By  on October 13, 2008

The Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers, N.Y., is preparing to reawaken after decades of neglect and a cavalcade of retailers that came and went.

A $250 million renovation is intended to restore the original charm of the 54-year-old center’s outdoor setting and draw a higher tier of retailing.

Among the first open-air shopping centers in the U.S., Cross County, is a short commute north of Manhattan and adjacent to The Bronx. It once was the site of Gimbel’s, John Wanamaker, Woolworth’s and an iconic Horn & Hardart restaurant — all nameplates that have disappeared. Macy’s, Sears, Super Stop & Shop, National Amusement Multiplex Theatre and Old Navy are the current anchors, and there are about 90 specialty stores.

Phase one of the redevelopment is under way, but the shopping center’s lawns are patchy, the walkways are cracked, and the widespread construction is casting a shadow on commerce.

However, on a recent tour of the center, John Genovese, executive vice president of development for Macerich, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based real estate investment trust doing the renovation, articulated the vision for the future, which is just as much a return to Cross County’s rich past.

“See all this asphalt,” he said. “It will be gone and replaced by great landscaping, trees, flowers, fountains, play areas for children and places for people to sit. It will be an almost parklike setting.”

Restaurants and outdoor cafes are also envisioned.

“We are building upon the original vision,” Genovese said.

Located at Cross County Parkway and New York State Thruway (Interstate 87), the center has 960,773 square feet for retailing and 60,200 square feet for offices. As much as 245,375 square feet of additional space is planned to attract new specialty stores and restaurants and broaden the center’s appeal. Final approvals for the expansion are being sought.

Cross County is now predominately moderate with tenants such as The Gap, Radio Shack, Florsheim Shoes, Claire’s and Boston Market. However, Guess and Charlotte Russe are moving in and The Body Shop, Aéropostale and Bath & Body Works recently arrived. Coach has been contacted.

The largely blue-collar clientele gravitates to the lower-priced businesses. However, Macerich and the mall’s consortium of owners believe their clientele has a taste for an elevated offering, as well, regardless of the current economic downturn.

The center generates sales of almost $600 a square foot, which could go higher after the transformation. Underscoring the potential: Macy’s is renovating its store and expanding it by 75,000 square feet. In addition, $10 million is being spent for infrastructure improvements such as a new exit ramp off the Cross County Parkway and parking garages.

The center comprises seven buildings, and about half are in different stages of renovation. It draws customers primarily from Yonkers, The Bronx and Westchester County, and from households with an average annual income of $61,000. About 2.1 million residents from 750,000 households visit the center each year, according to Macerich.

The center is visible and accessible from the Cross County Parkway, though it doesn’t look like much from the road. “You see the back of the stores, but that will change,” Genovese said. “There will be a row of buildings [for new stores] with storefronts facing the highway, about 600 feet long.”

Another big change could be the transformation of an office building into a hotel. “There are a number of tenants who want to be in this area, but haven’t been able to find a location,” Genovese said. “We now have the venue.”

The Cross County site was initially set aside for recreational development. In 1947, the City of Yonkers rezoned the Westchester County-owned acreage, becoming the first municipality in the U.S. to master plan for a regional shopping center. The original owner and developer, Sol Atlas, pioneered the open-air shopping center format, constructing buildings that collectively established a downtown feel in a suburban setting. A tram shuttled shoppers from one end of the center to the other. Two main 40- to 50-foot-wide pedestrian walkways form an L-shaped footprint. There is a 1,200-foot stretch from Macy’s at one end, to Old Navy on the other. And there is an underground tunnel for delivery trucks that helps separate the consumer experience from back-of-house service and delivery activity.

Cross County was eventually acquired by Brooks Shopping Centers LLC. The partners also include Benenson Capital Partners LLC, and Merchant’s National Properties Inc.

The renovation will continue through 2010 and possibly into 2011. Plaster skins are being applied over the building exteriors in earth tones. The individual stores will still be able to project their own brand personalities by painting, adding lifestyle graphics, their own materials, and windows. Genovese said stores have a lot of latitude in creating their look.

He acknowledged the complexity of the project, citing the coordination required in the leasing, marketing, relocating of tenants, and the construction.“This is more of a challenge than a ground-up center project,” he said.

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