Developers Diversified renews one of its oldest centers and offers spry projections for the future. In Fenton, Mo., 27-year-old Fenton Plaza had long been remarkable only because of its age. As the second oldest property owned by Developers Diversified Realty Corp. (DDR), Moreland Hills, Ohio, the 100,548 sq. ft. center had, until recently, retained its 1970 architecture and lost visibility due to subsequent development.

Despite the center's unattractiveness, its location and surrounding demographics made the site very attractive indeed. By 1995, DDR set out to restore the elderly center, bringing new luster to the exterior and adding value with new tenants.

More than a coat of paint Although Fenton's physical renovation would focus almost entirely on cosmetics, the problems were numerous, and the solution required more than a coat of paint. For example, Texture 111 wood siding formed the basic skin of the structure and column enclosures; and a mansard roof above the sign band featured plain asphalt shingles. Furthermore, for years, a stand of sycamore trees hid 14 of the 33 storefronts, prompting some retailers to place signage in their windows rather than on the sign band.

Fenton Plaza operates from a satisfactory location, in the middle class suburbs southwest of St. Louis. It is situated at the corner of State Highways 30 and 141, about 5 miles south of Interstate 44 and 5 miles west of Interstate 255.

The center was built originally in a inverted "L" shape, with the base of the "L" and about half of the stem facing the street. The base was angled toward Highway 141 to enhance the center's visibility from the intersecting highways.

However, a bank at the corner of the intersection obscured the view of travellers moving north. Travellers moving south on Highway 30 see the back of the center.

Inspired by demographics As problematic as a renovation seemed, DDR recognized strong prospects for Fenton Plaza. "If your location is right and the area has a need for retail, do the research and do the project," says Alan Bobman, DDR's regional vice president of leasing.

The center's surrounding demographics include a population of 23,000 with an annual household income of nearly $46,000. Within a 10-mile radius, 187,876 households boast average annual incomes of $43,000.

"The average income in the community is high," says Joseph Sidor, tenant coordination director for DDR. "Moreover, growth in the St. Louis region seems to be moving to the southwest, toward and beyond Fenton."

Although some of Fenton Plaza's tenants have been plagued by visibility problems in the past, there have always been a few retailers that have benefitted from surrounding development. For example, at the upper end of the "L," a nearby post office draws traffic through the center's parking lot. Additionally, Wal-Mart, which opened across the street from the center in 1986, helps keep traffic buzzing around and through the center.

Nevertheless, "because of the condition of the center, we weren't attracting the kind of quality tenants that the demographics were capable of supporting," says Sidor. As a result, in 1995, DDR mounted a two-pronged strategy to rehabilitate Fenton Plaza.

Finding the good To restore the center's vitality, DDR planned to update the exterior and to woo national retailers to update its tenant mix. For the first part of the job, DDR hired Cleveland-based architects Dorsky Hodgson + Partners.

With a renovation budget of $1 million, David Parrish, a partner with Dorsky Hodgson + Partners, directed the design. "When you work with a minimal budget on a small, older center, you have to try and make the best use of existing forms," he says. "Here we tried not to tear down a lot, but to use what was good and to augment it."

The T-111 exterior was replaced with an EIFS skin, starting at a height of 8 ft. and moving up to the mansard roof. Below, Parrish built on the existing burnt-reddish brick that formed part of the original storefronts.

"Shopping centers of this vintage often have spindly exposed steel columns," Parrish says. "In such a case, we'll clad them with masonry, which gives a feeling of warmth and solidity. That's what we did here.

"The original storefront entries in the center had grown into a collage of different materials, including clear and bronze anodized metal," Parrish continues. "As new tenants were signed and existing tenants moved, we installed new bronze fronts that provide a more unified look."

Sidor says tenants were able to stay open during the entire renovation, which lasted from June through August of this year. "We started at one end with about one-quarter of the storefronts. We tore off the old skin and put up new framing. As the new skin was applied, the crews moved into the second quarter of the structure to start tearing off more T-111," he explains. "We worked closely with the tenants throughout the whole process, keeping them informed and providing temporary canvas banner signs."

