Inside the plans to jump-start RTP’s Park Center

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By Ben Graham  – Staff Writer, Triangle Business Journal

The future Park Center site in Research Triangle Park is crisscrossed with crumbling roads and empty parking lots.

The 43-acre property has just two tenants at the moment — small branches of Wells Fargo and Bank of America. Bushes grow tall around several abandoned buildings, while more than 200,000 vehicles zoom by daily on Interstate 40 just to the north and neighboring streets.

To Tom Sebastian and his development firm, Willard Retail, the property has all the hallmarks of a retail redevelopment opportunity that could create a new urban destination in an area currently bereft of places to shop or eat.

Sebastian recently listed the favorable metrics while seated in the front lobby of the Wells Fargo building, the only place on the property to host a reporter. More than 50,000 high-tech employees work in the park, while 155,000 workers sit at cubicles within a 10-minute drive of the site. “And where do all these people eat lunch and dinner? That’s an opportunity,” Sebastian said.

Willard Retail has struck a deal to buy 12 acres on the site and build a 150,000-square-foot retail complex, a project that is supposed to jump-start hotel, office and residential development on surrounding parcels. It’s the kind of opportunity that looks familiar to Willard Retail.

The company, a spinoff of JBG Rosenfield Retail, now just JBG Cos., last completed a sprawling, upscale shopping complex in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, known now as the King of Prussia Town Center.

Similar to RTP, the area had a plethora of residents and high-paying jobs, but no place to take a lunch break or grab a beer after work.

The new shopping complex changed that, building a number of retail spaces, breweries and a Wegmans grocery store centered around a communal lawn, where concerts and movie showings could be hosted. Within 18 months of the project’s completion, more than 2,000 apartments were under construction next door, Sebastian says.

Board members from the Research Triangle Foundation, the organization that oversees development at RTP, visited King of Prussia Town Center several times in recent years and were ultimately sold on Willard Retail’s success.

“They have transformed perceptions of markets where they’ve done retail development,” says Scott Levitan, CEO of RTF.

That is what Willard Retail is hoping to do with the first phase of Park Center. The project has long been viewed as critical to ushering in the next phase of RTP by creating a place that would provide workers with shops to eat lunch or hang out after 5 p.m.

Kicking off development at the site has stalled for years, but Willard Retail is now poised to initiate that process. Plans for the site show a grocery store fronting Davis Drive, next to another retail anchor, likely a health club. No tenants have been signed just yet; those deals are expected to be inked in the coming months. “Everybody would love to have a Whole Foods, but we’re talking to everybody,” Sebastian said.

One possible tenant could be City Works, a bar and restaurant that offers close 100 beers on tap. The taproom has a location at King of Prussia and was popular among RTF board members during their visits, Sebastian says.

The larger goal is to create the kind of upscale shopping district you might see in a major city, altered slightly for a suburban setting. “It’s not about convenience or surface parking,” Sebastian says. “It’s about creating an environment where people want to hang out.”

The hope is that residential and hotel development would follow the retail project. Levitan says RTF is already in talks with an apartment developer interested in building 450 units.

As Willard Retail delves further into the development process, Sebastian says some of the development firms his company has worked with in the past have shown interest as well. The larger buildout could include more than 1,000 residential units, a hotel, conference center and more than 1 million square feet of office space.

The project team includes partners Willard Retail has worked with in the past, such as Brown Craig Turner, an architectural firm from Baltimore.

Sebastian says his firm was drawn to the project because of the demographic numbers and the apparent need for retail. The company responded to a request for proposals released nearly two years ago. News that Apple has been working on a deal to build a new hub in RTP didn’t factor into the firm’s decision, Sebastian says, but development of the hub, if it happens, certainly couldn’t hurt.

RTF has been charging ahead with a scheme to build a 15,000-square-foot retail complex out of shipping containers, providing space for local upstarts to sell their wares or provide food and beverage services to hungry RTP workers. Levitan says the plan is to deliver the project in 2020.


Article Source: Triangle Business Journal