Fountains featuring sculptures of kids playing, a courthouse square, custom-cast metal and wood benches, old-time street lamps and uniquely designed storefronts punctuated by historic billboards and toddlers riding in taxicab-like strollers are likely to catch shoppers' attention at Citrus Park Town Center. The 1.1 million sq. ft. superregional center in Tampa, Fla., recreates a downtown streetscape.

A decade after the land was acquired in northwest Tampa, Citrus Park opened 100% leased on March 3. Extensive landscaping surrounds the $300 million, single-story mall, which was built on 144 acres west of Veterans Expressway, approximately 10 miles northwest of Tampa International Airport.

In addition to bringing several new retailers and restaurants to the Tampa market, the mall offers a novel approach to store presentation. Tenantswere given some guidelines but no design criteria for the storefronts, says Ross Glickman, president of leasing for Urban Retail Properties Co., an affiliate of Chicago-based Urban Shopping Centers, Inc., the developer and owner of Citrus Park. "We let them be as creative as they wanted," he says. Staff architects were available for guidance and to review plans.

Tenants were urged to let their creativity loose, adds Wayne Litzau, senior vice president of development for Urban Retail. "It's like no other mall that's been developed," he says. "It's Main Street with a roof on it."

Letting tenants have the whole building facade - going as high as 30 feet rather than the usual 12-foot-high storefront - opened up a lot of design possibilities. "This gave them a stronger presence than they're typically allowed," says Jeff Gunning, vice president and lead designer in the Dallas office of Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc., which was responsible for the architecture and graphic design of the center. Tenant costs were a little higher, "but not as much as people thought they would be."

Tenant designs incorporated two-story facades featuring the architectural cornices, ornaments, signage, awnings and materials found in downtown retail buildings. The result was a creative mixture of traditional Americana, cutting-edge modern design and quaint European-looking shops.

The feeling combines trendy and contemporary with nostalgia. "We wanted that kind of variety," Gunning says. "Some stores look forward, some look backward," he continues. "That's what happens on a great shopping street, like in New York. We're taking those kinds of exciting stores and making them happen in an enclosed shopping mall."

The overall floorplan is a simple one, with four department store anchors, a food court and a 20-screen cinema. But that's where the traditional mall format ends. The design concept for Citrus Park looks to the future while also looking back to when most shopping was conducted outdoors, along downtown thoroughfares.

Breaking away from the homogenous storefronts evident in most malls, the design blurred the distinction between inside and outside with the use of glass curtain walls, which are the only separation between the interior and exterior at all primary entrances.

Limestone floors emulate streets and plazas, and canopies draped over the common areas give the look and feel of a town festival. Baskets of flowers hang from posts, and street signs point the way down Citrus Park Boulevard to the anchors and the food court.

Sculptures depicting typical childhood scenes are located along the concourses, known as streets and boulevards. Designed by RTKL and produced by Lancaster, Pa.-based A.R.T. Research Enterprises Inc., the sculptures - four of which are fountains - depict life-size children cast in bronze playing baseball, jumping rope and running through a real sprinkler.

The design concept works well in northwest Tampa because the area doesn't have its own downtown, says Cindy Bohde, senior vice president of marketing for Urban Retail. "This can become the area's Main Street," she says. "All age groups relate to the concept."

Urban already was somewhat familiar with the area, having developed Brandon TownCenter, a 980,500 sq. ft. mall in southeast Tampa, in 1995. The company was attracted to the northwest part of the city because of the area's high household incomes. Banking on the spending power of nearby residents, the company also is developing a power center near the mall that is expected to open in October.

"We saw a hole in the market and ferreted out a piece of land," Litzau says. Urban broke ground on Citrus Park, which is located 40 miles from Brandon, in November 1997.

The demographics of the fast-growing residential area around Citrus Park dictated a fashion-oriented center with a "high-taste level," Bohde says. "The higher-end demographic has raised the bar in terms of tenants there."

Leasing on the project started 18 to 24 months ago, Glickman says. The mall features four anchors - Dillard's, Burdines, JCPenneyand Sears - and more than 120 specialty stores and restaurants. A two-story, 90,000 sq. ft. Regal Cinema is located near the food court and features 20 screens and stadium seating. The theater's old-time decor is highlighted by a 72-foot marquee.

Retailers new to the Tampa area that have set up shop at Citrus Park include Harold's, WEDU Store of Knowledge, Overland Trading Co., This End Up, Thomas Kinkade Gallery, Field of Dreams, Golf America, Georgiou, The Buckle, The Walking Company, Lee Nails, Watch World International and Yankee Candle. New restaurants include Johnny Rockets, Rice & Company Asian Bistro and Cino Grille, a Southwestern cafe.

Several tenants debuted expanded product lines and/or floor space, including Finish Line, Williams-Sonoma and Restoration Hardware. Pottery Barn opened its new format, which features a design studio where customers can sketch out a floor plan of their living space and then coordinate floor coverings, fabrics, furniture and window treatments. The 10,000 sq. ft. store, its largest in the Tampa Bay area, has its own exterior entrance.

Other specialty tenants opening at Citrus Park include Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters, AnnTaylor, Banana Republic, The Bombay Co., Brooks Brothers, Cache, The Disney Store, Eddie Bauer, The Gap/Gap Kids, Gymboree, Nine West, The Sharper Image, Talbots, Victoria's Secret and Warners Bros. Studio Store.

The 25,000 sq. ft. food court - Quickfood Cafes - has the look of a small-town diner. It is constructed as a themed restaurant, designed to take on the appearance of a building. The checkerboard terrazzo floor emulates a checkered tablecloth. The 700-seat food court also offers small-sized tables and chairs for children.

Also catering to families is a nearby play area that resembles a miniature street corner. The focal point of the children's area, custom-designed by New Braunfels, Texas-based NBGS International, is a play station that resembles three storefront facades with tunnels, slides and windows that youngsters can explore. The carpet surrounding the play station is designed to look like a sidewalk and street intersection. "Parked" outside the buildings are two stationary cars that children can activate.

While the play area, food court, theater, tenants and design all work together to keep customers inside the mall for a longer period of time, Urban knows the importance of first impressions. More than 300 palm trees line the main entrance off Sheldon Road, creating an overhead canopy, and trees throughout the parking lot provide shade.

"The exterior and how it feels when (customers) arrive is very important to us," Bohde says. "We wanted to create something aesthetically pleasing."

Using the surrounding environment as inspiration, landscape architects planted more than 3,900 trees to grace the entrances, parking lot and perimeter. The $3.3 million landscaping project comprised 20 different tree species and 35 varieties of shrubs, ground cover and grasses. A computer satellite system monitors the weather and adapts the irrigation system accordingly, using only reclaimed water.

The landscaping was a challenge because large landscape projects by Disney, Universal Studios and residential subdivisions in the state made it difficult to acquire the quantity and quality of oak, magnolia and native Florida plants needed for such a large project, and local land development ordinances required the use of 50% native species. To solve the dilemma, the landscape architecture firm, Tampa-based Genesis Group, proposed contracting with growers two years before materials were needed rather than right before completion.

The extent of care each of the companies involved in the development of Citrus Park exhibited is evident throughout the mall. From the overall design of the project to the leasing and every element in between, it's evident that Urban has found a niche.

Citrus Park's novel design concept is one the company "absolutely" intends on replicating in other centers, Glickman says.

Gunning of RTKL adds, "It's an idea that is going to get a lot of attention in the retail industry."