By  on September 7, 2007

NATICK, Mass. — Birch trees are a major decorative element at the new Natick Collection luxury mall that opens here today, but this woodsy-themed shopping center is taking aim at the big city nearby.

Anchored by Greater Boston's first Nordstrom and a custom-designed Neiman Marcus, the $386 million expansion of the former Natick Mall is making a bid to draw Boston's center of retail gravity about 20 miles west.

Natick Collection will compete with the city's traditional downtown retailing anchors — Newbury Street and Copley Place mall — after assembling an arsenal of full-line international luxury brand stores: Gucci, the region's first Bottega Veneta and Michael Kors, as well as MaxMara, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Tourneau, Hugo Boss and Burberry.

Other newcomers to the region include Calvin Klein white label and Lauren Ralph Lauren, which are fresh retail concepts for their respective brands; Zara; American Eagle's Martin + Osa; Abercrombie & Fitch's Ruehl, and J. Crew's Madewell.

"We wanted to emphasize firsts and new-to-market at this center," said Michael McNaughton, vice president of asset management for Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which developed and owns Natick Collection.

At least one player is changing allegiance. Marina Rinaldi, a division of MaxMara, is closing its Newbury Street store and opening in Natick, McNaughton said.

"I hope we do shift some of the buying patterns," said John Bucksbaum, chief executive officer of General Growth. "When you put something of this caliber in your portfolio, you are striving to shift some discretionary income."

A spokeswoman for Simon Property Group, the dominant mall owner in the Boston metropolitan area, including Copley Place, said, "We don't comment specifically on competition, but we view it as part of a booming Boston area retail scene."

The new Natick space — which features an undulating glass canopy roof, a decorative half-moon infinity pool and dramatic, modernist perspectives through teak-lined cutouts in the white mezzanine — is a 600,000-square-foot wing attached to what was formerly known as Natick Mall and now part of the rebranded Natick Collection.

The older mall got an extensive facelift last year to smooth the transition between the two properties, which total 1.8 million square feet of retail. The multiuse complex also includes Nouvelle at Natick, a luxury condominium high-rise with its first $1 million-and-up units opening next June.An adjoining hotel is to break ground in 2009, but a deal hasn't been set.

Natick Collection also ups the ante on suburban rents. At more than $100 a square foot, they are in the neighborhood of rents in Copley Place downtown, market sources said. Neither General Growth nor Simon Property would discuss rents.

"Retail is obviously an important component for our overall growth strategy, and we intend to increase the number of freestanding stores in key global markets over the next few years," said John Idol, ceo of Michael Kors Inc. "Massachusetts is a dynamic and vibrant retail environment. Opening this is another important step in realizing our goal."

The arrival of Neiman Marcus "sends a huge signal [that] there's a fashion customer here in the bedroom communities,'' said Jeffrey C. Paisner executive managing director of New York-based Lansco Corp., the real estate firm that placed Spanish fast-fashion chain Zara in Natick Collection. "Neiman's can go anywhere and they really do their homework so they know that psychographic [of fashion and affluence] is here. And that kind of fashion anchor motivates a lot of other players."

The arrival of Neiman's, Zara and other luxury retailers is a major shift for Natick, which (with neighboring town Framingham) is home to almost every national big-box retailer. There has been little luxury in the area, despite demographic affluence that exceeds top trade areas like Tysons Corner, Va.; Short Hills, N.J., and White Plains, N.Y., McNaughton said.

Natick has a median household income of $141,818 and it is near other six-figure towns, including Wellesley ($113,686) and Weston ($153,918). Natick also sits at the juncture of Interstate 95, the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 9, some of the region's main thoroughfares.

Natick Collection's competitive impact likely will be felt in Chestnut Hill, Mass., about 10 miles away, which has a new, upscale Macy's in The Chestnut Hill Shopping Center and a renovated Bloomingdale's at The Mall at Chestnut Hill.

"There is a confluence of new stores in Natick that haven't been in the market before, which will bring people in," said Annette Born, principal of Boston-based retail and real estate consultancy Urban/Born Associates. "[Whether it will] keep them and change patterns so they're heading to Natick instead of Chestnut Hill or Copley is a big question."She speculated that Copley Place, which also houses Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, might feel the impact most. "There are a lot of people from the western suburbs who jump on the Mass Pike and are at Copley in 15 minutes, so I would think there would be some impact."

Betty Riaz, an independent retailer who is opening her third Stil boutique in Natick Collection, noted that Copley's parking fees may keep suburbanites closer to home. She acknowledged that her newest space is close to her Chestnut Hill store, but believes the clientele is loyal and differentiated.

"It's like having two Starbucks two blocks apart, but somehow they get totally different crowds," she said.

Natick also is banking on the region's first Nordstrom being a draw. The Seattle-based retailer will open three more stores in the next three years, positioning itself in suburban Boston's biggest malls.

On Wednesday night, Nordstrom rolled out a regional welcome, featuring all foods New England (apple cider spritzers, fried clams, lobster rolls) during a shopping gala that raised $225,000 for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Boston Ballet. Fine jewelry, shoes and the young contemporary Point of View Department were particularly busy throughout the night.

Retired co-chairmen Bruce Nordstrom and John Nordstrom deferred to the younger generation that's running the business: Nordstrom Inc. president Blake Nordstrom and his brothers, Pete Nordstrom, president of merchandising, and Erik Nordstrom, president of full-line stores. Their cousin, Jamie Nordstrom, president of Nordstrom Direct, mingled with customers in the shoe department.

This morning, a grand opening ceremony will kick off a cosmetics "tailgate" party and then Nordstrom associates and family members will line up along the main aisle as the first customers enter the store. The company has 50,000 credit card holders in Massachusetts.

Natick Collection has three valet parking entrances and 60,000 square feet of "streetscape" retail (stores will have doors opening to the outside as well as into the mall), interspersed with upscale restaurants and lunch spots opening onto stone patios and birch tree groves.

The scene is dominated by the Neiman Marcus facade, a rippling sheet of metal conjuring a dress hem. Inside, Neiman Marcus, which opens Sept. 15, features designer boutiques and an art collection commissioned for the store from about a dozen New England artists.The new wing is merchandised starting with luxury on its street facade, moving through bridge and better to where it joins with the original mall, said Cathie Bryant, director of retail sales for General Growth Properties.

The original mall has the most traditional players and is anchored by Macy's and Sears. Only two tenants — Coach and Williams-Sonoma — are moving from the old space to the new wing in significantly expanded flagship spots.

In the new wing, oval wooden inlays set at intervals in the floor are used to suggest the ground under stylized birch groves. Green aluminum birch leaves flutter down on wires, floating around but not attached to the black-and-white tree trunks for a gently deconstructed effect.

The glass ceiling "rolls" in a nod to Natick's Native American derivation, "Land of Rolling Hills." A private park for Nouvelle at Natick residences will run along the roof of the center.

But hanging out won't just be for those who live at Natick. There are many interior casual cafe spaces built in and a half-moon platform earmarked for fashion shows, since General Growth believes Natick should develop a reputation as a "seen-and-be-seen" spot as well as a shopping destination.

The property is 94 percent leased, Bryant said, but only 70 percent of stores, including Nordstrom, are opening today. A 2,700-square-foot Bottega Veneta and Calvin Klein white label, a 13,000-square-foot space dedicated to the brand's better sportswear label, will bow in November. The 6,000 square-foot Gucci will open in June.

"I'm a big believer in if you build it, they will come," said Stil's Riaz.

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