If you’ve driven by Loehmann’s Plaza on Hillandale Road recently, you could be forgiven for getting the impression that everything in the area is thriving but for the shopping center.
The plaza is just north of two hotels and a bustling gas station. Interstate 85, which carries 85,000 automobiles per day, lies to the south of the hotels. Croasdaile Country Club and a neighborhood full of high-end homes sits to the west. Hillandale Road, which is used by 18,000 cars daily, is in the middle of a widening project, scheduled to be completed in June 2012. And right across the street, just beyond two Department of Veterans Affairs medical clinics, a large new apartment development is under construction.
Then there’s the plaza itself, which lost its namesake tenant years ago. That’s not the only thing missing; while the south end of the plaza is relatively full, many of the stores on the north side are empty. (Kerr Drug is a notable exception.) Although a medical building with multiple Duke clinics sits immediately north of the plaza, an independent clinic once located on that end of the shopping center moved out long ago.
That high vacancy rate, coupled with a general air of neglect, has left some of the remaining businesses struggling to maintain their cash flow, according to recent interviews with owners and managers.
“Definitely we need a change, and we need the people to come this way,” said Angelika Papanikas, who owns Papas Grille and the neighboring Front Street Cafe with her husband.
“We look so empty,” complained Papanikas, whose restaurant opened in Loehmann’s Plaza 17 years ago.
“It’s not ideal,” agreed Andre Chabaneix, the owner of Meelo Restaurant, who unlike other plaza tenants interviewed said his nearly three-year-old eatery has been growing at a modest but steady clip. “The location is great. It’s a pity that it’s in this situation.”
Rafael Llamas owns El Corral, a Mexican restaurant in the shopping center that he’s owned for 11 years. Business was good for a while but slowed dramatically around three years ago as the center began to clear out.
“I think the only thing that’s keeping me alive here and in business is the local people here,” Llamas said, referring to nearby residents. “Because I’ve been in business so long, they keep coming back for dinner.”
The plaza’s proximity to heavily trafficked I-85, an asset many restaurateurs might crave, can’t compensate for its down-at-heels look, El Corral’s owner said: “New people, when they see the shopping center the way it is, they just go away.”
And Llamas fears that the road widening will drive more people away. “With this construction here on Hillandale, I imagine it’s going to hurt even more,” he said.
Stephen Vinson is a principal at Glenwood Hillandale Co., which owns Loehmann’s Plaza. It’s affiliated with Huntersville-based Glenwood Development Co., which owns and manages several retail complexes in the Tar Heel State as well as a handful in Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee and New York.
Vinson agrees with tenants who complain that the plaza’s vacancy rate is less than ideal.
“It’s obviously had an effect on us,” he said. “We’re in the business of leasing space. But much as I hate to say it, the vacancies there are on purpose.”
That’s because Glenwood spent a few years working on — and securing permits for — a radical redevelopment of the shopping center that would have involved razing and rebuilding virtually the entire structure. The landlord stopped renewing leases so it would be able to start demolition as soon as possible.
But the plans hinged on attracting a new anchor tenant. And they effectively died when upscale grocer Harris Teeter, the business Glenwood was hoping to sign, walked away from the deal.
“I’m sure there is some frustration,” Vinson said. “Frankly, we would love to have already completed the redevelopment as well, but I think as this point everybody understands that we’re working as hard as we can to move the project forward and turn it into something that’s a success for us and for our tenants.”
Like other Loehmann’s Plaza tenants, an official with Kerr Drug is eager to see some form of redevelopment proceed.
“Obviously, it can’t be soon enough for us,” said Diane Eliezer, marketing director for the Raleigh-based chain.
Eliezer acknowledged that business at the store has suffered in recent years. But the chain intends to remain in Loehmann’s Plaza for the long haul, even if it needs to shift to another spot in the center.
“We’re interested in staying there because we’ve been there for a long time,” Eliezer said. “We have a very loyal customer base, especially in the pharmacy. We do very well with people there. There’s development around there; the people rely on us being there, and we see great growth in that area, especially if the developer is able to go forward with plans and bring in some new anchor stores, a large anchor store.
“There’s no reason we should leave at this time. There’s still a very good possibility of that turning into a vibrant center again.”
Vinson insists that his company’s commitment to improving the plaza is not just lip service. The factors that led Glenwood to buy the center in 1999, when it paid about $6.7 million to acquire the property from Ticon-Mattie Partnership, are still present.
“It’s proximate to the Croasdaile residential area, which is ... one of the nicer residential areas in Durham,” the principal said. “It’s 1.6 miles north of the Duke University medical center, and I’m sure you’re familiar with all the growth and the good things that are happening in Duke. It’s in a part of Durham that in our view is underserved in some respects, particularly in the way of nice community retail. And frankly there are just substantial barriers to entry; it’s not a market where large sites that are conducive to new development are easily found.”
Although Vinson wouldn’t name any potential new tenants, most of the current tenants Bull City Rising interviewed seemed to think Glenwood might be close to bringing a Duke medical clinic in as the center’s new anchor.
However, Doug Stokke, Duke Medicine’s associate vice president for new and communications, sent Bull City Rising an e-mail message denying that Duke has any current plans related to Loehmann’s Plaza.
A BB&T employee confirmed that, as rumored, the bank intends to move its Croasdaile branch across the street and into the plaza, which already has a stand-alone BB&T automatic teller. (A SunTrust branch sits on a corner of the shopping center, but its land doesn’t belong to Glenwood Hillandale.)
The employee declined to discuss details of the planned move. But it seems unlikely that simply adding a bank branch would spearhead the shopping center’s revival.
Whatever happens, Glenwood won’t carry out the renewal plan that was approved last year.
“I think it would be a combination of demolition and rebuilding along with the refurbishment of the existing building,” Vinson said of his redevelopment expectations.
Glenwood has also considered rebranding the plaza, possibly with the Croasdaile name.
Once again, however, the way forward on these fronts will be tied to whichever organization ends up anchoring the complex. So for now, current tenants remain in limbo.
“It’s real scary for all of us here,” Papanikas said. “But we keep our hopes that things will happen to the best.”