After decades of prominence in the retail shopping world, by 2007 Randhurst Shopping Center was tired. Its anchor stores were deserting it; it was no longer a place to take a date or spend an evening with the family, or entertain guests from out of town.
Now, nearly three years after demolition of the suburbs' first mall began, construction of the new Randhurst Village is about 85 percent complete -- and about 80 percent occupied. The shopping center has been transformed, from an inward-looking mall into an edgy lifestyle center, where every store has a front window and developers are confident that the mix of restaurants, movie screens, retailers, services, offices and hotel will keep people satisfied.
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When Randhurst first opened in 1962, carved from a farm at Rand and Elmhurst roads in Mount Prospect, it announced that the Northwest suburbs had arrived, said Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Mount Prospect Historical Society and author of "Randhurst: Suburban Chicago's Grandest Shopping Center."
Peerbolte emphasized the importance of the mall in the development of the suburbs. "Randhurst didn't open the floodgates; Randhurst was the floodgate," he said.
It was the largest air-conditioned mall of its time, and it sported stores that new suburbanites moving from the city were comfortable with: The Fair; Wieboldt's; Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co.
But after decades of riding high, Randhurst's popularity began to wane. Other, bigger malls were built; major anchor stores like Montgomery Ward and Wieboldt's went bankrupt.
By 2007, the village of Mount Prospect felt something drastic had to be done. Randhurst had already had several "makeovers," and the village's leadership felt another one would be ineffective. Officials worried for their sales tax receipts, which are key to having the money to run the village's public services.
The village partnered with Casto Development and took a bold shot -- tear it down, and start over.
The redevelopment was approved in 2008, before the economy severely soured. Once the recession hit, Casto made some changes to the plan -- eliminated a residential portion, added the hotel -- but decided there was still enough of an established market to make it viable, said Brian Simmons, Mount Prospect's deputy director of community development.
The economy aside, a large-scale redevelopment is a risk at any time, said Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillan Doolittle LLP, a Chicago-based retail consulting firm. But, he added, Randhurst Village may be in a good position.
"It's good timing from the perspective that things will eventually improve," Stern said. "You have to hope the economy is going to recover about the same time you're ready to be open."
In 2010, retail sales in Mount Prospect totaled $1.39 billion, up from $905.5 million in 2009, said John Melaniphy, president of Melaniphy & Associates, a Chicago-based retail research firm. Much of the revenue was still coming from Randhurst because several stores, including Carson's, Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond and Jewel, remained open.
With that in mind, Melaniphy said, the retail climate in Mount Prospect is looking pretty good. Which is good news, because Simmons says Randhurst is by far the village's most important economic engine.
"It attracts visitors from outside the community. ... It has a greater pull than your smaller retail shops downtown or in strip centers," he said.
Both Stern and Melaniphy said that regardless of the economy, the outcome of Randhurst -- like any regional shopping center -- will depend on the quality and differentiation of tenants. They cite Deer Park Town Center as an example of success.
"The key is getting the right mix of tenants to drive traffic," Stern said. "The (lifestyle centers) that have struggled are the ones with not enough draws."
Large sporting goods stores, movie theaters, bookstores and restaurants are key, he says.
Melaniphy said upscale specialty stores, like Ann Taylor, J. Jill, Banana Republic and J. Crew, contribute to Deer Park's success. But those stores are already at Woodfield, he pointed out, too close for them to also come to Randhurst.
James Conroy, Casto Development's director of development for Randhurst Village, thinks there's less direct competition between Randhurst and Woodfield. Woodfield's proximity will limit which retail stores sign on, but he doesn't expect Woodfield to have a significant impact on the site's success altogether.
"We think people around (Randhurst) are not going (to Woodfield) on a frequent basis," he said. "This gives them another shopping opportunity that's more in their backyard."
At this point, Conroy said, Randhurst has the key components to keep people around longer -- people who come to shop may decide to eat or take in a movie, and vice versa. In the last five months, as several large stores and restaurants have opened, the public response has been even better than anticipated, he said. "It's working just like we planned. ... (The businesses) are complementing each other and helping each other be more successful," Conroy said.
Since opening in late June, Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza, a Florida-based franchise, is doing tremendous business, said Erin Morgan, franchise owner. The restaurant has no fryers, freezers or microwaves -- only a coal oven that cooks a pizza in four minutes flat.
Morgan said he likes the interdependency of lifestyle centers and how restaurants and stores work together to draw visitors. Being across from the new AMC helps bring customers into his restaurant, who stop before or after movies, he said.
AMC representatives would not release information on ticket sales, but Ryan Noonan, director of public relations, said the theater has been well-received. AMC put its latest technology into this theater -- oversized chairs and box seating, and an ETX auditorium, which has a wall-to-wall screen and seat-rattling sound.
Even the concessions are new, allowing customers to make selections and check out, including wine and beer from a theater bar, and a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, which offers 106 possible flavors of Coke.
Conroy, who grew up in Arlington Heights, was 5 years old when Randhurst first opened and fondly remembers playing on its sculptured seals.
On a recent walk-through, he pointed out where old landmarks, including the carousel, used to be. One of the biggest milestones of the $160 million reconstruction was when the dome of the old mall came down.
"It was a finish line to the old and a starting line to the new," Conroy said.
While restaurants and stores have been opening gradually, Conroy said the development will have two grand openings, one in late fall, before holiday shopping begins, and another next spring.
And he's still keeping a weather eye on the economy.
"If the economy was just cruising along like it had been, we would have seen the entire Main Street 100 percent leased," Conroy said.
Knowing whether Randhurst Village's stores are successful in the new configuration will take 18 to 24 months, estimates the analyst Stern.
Whether it proves to be a blueprint for other aging malls will be less clear.
Melaniphy said the approach is only one alternative among several for other malls to try.
Other older malls have tried to use their existing infrastructure in new ways, Stern added, something Randhurst itself tried several times before turning to the lifestyle center model.
To rip out so much of what was there before and start again is a relatively unique approach, but the fact that Randhurst was losing all its anchors was the source of desperation that triggered the radical move, he said.