Chapel Hill mall’s new owners to turn storefronts inside out. Will it help business?

The years-long evolution of University Place on Estes Drive is picking up again, and the new owners hope approved changes will give the public more reasons to hang out.

The latest plan to modernize the aging mall, which got a town advisory board’s approval last week, will add outdoor entrances to two retail spaces next to the Bartaco restaurant, said Brian Ficker, with BB+M Architecture in Charlotte.

Ficker represented Ram Real Estate, the new mall owner, at the Community Design Commission’s April 23 meeting. Ram Real Estate paid former owner Madison Marquette $51.6 million for the 40-acre mall and several standalone buildings in December.

The renovation will create a “memorable entry” and two new storefronts with outdoor, covered seating to encourage more people to use the plaza, Ficker said. The corner now is a plain, utilitarian side entrance to the mall’s restrooms and offices.

The renovation also will combine The Frame and Print Shop space with a larger, adjacent storefront. The print shop will move into a larger storefront on the other side of the FRANK Gallery this summer.

University Place 2019.jpg
Ram Real Estate is planning a new look for several exterior entrances at University Place mall in Chapel Hill. The architectural updates are aimed at creating a more consistent appearance with the exterior of nearby Silverspot Cinema and the Bartaco restaurant. It will preserve the public plaza (at center). BB+M Architecture Contributed

The move will be “an opportunity for us to design the space exactly how we want it and design a layout that works for us,” said Scott Higgins, a Frame and Print Shop manager. Silverspot Cinema and the new restaurants have been good for business, he said, and he hopes the mall’s new owners will continue holding public events and performances inside the mall.

The renovation plan also will upgrade the exterior of four storefronts near the mall’s main entrance, including Fine Feathers, William Travis Jewelry and Red Bowl. The new look will be “more harmonious” with Silverspot Cinema and surrounding stores, Ficker said.

“The retail landscape has been changing for the last 20 years, he said. “This center has certainly taken some tough hits over the years with all the major anchors leaving, but they have begun to adapt and there are users occupying those spaces. They’re being repurposed.”

The town’s commission approved Ram Realty’s plan for the mall with few comments. Chair Volker Mueller said the changes will “makes it a pleasure to look at.”

“I really like that you turned it inside out and opened it up,” he said. “I think that’s a great move. I really appreciate that and hope it will work out in the intended way.”

University Place 2019-3.jpg
Ram Real Estate bought Chapel Hill’s University Place mall in December 2018 with plans to continue renovations started by the former owner. The next phase will add exterior entrances to several mall storefronts, including the vacant space shown in this artist’s rendering, Fine Feathers, William Travis Jewelry and Red Bowl restaurant. BB+M Architecture Contributed

Ram Realty officials told the Herald-Sun in January that the plan this year is to create more exterior-facing storefronts, outside spaces and new tenants. A restaurant plan posted on the Ram Realty leasing site shows at least five potential restaurant spaces are planned on the end anchored by Silverspot Cinema.

Ashley Saulpaugh, with Ram Realty Advisors, said more of the mall’s restaurants and retail spaces in the future could be converted to exterior-facing storefronts. They will consider alternative uses for the interior spaces that remain, he said.

Exterior entrances do “cut down on the mall traffic. Obviously, that’s a negative for the tenants that are in there, but long term, the nature of a local, quasi-regional mall that can’t really compete with Southpoint,” Saulpaugh said. “They’re kind of going by the wayside, so we think that the long-term success of the property is really going to be converting much of what we can to exterior facing to make a more walkable, enjoyable property.”

Future buildings in the parking lot, along with offices, lodging and apartments, are possible, he said.

Apartments, Elliott Square

Ram Realty already has two nearby projects underway, including the 272-unit Fordham Apartments on South Elliott Road and the renovation of Elliott Square, a strip shopping center beside the apartments.

Elliott Square has changed a lot since the town created the Blue Hill District in 2014. Projects in the district are developed according to a form-based code that governs how buildings should be sited, constructed and relate to their surroundings.

Berkshire Chapel Hill, a seven-story apartment and retail building that towers over the single-story Elliott Square, was the first form-based code project.

Elliott Square business owners have said the Berkshire construction hurt customer traffic, causing some businesses to close or move, including The Children’s Store, which closed in 2017, and Monterrey Mexican Restaurant, which moved last year to Ram’s Plaza, another shopping center in the Blue Hill District. Thimble Pleasures, a popular quilting store, also closed.

The shopping center has new tenants, including Haw River Grill and Burn Boot Camp. Other planned openings include Noire Nail Bar, Trek Bikes and goPuff, a convenience delivery service.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.