The University Heights shopping plaza is reaching new heights.
Gone is the trailer where Sovereign Bank had an ATM and portable office set up. People no longer need to walk on wooden planks through orange plastic mazes to get into the stores, and the parking lot no longer looks like it’s been hit by a meteor. The plaza looks closer to completion than it did six months ago, but there are still about six more to go. It’s been a long time coming.
“It seems like three decades,” said Kelly Coates, senior vice president of the project’s developer, Johnston-based Carpionato Properties.
It’s been close to eight years since the Almacs supermarket that anchored the plaza shut down. And organic foods supermarket Bread & Circus should be up and running by the beginning of next year, according to Amy Hopfensberger, national marketing associate for Whole Foods Market, who owns Bread & Circus.
Mark Briggs, director of leasing for Carpionato Properties, said would make a mid-September announcement regarding the identity of a national chain store that will occupy a spot next to the 32,000 square-foot Bread & Circus.
Dick Razza, owner and operator of High Spirits Liquors, said the new supermarket is going to bring out the best in the plaza, and bring it to a level of commerce better than before. Razza has owned the liquor store for about 10 years. It has been located in various spots at University Heights for about 30.
Razza said Carpionato Properties was helpful in moving High Spirits to a temporary location in the plaza during one of the phases of construction, and moving the liquor store back to its permanent location recently.
“The shopping center definitely needed a boost,” said Razza. “As far as I’m concerned this guy (Alfred Carpionato) did everybody a big favor. He brought the plaza back really, and the whole area’s coming back as far as I can see.”
Razza said since the plaza has become less of an eyesore, more customers are coming in, and he is confident the new Bread & Circus will only increase his customer base.
“Sales are going up steadily,” he said. “Every week it gets better and better.”
In its new location High Spirits picked up another 1,000 square feet, about which he said Carpionato met him “half-way” as far as costs go.
Coates said the process of moving tenants is part of what made the development process so lengthy.
“Sometimes we were too sensitive to the fact that tenants in operation didn’t want us to close them down,” he said. “When you have leases and relationships with tenants you wind up making accommodations that hurt them and hurt yourself.”
Coates said there were instances of councilmen writing him and asking him not to close the McDonald’s in the plaza down.
Another company to move during the reconstruction of University Heights was Boston Market. Attached to the defunct Almacs on the other side of High Spirits for five years, it has emerged as a stand-alone restaurant with a drive-thru.
Boston Market General Manager James McDermott said the location closed for two weeks while the new restaurant was built, during which time the employees simply worked at other Boston Market locations in North Providence or Cranston.
McDermott is looking forward to the completion of Bread & Circus.
“I think it’s going to draw a lot of business for us and the other stores in the plaza,” he said.
Alyson Kim, communications manager for Boston Market, said the University Heights Plaza management contacted Boston Market and offered to move the restaurant to another spot.
“This spot was in a better position from our view in that shopping mall, and it allowed us to add a drive-thru,” she said. “The mall management offered to move the restaurant at no cost to Boston Market, so it was really a win-win situation overall.”
Jeff Gellman, owner of nearby Miko Exoticwear, said the Bread & Circus is a great situation for his business as well.
“The lighting is awesome,” he said, “which makes me feel good, as well as the people in the neighborhood.”
The improved lighting is part of the $6.5 million project.
Sources with Bread & Circus also reported the Wayland Square Bread & Circus location will remain open, but may shift in its product offering.
“The Wayland Square store will be more ‘eat inside the store’ foods,” said Coates.
Sean Johnson, operations manager at Staples, another anchor store in the plaza said the safety the lights provide have definitely helped increase sales at the store, which has more than tripled in size since the remodeling.
“We’re coming into our back to school season , and that will certainly draw in good traffic, especially now that we’re more visible,” said Johnson. “We’ve already felt the effects of the store being done as far as the long plaza rather than being the corner store.”
“It’s definitely better now than it was before,” said Johnson. “The remodeling hindered things a little, but we’ve more than made up for it already.”
Coates said after all the construction is done, nobody will remember the headaches.
“It’s a pain with a purpose,” he said. “It’s been very difficult for our tenants and customers.”
“It’s like pregnancy,” he said. “Once it’s happened people forget the bad part about it. Already people don’t remember how ugly that shopping center was.”