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A new natural food grocery store chain could breathe life into Iowa City's former Sycamore Mall, which faced a dubious future with the loss of its most prominent tenant, Von Maur, to Coralville and foreclosure within the last two years.
Boulder, Colo.-based Lucky's Market signed a lease last week to open in spring 2015 a 34,000 square-foot grocery store taking up most of the former Von Maur space at the center of the mall, at 1600 Sycamore St., which was renamed Iowa City Marketplace last year.
'People will really sense our love for food and the quality in our preparation,' said Ben Friedland, Lucky's vice president of marketing. 'We subscribe to the motto, 'good food for all.' People will be taken aback by our prices. It's much less than people anticipate for this quality of food.'
He said the store will offer local produce, fresh seafood and meats, a bakery, ready-to-eat meals, a juice bar, beer and wine, an outdoor cafe, and a full grocery that features 90 percent natural and organic foods.
The Iowa City Marketplace will undergo renovations inside and outside to accommodate Lucky's, which will employ approximately 200 people, according to the company.
Lucky's was established in 2003 by culinary trained chefs Trish and Bo Sharon and now has seven locations, including in several college towns, and the Iowa City location is part of a wave of five new locations announced. Lucky's plans to open six to 10 per year for the foreseeable future, Friedland said.
John Arlotti, vice president of California-based CORE Realty, which owns the Iowa City Marketplace, said Lucky's is the cornerstone in the transformation of the former Sycamore Mall, which has been reeling in recent years.
'In my opinion, it is going to completely revitalize the center,' Arlotti said. 'It is going to change the entire dynamic of center and the surrounding properties in the east side area.'
He said within the next few months, two additional tenants will be announced, adding another 100 jobs. The occupancy at the mall will climb from around 50 percent to about 80 percent, he said.
Some wondered if the mall would survive the loss of Von Maur on top of other tenants leaving.
The mall ownership and city officials fought to keep Von Maur, which was lured to Coralville with $9.5 million, plus other incentives, to build a store in the Iowa River Landing District. The mall offered substantially reduced rent and Iowa City considered incentives, according to city documents.
Then in December 2012, the mall went into foreclosure while owing $12 million on a $13 million loan signed in 2008. The final payment had been due in September of that year.
The mall's value has plummeted under the weight of retailer departures, from $16.4 million in 2011 to $10 million in 2014.
Jeff Davidson, economic development administrator of Iowa City, estimated based on the property valuation that the mall's tax contribution declined from $669,778 in 2011 to $367,803 in 2014.
The mall is one of the largest property taxpayers in the city, but Davidson is optimistic that the mall is going to see a turnaround, anticipating its value will rebound to the $15 million to $18 million range with the new tenants coming on board.
It should also allow the 21 existing tenants to breathe a sigh of relief.
'Getting the anchor space filled really is key,' Davidson said. 'That will lead to the rest of it getting leased up. The other tenants have been waiting to see what happens with the anchor space.'
Davidson said it's possible the project will get some tax incentives from the city, but incentives have not been requested at this point.
Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said the loss of Von Maur coupled with major road construction created a difficult time for the area. He called Lucky's a 'solid anchor tenant' that should uplift the mall and area on several fronts. It should stabilize existing tenants and attract new ones, he said.
'It's exciting for Iowa City,' Hayek said. 'It brings a high quality tenant to a facility that is important to the area and the community. I think it will offer a jolt of energy to that area.'
Mark Seabold, an architect and head of the commercial division with Shive-Hattery Architecture-Engineering, has been working on the reformation of the mall into a marketplace concept.
He said the grocery store will have longer hours than a traditional retailer and will bring traffic that should help the mall as a whole.
'It's going to really drive traffic inside and outside the mall,' Seabold said. 'Lucky's is the first step for improvements across the site. Ultimately it will help lace the whole marketplace together and be a real driver for the Iowa City Marketplace.'
Katie Andrios, president of Four Seasons, one of the remaining 21 tenants in the mall, said the last couple of years has been a 'roller coaster' for the mall.
Andrios said Four Seasons has stayed at the mall because business has remained strong, but agreed that the addition of Lucky's will help with turning around the mall by infusing more foot traffic.
'I feel like we still have a ways to go, and we need to rebuild the community's confidence in Sycamore Mall, but I think this is a great first building block,' Andrios said.
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