For recovering Cary mall, a new social purpose

Waverly Place attracts thousands with concerts, social space

akenney@newsobserver.comJuly 22, 2012 

  • WANT TO GO? Waverly Place’s last summer concert starts at 6 p.m. July 25. The center is at the intersection of Tryon Road and Kildaire Farm Road. http://www.waverlycary.com

— Four years ago, Waverly Place was ready for the wrecking balls.

Only three businesses operated among the dozens of vacant storefronts, the rest driven off by a developer’s plan to demolish the south Cary shopping center.

Last week, nearly a thousand people jammed the mall’s plaza, leaning over balconies and dancing on a crowded green lawn, Whole Foods beer cups in hand. On stage, surrounded by a moat and torches, a cover band cycled through a mix of Charlie Daniels and the Black Eyed Peas.

This 25-year-old shopping center has found its suburban groove.

For years, the common thought was, “Oh, Waverly’s a failed center,” said Jenn Olevitch, director of leasing for RP Realty Partners, the center’s new owner. Now it may be a prototype of developers’ continuing push to turn strip malls and shopping plazas into social venues.

When Olevitch and her colleagues arrived in 2008, they found a place that was, many people agree, ugly and inaccessible. The previous owner had planned to remedy those weaknesses with a $180 million remake, including 200 homes and a hotel – but the economic downturn stopped the project cold.

By then, the place was a ghost town.

“It was unattractive,” said Barbara Sellick, a middle-aged woman from Cary, as she watched a cover band from the outdoor mall’s second deck.

“What was here?” she asked her friends. No one could remember.

The rebooted Waverly Place opened late last year. Structurally, the plaza hadn’t changed much; most of the $15 million renovation by RP Realty was cosmetic, leaving the center’s layout and access roads largely unchanged.

Yet, seven months later, RP Realty has convinced tenants to return. The center is at 50 percent occupancy, and it’s headed to 85 percent occupancy by the end of the year, Olevitch said.

Why? It may be the mall’s new focus on what developers like to call “lifestyle,” much like Raleigh’s North Hills outdoor mall or the future plans for Morrisville’s Park West Village.

Waverly’s grassy promenade, playground equipment, fire pit and rainbow-lit moat are what academics call a “third space.” This new breed of commerce, in other words, provides the communal grounds that a downtown once did.

“It’s comfortable,” said Sandy Wilson, a Cary resident. “I look forward to it.”

People’s reasons for coming to Waverly are almost entirely social. The Wind Down Wednesdays Concert series has drawn up to 3,000 people per night since it began in May. Families might come to Waverly Place for a farmers’ market on Saturday, or they might wait 40 minutes on Friday night for a seat at Enrigo Italian Bistro, a well-reviewed independent restaurant.

All but three of the 14 current tenants sell meals or massages instead of commodity goods.

“What they’re trying to do is make it more of a destination, more entertainment,” said Shane Bull, a Raleigh commercial real-estate broker.

Judging from the Wednesday night crowd, that’s an idea that has strong pull with high school students, young parents, empty nesters and older folks who fill Cary’s subdivisions. Twenty-somethings were a rare presence – downtown Raleigh this is not – but for the rest, the appeal was simple.

Zach Simpkins, 18, put it this way: “It’s kind of hip, kind of chill, not so much crazy fun.”

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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