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Commercial Real Estate

For this Mall Site in Plano, the Key to Revitalization is Subtraction Before Addition 

Dallas-based Centennial aims to transform the Shops at Willow Bend into The Bend, a mixed-use destination featuring office, retail, multifamily residential, and a boutique hotel.
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Rendering courtesy of Centennial

On a Saturday afternoon in May, the voices of Taylor Swift and Post Malone ricochet off of tiled walkways and glass storefronts—some empty, some not—at Plano’s 23-year-old mall.  

Within the first-floor space of what used to be a Crabtree & Evelyn sits the Willow Bend Community Room. Where there were once storefront displays for lotions and shower gels, there are now a series of easels presenting renderings for the future and a poster declaring “Retail: Yesterday vs. Today.”

The poster compares features of yesterday’s suburban mall with the mixed-use destination of the future. The mall of yesteryear has three to five anchors, is shopping focused, and comprises a retail GLA (gross leasable area) of somewhere between 1 million and 1.4 million square feet. Not so with the mixed-use destination of tomorrow, which features activated outdoor gathering spaces, placemaking, entertainment, multifamily housing, hospitality, and a retail GLA of just 300,000 to 600,000 square feet.

If the mixed-use finale is the butterfly, and the mall of yesteryear is the caterpillar, the Shops at Willow Bend is somewhere in its cocoon stage.   

When The Shops at Willow Bend opened in 2001, it was the last enclosed mall built in Texas and was about 70 percent leased. Neiman Marcus, Dillard’s, Macy’s, and Lord & Taylor headlined the mall’s shopping offerings; a year after, nearby Stonebriar Centre opened its doors in Frisco. By 2003, several retailers closed and filed lawsuits over a lack of customer traffic. A Saks Fifth Avenue opened a year later than anticipated, but the mall struggled to attract shoppers and the store eventually closed its doors in 2010. Crate & Barrel opened its doors a year later. 

In 2014, Chicago-based Starwood Retail Partners purchased Willow Bend and a slate of other malls for $1.4 billion. By 2015, Starwood shared $100 million plans for a redevelopment designed to “re-energize” the site. That included plans for office and hotel uses, as well as an open-air plaza and eight restaurant tenants (the site now includes The District, featuring Knife Steakhouse, Mexican Bar Co., Terra Mediterranean, and Whistle Britches). 

By 2020, Starwood was delinquent on its loan backed by the mall, and construction on a movie theater stalled. Lenders took over, and New York-based Spinoso Real Estate Group began operating the mall in 2021. By 2022, however, the mall was well under 70 percent leased, according to the Dallas Morning News‘ reporting.

Dallas-based real estate company Centennial purchased the mall with investors in 2022. Centennial’s portfolio includes a slate of redevelopment projects across the country including Illinois, Alabama, California, and Connecticut.

In February, Plano’s city council green-lit Centennial’s plans for redevelopment at the site, which include tearing down 500,000 square feet of mall structure to make way for a mixed-use overhaul. That includes adding 965 apartments, an 18-story hotel, and a seven-story office building. Plans are to keep about 400,000 square feet of the mall. The Dillard’s, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Crate & Barrel, and Equinox are all safe; the restaurant area dubbed The District and three large parking structures are also in the new blueprints. 

The renderings featured on easels today paint a picture of The Bend, a mixed-use development that will create a new future for a mall that “probably never really found its footing,” according to Michael Platt, executive vice president of mixed-use development for Centennial. 

“It did okay, it didn’t do great,” Platt said. Centennial’s vision is to take what is currently working for Willow Bend and layer in new components that will build its future.   

So What is Working? 

Platt highlights the cadre of powerful tenant names that Willow Bend has collected through its 23-year life span: there’s the chef-driven restaurants, Equinox Fitness Club, Crate & Barrel, the Crayola Experience, and Neimans. As Platt put it, the future is about building on those key tenants. “And there are several others,” he added. “We’ve got some great national brands, we’ve got a theater we’re looking to reposition. We’ve got tremendous real estate. I think there’s no doubt that quite frankly, this real estate gets better by the day as the growth in the Dallas market expands north.”  

Plans for the office building include incorporating retail on the ground floor. Platt noted that dynamics surrounding office use have morphed since the pandemic. “What we’re finding is that highly amenitized, very integrated environment really works,” Platt said. “And that’s true of retail, as well. I think where the mall kind of got off the right path was when it became these sort of super regional shopping centers or the really what I call ‘pure play retail node,’ and you really kind of came to the mall for the express purpose of enjoying the kind of shopping environment that’s there. And again, it works in many places around the country. But it doesn’t work in as many as it did at one point in time.” 

It’s the same for office uses, Platt said, where driving to a suburban office building in a sea of parking without synergistic amenities is challenging in today’s environment. 

“What we are building here is that highly amenitized, integrated, walkable community that we believe will serve the retail customer, serve the office customer serve the residential customer, and really kind of make all those asset classes stronger, because of the synergies of the sort of aligned asset classes that we place around them,” Platt said.   

While various reports and city documents shared plans for an 18-story hotel, Platt said the figure is up in the air. The vision for the hospitality product is a boutique hotel that provides an elevated experience and leverages the amenities around the campus.  

The new vision didn’t come without an entreaty from one Plano City Council member who noted previous efforts at helping the site. “You need to make this work. We don’t want to go through this and have this be the third time, the third failure. We want this, I want this to succeed,” council member Rick Smith said at the February city council meeting. 

For Platt, the vision for The Bend includes the necessary step of right-sizing the retail, which he said has not been prioritized in the past. “This mall today is about 1.5 million square feet of retail-specific GLA, and that is just quite simply too much in today’s environment.”

While adding a restaurant district, a Crate & Barrel, and a luxury fitness club was great, Platt said, they were mostly just additive. “I think what Centennial is willing to do is really right-size and recognize the need to subtract before we can continue to add and just take that retail that’s there,” he said. “Instead of working around the edges, really get to the heart of the asset, right-size it, get it to a level that’s sustainable for today’s market, and then layer in these uses that will keep it sustainable and actually help it grow in a healthy and long term fashion.”

And current tenants are welcoming the plans, which are set to create a lively environment that’s more synergistic with their businesses. “They want it tomorrow,” Platt said. “Actually, they want it yesterday.” 

But that does require the aforementioned era of subtraction. Platt noted that the company has intentionally not renewed some leases as it looks to right-size the retail. “In some ways things get a little bit worse before they get a whole lot better,” Platt said. “And unfortunately, we’re in that ‘little bit worse’ phase of things, but it will allow us to move more quickly and more effectively as we look to reposition this asset.” 

Platt said the hope is to have shovels in the ground about a year from now to kick off what will be a multi-phase project. Phase one will likely include the hotel and parts of the residential development, as well as the beginning of a demolition phase that will free up space for phase two and beyond. 

For the land at West Park Boulevard and the Dallas North Tollway, the ingredients are all there: there’s visibility, there’s location, and there’s access. As Platt put it, the goal is now to create an environment that will add more to the recipe: authenticity, scale and vibrance. “I believe that’s what we will achieve here at Willowbend, is really that mixed use environment,” Platt said. “And I think that will resonate with our retailers, our consumers, our residents, our office workers, and kind of all the way through the different asset classes, and everyone will recognize it, that’s really what’s going to be most compelling about this site.”  

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Audrey Henvey

Audrey Henvey

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