CARY — 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 developers plan to demolish the south Cary shopping center.
Last week, nearly a thousand people jammed the malls 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, Waverlys a failed center, said Jenn Olevitch, director of leasing for RP Realty Partners, the centers 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 malls second deck.
What was here? she asked her friends. No one could remember.
The rebooted Waverly Place opened late last year. Structurally, the plaza hadnt changed much; most of the $15 million renovation by RP Realty was cosmetic, leaving the centers 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 its headed to 85 percent occupancy by the end of the year, Olevitch said.
Why? It may be the malls new focus on what developers like to call lifestyle, much like Raleighs North Hills outdoor mall or the future plans for Morrisvilles Park West Village.
Waverlys 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.
Its comfortable, said Sandy Wilson, a Cary resident. I look forward to it.
Peoples 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 theyre 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, thats an idea that has strong pull with high school students, young parents, empty nesters and older folks who fill Carys 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: Its kind of hip, kind of chill, not so much crazy fun.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary