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Features - May 2005

St. Johns Town Center

$72 million shopping center features unique mix of retailers

By Scott Judy

The $72 million St. Johns Town Center in Jacksonville is not just another shopping center. It could be the future of retail.

The complex debuted March 18. If it proves as successful as its developers expect, it could serve as a model for other projects.

In fact, St. Johns Town Center may be the epitome of a trend that has been growing - the combination of open-air "lifestyle" centers featuring retailers historically associated with upscale malls, and "community centers" with their big-box retailers.

The scope of St. Johns Town Center appears to set it apart.

Featuring such big-box stores as Target, JoAnn Fabrics, Ross Dress for Less, Old Navy and Ashley Furniture on one end, it blends into an upscale, open-air setting with stores such as Dillard's, Dick's Sporting Goods, Apple, Sephora, Victoria's Secret, Williams-Sonoma, the Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's.

But that's not all. Directly behind one side of the mall, just a minute's walk away, is a 400-unit apartment complex. Nearby, a 100-unit hotel is being erected. Around the site's perimeter, there are 18 parcels for stand-alone restaurants and shops.

Across the street, on the other side of the big-box center, a grocery-anchored strip center is planned. At the other end, plans call for a 500,000 sq.-ft. upscale expansion featuring luxury retailers.

Phase 1 - Let's Go

Developers Simon Property Group of Indianapolis and Ben Carter Properties of Atlanta had been working on various visions of this project for several years, but the impact from the Sept. 11 attacks on the nation's retailing activity put the project on hold. It wasn't until a couple of years later that the current plan emerged.

The developers had been working with Hardin Construction on preconstruction. The Atlanta-based contractor had worked with one or both of the same developers on its recent Columbus Park Crossing project in Columbus, Ga., the Mall of Georgia in Buford and Seminole Town Center in Sanford, Fla.

Jim Woodcox, partner and executive vice president with Ben Carter Properties, said when it was time to move forward, it was full spead ahead.

"When everybody got back on board, it was, 'Let's get it done,'" he said.

Site work began in late 2003, and vertical building construction began in early 2004, with a March 2005 deadline set. "We were shooting for the spring season," Woodcox said.

Project scope included sitework, building a new road, pulling power to the site and building more than 100 stores and restaurants.

Mike Stevens, senior project superintendent for Hardin and a veteran of numerous retail projects, said about the schedule: "Just like with other retail centers, it's pretty much a major fire drill all the time. There are changes daily, hourly, that you have to deal with. You have to adapt."

Construction started with the community center portion at the northern end and then moved into the lifestyle center.

For the community center, Hardin constructed the shells, closed in the space and built the exteriors. The company served as the general contractor for the interior finishes on Ross, PetsMart, JoAnn Fabric, DSW and Staples. Target, Dillard's, Dick's and Ashley Furniture had their own general contractors, handled separately from Hardin's contract.

For the higher-end lifestyle center, the contractor oversaw construction of the shell, and then individual tenants completed their stores.

To manage all of this, Hardin divided the core of the project in two and hired a separate team of subcontractors for each segment.

"It took a tremendous amount of coordination," said Marc Munago, Hardin's senior project manager. At its peak, an estimated 1,500 construction workers were onsite. Also, more than 100 companies were involved with the design or construction.

Munago said the company split the job in two partly to facilitate subcontractors' ability to staff the jobs adequately, and to accommodate the two different architects.

"We split it up to make sure we limited our risk and to not overload one sub," he said.

Adding to the task was the fact that little of the work was repetitive, or typical.

"There's right at 1 million sq. ft. of retail and there's not one square inch that is typical," Woodcox said. "It's a different detail every linear foot. Unlike a more generic shopping center or mall, there was nothing that was the same anywhere on the property."

And those were just the expected hurdles. The unexpected ones included four hurricanes, as well as major price and availability issues with steel and concrete.

Building It

The materials issues were real and potentially deadly to the schedule. Ultimately, both items added to the project's cost, but an impact to the schedule was avoided.

For example, most of the 1-million-sq.-ft. development is built of concrete masonry units, an item that was in scarce supply last year. Masonry subs Allan Spear Construction of Gainesville and R.D. Masonry of Jacksonville purchased block as soon as they were hired and delivered it to the site right away - well before it was actually needed.

"It never slowed us down," Munago said.

The hurricanes were another story.

"We had to prepare for every one of them," Munago said. "We had to lock down everything." While the area didn't receive extensive damage, the impact to production was significant.

"We probably lost 200 or 300 people for a week for every hurricane," said Stevens. "But we continued and just worked around the people who weren't here."

The style of the development takes its cues from communities in the region, Woodcox added.

"The project was designed with a clear understanding of where we were geographically," he said, indicating that the styles of Savannah, Ga., Jacksonville and St. Augustine were inspirations.

"We were trying to respond back to the community and what the community's tastes and sense of aesthetics were," he said. "We've got more of a Savannah style on the north side, which is more of a colonial or federal style. The middle of the property is really looking to downtown Jacksonville for its inspiration and is more of an eclectic mix. On the south side, it turns into a Spanish/Mediterranean influence that you find in St. Augustine."

Meanwhile, Hardin's Stevens summed up the project.

"I'm very proud of what we've done and the timeframe we've done it in," he said. "It's been rewarding to see it all come together."

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