Towers designed to increase the center's visibility were added to the ends and middle of Fenton Plaza, completing the renovation. The decision was made to keep the mansard shingle roof, as the other exterior treatments gave it new life.

Making room for the nationals As structural renovation took place at the center, Bobman, along with DDR regional leasing representative Bryan Shellenberger, set out to revitalize Fenton Plaza's tenant base.

The center's largest tenant, a 14,900 sq. ft. Fashion Bug store, joined the tenant roster in 1986, along with two other national names, Payless Shoes and Blockbuster Video. The center has never had a traditional "anchor" store, and, while DDR wanted to add new retailers, its "anchorless" status would remain.

"I think it's important to say that this kind of renovation can be done," says Bobman. "You can renovate a community center like Fenton Plaza in an un-anchored environment. You don't always have to have a supermarket or a Best Buy."

Several local service businesses have operated in Fenton Plaza for years, and, over time, as vacancies arose, they migrated toward the base of the "L," where visibility from the street was strongest. In hopes of attracting additional national retailers, Bobman needed the service tenants to vacate the center's high-visibility space.

To make their new locations at the top of the "L" more appealing, Bobman improved visibility for the transplanted tenants by removing the stand of sycamores obscuring their new storefronts. Nevertheless, there was negotiating to be done.

"The first tenant we reached agreement with was the barber," Bobman says. "He was in the main portion of the center. He wasn't thrilled.

"We told him about our plans to move the other service-oriented businesses to that end of the center, so he would be surrounded with businesses that complemented his," he explains. "We also pointed out that staying where he was might mean prohibitive rents."

As a final deal closing incentive, DDR offered to build a new shop for the barber. He opted for lower rent and a new shop.

Moving an existing laundry posed yet another challenge. The tenant's lease included a provision allowing DDR to order a move, but only two years remained on the lease.

"That could have been an expensive move," Bobman says. "We worked out a lease extension to amortize our costs."

The barber and laundry were followed by a finance company and tanning salon. They joined an existing veterinarian, pawn shop, health club, dental office and tax preparer to make the top of Fenton Plaza's "L" a convenient service draw.

At the base of the "L," with desirable spots now available, DDR was able to sign two national tenants: Hallmark and RadioShack. "We expect to sign another new tenant soon, who I don't want to name," says Bobman. With the addition of the third tenant, Fenton Plaza will have only 2,900 sq. ft. of vacant space left to lease.

A lively outlook Since the project's completion, rental rates for Fenton Plaza have risen by approximately 30 percent, according to DDR. They range from $9 per sq. ft. to $15 per sq. ft.

Sales per square foot are a little tricky to quantify, says Bobman. "There are too many service businesses that don't calculate sales per square foot," he explains.

"I can say that we expect the renovated center to gross more than $5 million a year," Bobman adds. Based upon those numbers, the project represents much more than a cosmetic restoration. Fenton Plaza, one might say, is as young as it yields.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

Fenton Plaza Fenton, Mo. 100,548 sq. ft. Owned by Developers Diversified Realty Corp., Moreland Hills, Ohio

Twenty-nine of the center's 33 available spaces are leased.The current tenants are:

Hair Fashions; American Cleaners; Hawthorn Dental; American General Finance; Larry's Barber Shop; Baskin Robbins; Lyn's Nails; Bert's Rentals and Sales; Mac's Health Clubs; Blockbuster Video; Nollau Electric; Carol's Hallmark; Paperback Plus; Cecil Whittaker's Pizza; Paradise Tan; Clarkson Eyecare; Payless Shoesource; Edward R. Jones; Plaza Pawn & Jewelry; Family Dollar; RadioShack; Fashion Bug; Sally Beauty; Fenton Animal Hospital; Subway; Fenton Laundry; Supermarket of Shoes; H&R Block; Western Auto.