The St. Johns Town Center has been Jacksonville’s retail center for more than a decade now. About 200 stores and restaurants stretch out for a mile along one side of Town Center Parkway.

 

But for the last year, the pine trees that lined the other side of the road have been coming down, replaced first by bare sand, then by concrete block walls sprouting up in ones and twos and threes.

They were anonymous at first, just gray walls, but then some starting getting signs. Now, a few have actually opened, and the rest will in the coming months.

The three developments — The Strand, The Crossing and Town Center Promenade — have more than 40 businesses among them, not to mention two hotels and two apartment complexes. There’s still room for more, but just a few. Most of the spots are taken.

“A lot of these retailers have been wanting to get into the Town Center area,” said Nancy Sumner of The Shopping Center Group, who is handling leasing for the Promenade. “But there’s been a barrier, there just wasn’t enough real estate.”

The demand for the new businesses has been pent up for 10 years, said Chris Morgan of Cantrell & Morgan, which is handling leasing for The Strand and The Crossing.

“It’s the most sought-after area in North Florida for retail and restaurants,” he said.


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PRIME

About half the new businesses are restaurants, ranging from Taco Bell to two Brazilian steakhouses. There are only a few big box stores: Hobby Lobby, the first PGA Tour Superstore in the area, and Best Buy is moving from across the street. And there are not one, but two mattress stores, which seems an automatic fixture in every shopping center.

But the spaces filled quickly in all three developments, and Jason Ryals, executive vice president of Colliers International Northeast Florida, a commercial real estate broker, said he wasn’t surprised by it.

“It’s really a no-brainer,” he said. “It’s the one market in Jacksonville that clearly is A+ retail. It’s got the population, above-average income, high traffic and employment.

“Mandarin’s a good area, but it doesn’t have employment. There’s not a lot of people working there. The Town Center combines it all.”

A key statistic in retail real estate is sales per square foot per year. Ryals said that restaurants at the Town Center average $1,000 per foot, while stores average $600. In other words, a 3,000-square-foot restaurant in the area would gross $3 million a year. The average for the rest of Jacksonville, he said, is about 60 percent of that.

“Every retailer we talk to, when they first come to town, they want their first store at the Town Center,” he said. “It’s a matter of wanting to be seen there, but it’s not just brand image. Stores do well there.”


Related: 15 new restaurants coming to St. Johns Town Center

Because of that, Ryals said that prices in the Town Center run 30 to 50 percent higher than neighborhood trade centers such as Beach and Hodges or San Jose Boulevard in Mandarin. Neither Morgan nor Sumner would give the prices their tenants are paying, but Sumner said the Promenade is less than The Strand and Morgan said The Strand is comparable to the St. Johns Town Center.

The Town Center certainly does get the traffic. About 40,000 cars a day go by on Town Center Parkway, another couple hundred thousand skirt just outside it on Butler Boulevard and Interstate 295.

But, of course, all those cars do have their drawbacks.

“For me, there’s already so much traffic there,” said Courtney Nations, a professor of marketing at the University of North Florida, just east of the Town Center. “We work on the same street and don’t even go over there for lunch because it’s so busy.”

But turn lanes are being added and Morgan said adding businesses on the other side of Gate and Town Center parkways could relieve some of the congestion.

“If you think about it, all those cars get off JTB onto Gate and it stacks up because everyone’s turning right,” he said. “Now you don’t have to turn right.”

Both The Strand and The Crossing are accessible by driving straight through that intersection on Gate Parkway.

LEVELS

Ryals said that one thing that he thought made the original St. Johns Town Center so successful was the way it attracted every level of income.

“At the north end, you have Target, Staples, Old Navy and, if you want to eat, there’s Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s and Arby’s,” he said. “The middle level is Sunglass Hut, Banana Republic, Abercrombie, where there’s some disposable income but you don’t have to be wealthy.

“At the south end, there’s Louis Vuitton, Mayor’s jewelers, Capital Grille and J. Alexander’s. If you make $40,000, you can shop at the north end. If you make $400,000 you can shop at the south end.”

But the new businesses across the street don’t have that range. They are more in what Morgan called “the middle cut, right down the middle of the fairway.”

“We just executed what the market has said it wants,” he said, “whether it’s a family wanting to go out together, millennials or empty nesters. These are brands that appeal to a broad expanse of demographics.”

But that does make the middle range, particularly with restaurants, more crowded.

“It has to create some cannibalization,” Nations said. “You have Jo-Ann in the Town Center, now you’re getting Hobby Lobby, and there’s a Hobby Lobby on Old St. Augustine Road. Will it cannibalize its own stores? But I guess they’ve done their research.

“Town Center had M Shack, and now we’re getting Red Robin,” she said. “[They’re] not duplicates, but it’s direct competition.”

“At some point, restaurants will hit a critical mass,” Ryals said. “They’re competing for the same customers. We’ve started to see that with Ovinte closing. When Cheddar’s and Firebirds open, will Bahama Breeze lose some of their customers?”

COMPETITION

But Ryals said he didn’t think the new stores would have much impact because there’s not that many of them.

Ryals said River City Marketplace, the still-growing shopping area in North Jacksonville, is probably far enough away so it won’t feel any impact from the Town Center projects. But he said The Avenues probably will. And so could Durbin Park, the massive mixed-use project planned in northern St. Johns County.

When Florida 9B gets complete, he said, it’s only going to be a 10-minute drive from that area up to the Town Center.

“What happens is that people ignore other areas as they’re driving to the Town Center,” he said. “Sticky Fingers just closed on Baymeadows at 295, and the manager said customers would tell him they’d just drive on by to the Town Center and figure out what they’ll do when they get there.”

But Sumner, who is also handling leasing for Durbin Park, said the first phase of that is 85 percent leased. That’s about 700,000 square feet of retail, Sumner said, and is anchored by Walmart and Home Depot. Phase 1 of Durbin Park is scheduled to open in 2019.

The second phase will have Bass Pro Shops, which was first announced five years ago, more entertainment and a cluster of furniture stores, she said. That’s expected to open in 2021.

Roger Bull: (904) 359-4296