CENTER STAGE: LA GRAN PLAZAMaría Bird Picó
Shopping Centers Today
At 1.1 million square feet, La Gran Plaza, in Fort Worth, Texas, bills itself as the más grande of malls catering to Hispanic shoppers in the U.S.
It has been four years since Grupo Zócalo, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Boxer Property Management Corp., bought the mall and gave it a Hispanic-themed fresh start. Before that, the property (then called the Fort Worth Town Center) had been teetering on life support, with a 20 percent occupancy rate and its anchors having fled to newer malls. Occupancy fell further, to 10 percent, when the new owners removed a used-clothing store.
"This was an old mall that had a bad reputation and was empty," said José de Jesús Legaspi, La Gran Plaza's operating owner. "Three previous owners before us tried to lure tenants but were not successful." Even so, he says, the mall was well built and had the market all to itself for some 10 miles around.
More to the point, the center contained a huge, underserved Latino population in its market radius. "We took the existing shell, reworked the architecture, looked at the demographic trends and realized that the area was becoming more Hispanic, mostly of Mexican origin," said Legaspi. "Our mall has become the town square of Hispanics, where they feel very much at home, thanks also to the cultural language spoken through music, architecture and food." This mall's transformation, which took 18 months, marks an apex in Legaspi's career. He worked in tenant representation for Hispanic-oriented retailers for some 30 years. Then, suddenly, here was this opportunity to apply all he had learned on the tenant side to one property. The timing could not have been better. Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the U.S., accounting for nearly 15 percent of the total population. The total disposable household income of Hispanic Americans could reach $1.2 trillion in 2011 (it was $798 billion as of 2006), according to the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.
The new mall contains a variety of independent retailers offering Hispanic-oriented merchandising, such as dresses for the quinceañera (a coming-of-age celebration for 15-year-old girls), CDs, piñatas and religious artifacts. The mall also boasts an open-air market, on the site of a former department store, where some 200 local entrepreneurs sell their wares from stands at lower rents than those charged for in-line spots. Some merchants started out operating in the open-air market before graduating to a store inside the mall, Legaspi says.
Not all the center's retailers are Latino-owned or Latino-themed, however, and not all its customers are necessarily Latinos either. Burlington Coat Factory opened a store there this year, joining CVS, Foot Locker and RadioShack, among others. For Hispanic retail real estate specialists like Ed Rubio, La Gran Plaza demonstrates not only this demographic group's purchasing power but also the demand for Hispanic malls. "Everybody wants the Hispanic dollar, but nobody wants to spend money to get it," said Rubio, Hispanic market specialist at the Dallas office of The Weitzman Group.
"La Gran Plaza is proof that an entire mall can achieve the results an investor desires and provide the shopping experience that is much needed in these communities. It's not just about having a retail center, but of providing an experience of culture and quality family time."
Whites and Blacks from 30 miles around are attracted to the food court, which serves up a range of Mexican cuisine, says Legaspi. And the retailers are thriving, he says, with some of the national chains reporting sales in excess of $400 per square foot. Mexican themed supermarket chain Fiesta Mart is doing so well - it reports annual sales in excess of $24 million - that it has had to move to a 50,000-square-foot spot from its original 30,000-square-foot space.
Hispanic-oriented entertainment is a huge component, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays, when La Gran Plaza plays host to such family-oriented activities as mariachi bands and clowns. The 10-screen Cinema Latino movie complex airs Latin American movies and also first-run Hollywood movies that are either dubbed in Spanish or subtitled. The mall also contains a nightclub that operates three nights a week. "If tenants are willing to pay us high rents relative to what they are willing to pay around in the Fort Worth area, then we know that they are doing business," said Legaspi. "Hispanic families tend to have a higher than recorded disposable income only because families tend to be larger and they all work but pay just one rent. They also work more in the informal economy than other groups, so their per capita income is higher than officially reported." All of this has helped make La Gran Plaza a gran success story.