International Council of Shopping Centers. Popular with regional shoppers, it sees millions of shoppers on an annual basis according to Simon Properties, which manages the center.

But with multiple town center developments planned around the city, like Montecillo, Aldea, and El Cruzero, can Cielo Vista Mall remain the most popular shopping center in the coming years? And will the new Fountains at Farah development just across the street dampen the mall's shopping figures? It's probably far too soon to try and answer those questions, but there is something we feel the old mall can do to stay relevant in today's town center climate...

So What's Wrong?

Built in 1974, Cielo Vista Mall was designed in an era when residents were moving out of the city's center and into the suburbs. As such, the mall was developed with the automobile in mind, catering to suburbanites who had no choice but to use their personal vehicles to go shopping. The result was a large central building surrounded by a sea of sun-baked asphalt and concrete parking lots. Little, if any, thought was given to shoppers who may actually travel to the mall by foot or bicycle. Aside from added square footage and an internal renovation in 2005, the mall's footprint has changed very little in nearly 40 years.

Now, projects like Aldea on the west side and El Cruzero on the east side promise brand new, mixed-use, high quality designs in their centers which will create an aesthetically pleasing urban, main street type of feel. These projects are more in line with extremely popular town center developments which have popped up around the country in the last decade as community designs have trended toward New Urbanism. Even suburbanites now crave a more "downtown" type of design in shopping centers located in newer neighborhoods. A sea of parking lots is no longer seen as acceptable in a high quality development.

Idea: Connect the Mall and Movie Theater with a Town Center

Today, if someone shopping in the mall would like to go to the Cinemark Cielo Vista, it usually involves getting into the car in the mall parking lot and driving to the theater parking lot. Even those who try and walk from the mall to the cinema will find a pedestrian unfriendly route. There are zero sidewalks or paths that connect the two, so pedestrians must walk on the street with mall traffic or wind their way between parked vehicles in the parking lot expanse.

The idea: Create a brand new town center shopping area that would connect the theater to the mall. This would help pedestrians navigate through the area as well as add a high quality town center to the mall property. Simon Properties would have much more square footage to lease to retailers and restaurants, and visitors would enjoy a beautiful shopping experience. The theater could become more popular due to the proximity of shops and eateries.

Our concept of what the town center layout could look like (below) contains lots of space for retailers, parking structures, landmarks for terminating vistas, pedestrian-only walkways, and tree-lined lanes with on-street parking. Multi-family housing like condos could also be incorporated into the plan. A new walkway would also lead pedestrians to and from the Walmart area. Parking structures would be largely hidden by the retail buildings.

Our concept of a Town Center area for Cielo Vista Mall.
What About Simon Properties?

So, is this something that the mall's operating company, Simon Properties, would even consider? It is probably more than satisfied with Cielo Vista's performance throughout the decades. Indeed, the mall offers exclusive retailers like Michael Kors, Apple, and Coach, and has never had an issue drawing shoppers.

Yet, Simon was adamantly against the City's incentives package for the developer of the Fountains at Farah, the 600,000 square foot power center that will open on the other side of Hawkins Boulevard in 2013. At City Council meetings during this process, representatives from Simon Properties would often speak before the Council imploring the City to deny the incentives to the Fountains developer.

If Cielo Vista Mall's owner and operator was afraid of nearby competition from a brand new, high quality center, perhaps the idea of transforming Cielo Vista Mall beyond its current form is something Simon has considered.

And Simon Properties is no stranger to creating new, town center type developments. A prime example is The Domain in Austin, a mixed-use development which includes 102 acres of retail space, built and operated by Simon. Clearly a town center type of development, the Austin project actually received $25 million dollars in incentives from that city's Council.

The Domain in Austin, operated by Simon Properties.
Now come the town center developments in other parts of El Paso which promise a much higher quality experience than that of aging Cielo Vista Mall...

Competition Coming Soon

The Fountains at Farah - A 600,000 square foot power center that will include a 1,800 foot long pedestrian-friendly promenade with shops and restaurants lining both sides, along with on-street parking. The grand opening is set for fall of 2013. See more here.

Aldea El Paso - A new 204 acre SmartCode development that will include many urban, town center features, including many shop fronts and mixed-use structures. The project should break ground by May of 2013. See more here and here.

Montecillo - A 288 acre mixed use project adjacent to Aldea. More specifically, a new Entertainment District was recently teased which looks to contain many town center features. The development is already under construction. See more here and here.

El Cruzero - A new 228 acre mixed use development which will contain town center areas. Carmike Cinemas was recently announed as the first tenant. May break ground by the end of the year. See more here and here.

El Pasoans Have Given Lots to Cielo Vista Mall

For 38 years, El Pasoans (and shoppers from Juarez, Las Cruces, etc.) have spent millions and maybe even billions of dollars at Cielo Vista Mall. Retailers there have benefited from this spending, which has allowed Simon Properties to benefit from leasing square footage.

There is no doubt that a shopping trip to Cielo Vista is generally a pleasant experience. There are gobs of retailers to choose from, variety, eateries, climate control, and a true big mall feel, and many shoppers are big fans of the center.

But the time has come for something new and exciting. Perhaps the town center area as we have envisioned it isn't exactly the perfect solution, but Simon Properties has a great deal of parking lot space to work with. The possibilities are extensive, and the time is right for Simon to consider a grand upgrade to Cielo Vista Mall.

Simon Properties website: http://www.simon.com/