The Mall at University Town Center in Sarasota County, Fla., may very well be the final regionally enclosed shopping mall built in the U.S. We didn’t know it at the time in 2014, but the retail landscape shifted quite a bit since the opening.
It at least was the first of its kind built from the ground-up in the country since 2008, maybe even 2006 depending on your definition.
The co-developer, Taubman Centers, decided to yank a mall project in Miami and instead do more of an urban center. Other mall developers aren’t exactly ready to build something like this either, instead the premium outlet industry is being favored, where you have open-air shops.
We went all-out covering this. This mall was supposed to be built 10 years prior, in 2005, but the Great Recession put that on hold.
A special page devoted to Mall at UTC coverage was created on the Bradenton Herald’s website. Additionally, a special section was published that I helped plan. That included teaming with our graphic designer to use the mall layout that I obtained from open records and match up with all the permits I identified at the time to show shoppers were all the stores would be. (The paper’s servers have moved, so right now you’re left with the JPEGS on this post and the Internet Archive version.)
Here is the main story from the special section, which covers the history of the mall’s development. I co-authored this with fellow business reporter Matt Johnson, who helped with the architecture reporting.
In Mall at University Town Center, dinosaur fossil walls and sophisticated skylight
UNIVERSITY PARK — How do you build a shopping mall in 731 days?
You take no chances.
The 880,000-square-foot Mall at University Town Center is the sum of its many parts: From the outset, its designers and builders have been dealing with big equations since the Oct. 15, 2012, groundbreaking.
DCK World Wide, the Pittsburgh-based general contractor, dozens of subcontractors and hundreds of carpenters, metal workers and other tradespeople were charged with assembling a virtual mountain of steel, aluminum, glass, concrete and stone into what its owner, Taubman Centers, is touting as one of the most technologically advanced shopping centers in the world.
The mall’s construction schedule, which essentially ends on the Oct. 16 opening day, has been rigid since the beginning. What that has meant to the construction team is that lead times on material deliveries, construction methods and the subcontractors scheduling had to be just as rigid.
That has been a tall order, especially since some of the mall’s features had never been built before, including a high-tech 1,100-foot-long skylight arch that lights the full length of the building’s main concourse.
“We thought it would be straightforward at the beginning,” said Ron Loch, Taubman’s vice president of planning and design.
That skylight is emblematic of the construction project: It required the most technical know-how to design and build into a mall that was already receiving a massive investment in LED lighting, multi-lingual computer visitor kiosks and other technology.
Although similar in shape and function to a skylight installed in Taubman’s Milennia Mall in Orlando in 2002, the structure at UTC is more complex, including mechanical louvers that direct and dapple sunlight, and an array of LED lights that reflect off those louvers at night to light the mall interior in any color light programmers choose.
Overall, 98 percent of the mall is lit by LED, which is a first for Taubman in any project.
Loch’s design team took the time to build a full-scale mockup on the ground before starting on the real deal. Subcontractors tasked with the skylight project practiced all the necessary construction methods on the mockup, building the aluminum frame, installing the high-efficiency glass, and installing louvers.
Loch said taking the extra step was worth it. Actual skylight construction went without a hitch, with the only surprise being a pleasant one.
“The light was softer,” he said.
The final result is a structure that keeps the heat of the day and UV rays out, leaving the mall’s interior comfortable.
Nearly stonewalled by Egypt
Taubman Center hasn’t missed a new mall’s opening date in 20 years. This time, of all things, an uprising halfway around the world put the Mall at UTC’s opening date in some jeopardy.
Designers wanted to use an Egyptian limestone for the mall, but a revolution and a coup d’etat in Egypt during summer 2013 quickly changed that.
“It just happened that we were uncomfortable with delivery dates, and the situation in Egypt made that worse,” said Jeff Boes, Taubman’s director of planning and design.
They didn’t take the time to calculate how long they could wait with the problems in Egypt, and instead went with fossil stone from Israel and Germany.
“The visitor will find the product very warm and attractive,” Boes said. “It is literal fossil stones and you can go up to the wall and see. It’s from the Jurassic period.”
The German stone is used on the exterior lower-wall surface, split with the Israeli stone to creative a rhythm through the mall.
“It’s proven to be a durable choice,” Boes said. “The jura stone from Germany is the same product we used on Mall at Millenia.”
Designers looked at both aesthetic quality and durability when choosing the floor tiling, Loch added.
“We discovered that some of the stone we love to use, French limestone or domestic stone, doesn’t have the hardness or is too porous, so it’s susceptible to staining and wearing,” Loch said.
Permitting a mall
Despite the elaborate plans with skylights and fossils embedded in stones, each of those details came across the desk of Sarasota County Planning and Development Services to give the OK.
In July, Sarasota County reviewed about 75 percent of the plans for interior units, said Greg Yantorno, building official for Sarasota County government. The last 30 days saw a push to finish all the inspections so the stores can open on time.
As of Friday, about 75 stores have certificates of occupancy being reviewed — a document that is needed showing that the store has completed a successful building inspection. The Cheesecake Factory is the only tenant to have its certificate issued — most other stores are close to obtaining their certificates, according to a review of permits.
Yantorno’s staff of 50 is in charge of inspecting every single one of the more than 100 stores, including the massive anchors, and then the mall common areas and offices. Each has its own permit.
Yantorno completed personal walk-throughs several times throughout the project to make sure everything is being addressed. It’s critical the stores receive certificate of occupancy, or at least a temporary one, to get employees inside to stock merchandise and train before the public arrives.
“When you are allowing people not familiar with construction sites in a place such as the mall, I want to make sure all the health, safety and welfare issues are addressed both inside and outside because construction people are familiar with the project and know how to protect themselves,” he said.
Building staff inspects mechanical systems, air conditioning, heating, electrical, plumbing and compliance with Florida building code and national electric code, and that subcontractors and built what was drawn on the plans.
Contractors have done a fantastic job, Yantorno said, crediting Taubman Centers and contractor DCK for communicating with stores, their architects and contractors to be prepared to send certain paperwork and items to speed up the process.
Taubman also came in with charts and graphs early last year, telling building officials how many building permits to expect in May, June and July of this year — some of the busiest months for permit applications for the mall.
“Plans were coming in from all over the country,” Yantorno said.
The bulk of the work at the mall has caused a ripple effect across the county for inspection requests, Yantorno acknowledged. One business owner who needed an inspection for a cell phone store in another part of the county told the Bradenton Herald his inspection was three weeks behind because of the mall work.
“I had concerns in the beginning that the mall was going to put a huge burden on our workload,” Yantorno said. “It’s not to say it hasn’t, but we’ve managed it.”
For Yantorno, the magnitude of this project is not lost on him. The Mall at UTC is the only enclosed mall that was 100 percent new construction to open this year in the country. (A mall that opened in August in Bronx borough of New York, was part of a conversion project.)
“To be part of that and be the building official to issue the certificate of occupancy, it’s not something every building official is able to put on their resume,” he said.