In the six months since new owners took over Regency Square mall, the shopping center has become a tale of two malls.


The east end, from Belk down to JC Penney, seems like a regular mall. There are vacancies, but it’s about 85 percent occupied, according to the general manager.

There are customers, though far fewer than when Regency was the place to shop in Jacksonville.

But otherwise, it’s a mall: Brightly lighted and well-kept.

Slideshow: Regency Square Mall through the years

Slideshow: Regency Square Mall today

But after walking through Belk, it simply gets surreal. Until you get all the way down to Sears and Dillard’s, every storefront is closed and dark. Other than an occasional potted plant or trash can, it’s populated only by mall walkers out for air-conditioned exercise.

The New York partnership of Namdar Realty Group and Mason Asset Management paid $13 million for the mall in February, less than one-fifth the $71.8 million that General Growth Properties paid in 1991.

What they bought was a mall that was about 30 percent occupied, said James Kramer, the general manager. Since then, he said, 23 new tenants have been added with more in the works, but all in the east wing. That’s where all the focus has been.

The food court had five of its 11 spots filled when Kramer took over. Now it’s up to seven and two more will be open by the end of the month, he said.


The original plan, he said, was that he’d start working on the west end next year. But the east has gone so well that the owners recently gave him the OK to start working on the west. But that won’t be typical mall business.

“It’s going to have to be a mix of retail and non-traditional tenants,” he said. “There’s just not enough retail out there to fill 1.4 million square feet.”

The Torchbearers church has signed a lease for 15,000 square feet right outside Dillard’s, Kramer said. He’s also looking at things like lawyers’ offices and clinics.

It’s still facing the prospect of Belk leaving its spot right in the middle of the mall. The department store chain is building a new store 4 miles east on Atlantic Boulevard, with opening planned for next March. Employees in the Regency store have told customers they’ll be moving to the new store, but the company has not made an announcement about the Regency store’s fate.

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Belk’s lease runs into 2015, and while the company hasn’t told him anything, Kramer admitted that he assumes it’s leaving. That means another 188,000 square feet to fill.

“It’s an opportunity, to say the least,” he said, chuckling. “There are users out there, most of them national brands.”


As shoppers who once frequented Regency Square went elsewhere, first to The Avenues and then to St. Johns Town Center and River City Marketplace, the mall took on a different feel, a different reputation.

It soon hit bottom. In 2011, an attempted shoplifting arrest in the mall turned into a gunbattle outside; an officer was injured and one of the suspects killed. The next year, a feud escalated into gunfire inside the mall; a woman working a kiosk — just a bystander — was shot.

“Physically, the mall is in good shape,” Kramer said. “But people still have the misconception that the problems of five, six years ago are still going on. But they’re not.”

He said that its previous owners had essentially abandoned the property.

“Looking through the records,” he said, “I think the decision was made to let this property go about seven years ago. The property can come back. But it didn’t break overnight and it won’t come back overnight.”

Harold Smith has been coming to the mall for 25 years. These days, he and his retired friends meet for coffee several mornings a week.

“There’s not as many bums hanging around,” he said.


Melody Taylor opened Champaint777 on July 1, giving painting lessons for groups, couples ($25, including wine) and parties.

“I needed a place that was inexpensive,” she said. “And they worked with me here.”

It’s her first business, and it has gone well — close to 500 customers so far. But she’s not sure about the future.

“Right now, I’m generating all my own traffic,” she said. “With Belk leaving, you just don’t know how it’s going to go.”

Shawn Hundley opened Like Mama’s in the food court in May, serving dishes like fried chicken, smothered pork chops, black-eyed peas and red velvet cake.

The retired Marine had never run a restaurant, but he was an entrepreneur with a fondness for Southern cooking, so he wanted to give it a shot. At Regency, he said, he figures he’s catching it on the upswing.

“We looked at other areas on the Westside,” he said. “But I came down here one day and even when it didn’t look busy, some of these places were serving 30 to 40 meals in a couple of hours.

“If I was in a standalone building, I may get 10 in a day. Nobody knows Like Mama’s.”

Sid Mustafa is opening his third business in the mall since June. The owner of S&S Menswear in the Orange Park Mall, he’s opened Stag menswear, a Boost Mobile store and will open Captain O’s Seafood in the food court.

“It hit rock bottom,” Mustafa said of the mall. “There’s no way to go but up. I tried to get in here before, but it had the worst management. They were charging prices like it was the Town Center.”

There are still some problems, he said. Internet service isn’t good, and he had a $165 monthly water bill at the men’s store.

“What’s that for?” he said. “You flush the toilet three four times a day, wash your hands three four times a day. $165 for that? I told them I’ll close the bathroom and use the public one.

“But security here, it’s the best. I think it’s better than Orange Park or the Town Center. They’re watching every inch.”


The same group that bought Regency also bought Jacksonville Regional Shopping Center on Dunn Avenue last year for $6.8 million. But it already has the center, which is 95 percent occupied and anchored by Winn-Dixie and JCPenney, for sale and listed at $18.1 million.

“We specialize in centers that are being run poorly,” said Joel Gorjian, who heads acquisitions and dispositions for Namdar Realty Group. “We find those where they’re not putting enough into the center, then we add tremendous value.”

On Dunn Avenue, he said, they added several tenants including Workout Anytime fitness center, renewed Winn-Dixie for another five years and now have several month-to-month tenants on longer-term leases.

Traffic is good, he said. The Winn-Dixie, he said, is doing 13 percent better than the chain’s average.

“Our whole game plan,” Gorjian said, “is to buy, stabilize and sell.”

The group is also selling DeSoto Square, a 41-year-old mall in Bradenton that Mason Asset Management paid $35 million for in November 2012. The auction ended July 31 with a high bid of $33.75 million.

But Charles Schelle, a business writer with the Bradenton Herald, said the sale has not been finalized.

Like Regency Square, DeSoto Square was the primary mall in Bradenton for years, Schelle said. But, also like Regency, it has fallen on hard times in recent years. The neighborhood around started to fall off, he said, and became dotted with strip clubs and adult novelty stores.

A new mall opened 8 miles away. Dillard’s left in 2009, followed by other key retailers such as Old Navy and Foot Locker.

Mason President Elliot Nassim told the Herald in 2012 that the mall could be turned around.

Hudson’s Furniture took over the former Dillard’s early this year, but not much else. Then this spring, just before the mall was put up for sale, more storefronts started filling in the mall, he said.

“They weren’t national chains,” he said, “but local shops. The biggest thing was probably a wig shop was expanding. And T-Mobile went from a kiosk to a storefront.”

Now DeSoto Square is facing more competition — another new mall, only the second to open in the United States since 2006 — is scheduled to open 12 miles away in Sarasota.


Roger Bull: (904) 359-4296