Like many, if not most, traditional malls, Military Circle Mall is well past its peak as a retail center, in this case in the Navy-dominated market of Norfolk, Virginia.
Some of the busiest days in fact have included distribution of free turkeys last Thanksgiving and serving as a vaccine clinic. But that could soon change.
The city, which has owned various pieces of the property for the past several years, announced earlier this month that it had selected three finalists interested in turning it into a robust new mixed-use community.
Pharrell Williams, Emmitt Smith among the proposed investors
Along with big money -- the proposals run as high as just more than a billion dollars -- there are big names involved. One is Pharrell Williams, a Virginia Beach native and Grammy-winning musician of "Happy" and other hits who’s also involved with his own Black Ambition nonprofit that focuses on Black and Latinx talent and entrepreneurs.
A competing offer is from a group that includes Emmitt Smith, the NFL legend who retired as the league’s all-time leading rusher, playing 13 of his 15 years with the Dallas Cowboys before retiring after two years with the Arizona Cardinals in 2004.
Smith, too, is now making his mark in the business world and is among a growing list of professional athletes who are joining in major development and redevelopment projects around the country.
The property itself has an interesting history, too. The Norfolk Economic Development Authority (NEDA) bought the 50-year-old mall and outparcels last year for $11 million, along with a nearby DoubleTree Hotel for another $2.4 million, according to VirginiaBusiness.com.
That was a few years after it bought a former JC Penney on the site for $2.3 million and turned that 200,000-square-foot site into office space, according to WVEC, the local ABC television affiliate.
Ambitious proposals to put the property to multiple uses
Each of the three proposals do look indeed ambitious. For instance, Crossroads Partnership -- which includes Smith’s real estate company -- presented plans for a "wellness development" that would commit about $920 million in total to a 15,000-seat arena as the anchor, 987 apartments, a Sentara Healthcare office campus, a sports complex, retail and green space, and a 128-room Hyatt House hotel, VirginiaBusiness.com says.
Meanwhile, a group called Wellness Circle -- which includes Williams and events promoter Live Nation as partners -- is proposing an arena that could seat up to 16,500 people, a million square feet of office space (including a medical campus), 143,000 square feet of retail, 80,000 square feet for food and beverage, a 210-room hotel, community and green space, a YMCA, and one of Williams’ Yellowhab schools. Also, 708 multifamily units, 147 townhomes, and 288 units that qualify for low-income tax credits, VirginiaBusiness.com reports.
A third proposal is from Norfolk MC Associates LLC, which VirginiaBusiness.com says includes major regional developer Bruce Thompson’s Gold Key | PHR. Dubbed "The Well," it includes 864 apartments, an outdoor amphitheater that would seat 8,000, about 50 acres of parks and other open spaces (including a 9-acre lake), a 200-room hotel, retail space including a grocery store, and a small-business center from Norfolk State University.
The Millionacres bottom line
The big names involved here may lend some cachet, but that doesn’t impact the bottom line. Doing these developments right will. Norfolk is just one promising market where such ideas are moving forward. (Check this out to learn more about a good example ongoing in Chicago.)
Each of the developers promise thousands of construction jobs and then continuing economic and quality of life benefits from their proposed developments, which they would like to get underway ASAP and complete in the next few years, of course.
The next step for the city, meanwhile, is collecting public input and then deciding a winner. For real estate investors, the opportunity here may be primarily local: using good market knowledge to determine if there are possibilities to buy nearby commercial real estate or residential property that would likely benefit from this economic boon.
It’s also an interesting way to redevelop mall space -- something many communities and property owners, such as mall-owning real estate investment trusts (REITs) -- are trying to figure out. If it works there, expect others to try the same thing elsewhere. In fact, many already are, in different iterations of their own.