A funny thing happened on the way to the mall.
Redmond Town Center, originally designed as a typical suburban shopping mall, turned into something very different.
When the first stores open their doors Thursday, what shoppers will see bears little resemblance to Northgate, Southcenter, Bellevue Square - or to the Town Center design of six years ago.
Like Seattle's renovated and highly successful University Village, the newest addition to downtown Redmond represents some of the latest thinking in retailing and urban planning.
The new open-air shopping centers, known in the industry as "lifestyle centers" and "Main Street retail areas," are designed to be places where people can spend an afternoon or an evening shopping, dining and playing.
Town Center, which will include the headquarters of the Lake Washington School District and AT&T Wireless, also is a place where more than 3,000 people will work in nearby offices.
The Lake Washington School District, the first tenant, began moving into its new administrative offices last week. AT&T Wireless will move into the first of its six buildings this fall. There also are plans to construct a 175-room Marriott Residence Inn and 200 apartments.
The $250 million project in the city that is also home to Microsoft headquarters will have a profound effect on Redmond's old downtown, just across the railroad tracks.
The revamping of the 1.6-million-square-foot Town Center by the developer, Winmar, a Safeco Properties subsidiary, reflects not only dramatic changes in the retail industry but also an attempt to build something that will be a part of downtown Redmond rather than an alternative to it.
The core of Town Center is an open-air, two-story retail complex whose attractions will include an eight-screen Cineplex Odeon and 64 stores and restaurants, including Borders Books, Eddie Bauer, Lane Bryant, Ann Taylor, Gene Juarez Salon & Spa and Z Gallerie.
By design, Town Center looks more like the city's historic downtown than like the enclosed, windowless malls that Americans have loved and hated over the past 30 years. Throw in a dozen or so office buildings, a hotel and a six-story apartment building, and you have the makings of an urban village.
Redmond officials expect the city to collect $900,000 in sales taxes on $106 million in sales from Town Center next year. Within four years, the development will generate taxes of $1.7 million on annual sales of at least $225 million, a 1995 study commissioned by Winmar projects.
The projections assume existing retailers in Redmond will not experience a significant drop in sales. "The integration with downtown was very important," said Councilwoman Nancy McCormick. "We didn't want to create an island in the middle of a cornfield."
Putting together the complex project has been a 19-year effort for Winmar since it bought 120 acres including the Redmond Golf Course in 1978. The developer originally had in mind a conventional, enclosed mall with department stores as anchors.
After the Redmond City Council gave conditional approval for the project in 1988, Winmar signed up Frederick & Nelson, The Bon Marche and Mervyn's as anchors. The developer was negotiating with J.C. Penney when the project went sideways in 1991.
The Bon's parent company filed for bankruptcy protection and Frederick & Nelson went out of business. The project fell apart, and Winmar executives turned their attention to other developments.
While working on other projects, Safeco Properties vice presidents Randy Kyte and Dave Stedman started asking if there might be another way to make Town Center work.
As they looked at trends in the retail market, they concluded that one of suburbia's most distinctive creations - the enclosed mall, using department stores as anchors to draw smaller tenants - was becoming a thing of the past.
"We went to a convention and saw the demise of the regional mall industry before our very eyes," Kyte recalls. "The only people who were in the game were expanding strong regional malls. The people who were talking about new regional centers were mostly blowing smoke."
A new generation of retailers, such as Eddie Bauer and The Gap,
offered the possibility of serving as mini-anchors. The concept was working in some of the most successful new shopping centers, including Seattle's University Village.
Kyte and Stedman were mulling over the new trends in retailing when they joined their mutual friend, architect Walt Niehoff, for breakfast in the cafe at the Stouffer Madison Hotel (now the Renaissance Madison Hotel) in the summer of 1992.
Conversation turned to the 120-acre Redmond Town Center property, a former golf course that lay between Bear Creek and the heart of downtown Redmond. What if they dropped the whole idea of a mall? What if they extended the downtown streets onto the site and divided it into new city blocks?
They drew their ideas on the back of a placemat. "A very simple concept bloomed into what you see here today," says Kyte, walking along a Town Center sidewalk where two-story brick buildings line both sides of the street.
Niehoff, a principal in the Seattle firm of Loschky Marquardt & Nesholm, became the project architect. It took another two years of market studies to refine the original idea.
With 85 percent of the retail space leased, the tenants are distinctly more upscale than would have been the case with Mervyn's as an anchor - a mix the developers feel will appeal to a market where the average annual household income is $65,196.
But it won't be so exclusive, they contend, that families can't drop by for an ice cream cone and a stroll along Bear Creek. Forty-three acres of Town Center will be kept in permanent open space, with trails connecting to the Sammamish River and Burke-Gilman trails. A bike- and skate-rental shop will be close to the trail.
Where conventional malls have tended to draw shoppers away from older downtowns, the Winmar project's effect on Redmond is uncertain. While some worry it will take business away from downtown shops, TRF Management President Richard Muhlebach is upbeat.
"Redmond Town Center is going to bring downtown Redmond back to life," says Muhlebach, whose shopping-center management company does not have a stake in Town Center.
Trent McGuire, a spokeswoman for AT&T Wireless, is excited about the prospect of moving from Kirkland's Carillon Point to Town Center. "Here at Carillon Point it's beautiful, and while you don't get views like this at many corporate campuses, it's not like you can go downstairs to the drugstore. You have to get in your car and drive away. At Redmond Town Center you can do almost everything, including day care."
Consultant J'Amy Owens, president of The Retail Group, is concerned that the initial tenant lineup may not provide enough convenience-oriented shops and services. But she thinks the major retailers will be successful from the start.
A number of tenants, such as The Gap, Eddie Bauer and Ann Taylor, also have stores at Bellevue Square.
Although the multiconcept Eddie Bauer stores at Redmond Town Center will be the company's biggest in the region, Vice President Robert Shapiro confirmed that Eddie Bauer is considering an even larger store at Bellevue Square. The Bellevue Square store would be in a new street-level building fronting on downtown sidewalks - just like Town Center.
"The typical regional malls, which we've grown up with during 20 or 30 years now, are not necessarily pleasant experiences," Owens says. "How many times can you go to Alderwood, Northgate, Southcenter and walk through the big rectangular box and yawn?
"Here come University Village and Redmond Town Center, and we say, `Oh, this is good.' "
Information from Seattle Times Eastside bureau reporter Bobby C. Calvan is included in this report.
------------------- The starting lineup -------------------
Retailers open by year-end:
Abercrombie & Fitch.
AT&T Wireless Store.
Bath & Body Works.
Battenburg Lace Shop.
Borders Books, Music & Cafe.
Carousel Stationery & Gifts.
Cow Chip Cookies.
Eddie Bauer .
Fast Lady Sports.
Fine Wines & Cigars.
Gap, babyGap and GapKids.
Gene Juarez Salon & Spa.
Home Kitchen Collection.
Kay Bee Toys.
Key Bank ATM.
Kids Cut 'N' Play.
La Valise Luggage.
Limited Express, Limited Too.
Paint the Town.
Redmond National Bank.
Redmond Town Center Cleaners.
Seafirst Bank ATM.
The Shoe Zoo.
Town Center Shoe Repair.
Watches, Watches, Watches.