The suspense over the future of the Westbard Sector Plan, and the portion acquired by Equity One in late 2012, is building.
Tenants of those properties, and nearby residents, are wondering what Equity One's plans are, and what kind of relationship - cooperative, aggressive, etc. - the firm has with tenants and the communities it develops in.
Recent comments by Equity One CEO Jeff Olson provide the first hints of what's to come, but no definitive answers to the above questions.
I also found out that Equity One apparently has not bought the Westbard properties outright. Rather, it has a mortgage on them, with the option to buy as soon as 2014.
On a media conference call, Olson made his first public comments about the Westwood Shopping Center. If you're a fan of the venerable retail center - like me - you might be a bit offended. Apparently, where Olson is from, they don't have good, old-fashioned, functioning neighborhood shopping centers.
So Westwood Shopping Center strikes him - as it does many a nouveau-riche newcomer - as a bit quaint.
However, give the guy a break. He's here for business, and can't be expected to have nostalgia for the place like some of us who grew up around here. Let's give him a chance to meet with the community, describe his vision for Westbard, and explain what types of retail - and restaurants, in particular, of which Westbard has none in the traditional sense - he can bring to any proposed development.
It's important to note that the property is not currently zoned for a town center. I believe a landowner has the right to do anything he or she wants, that is allowed by current zoning.
If zoning must be changed to do it, as in this case, then - like it or not - the landowner has to work with the community to reach an agreement.
What hints I take from overall statements he made about the firm's entire portfolio, is that they do plan to add residential elements to some of their properties.
But they also have some that are retail and big box centers.
Olson's Westwood comments suggest that two things are certain: he definitely wants to develop the parcel closest to Westland MS and Park Bethesda. And, he wants Giant - parent company Ahold, in reality - to pay more rent. A lot more.
And Ahold's willingness to give up a sweet 99-year lease shows that they're really not attached to this shopping center for the long term. So the community is in danger of losing Giant in 2019, it sounds like to me.
If that happens, can Olson bring in a Wegmans? That's about the only way he could lessen the outrage of losing Giant.
The other big question: Given the company's expertise in big-name retail, would they be content to operate WSC as a retail center? Or are they dreaming of a massive, urban town center, like Capital Properties was?
The 3.3 acre parcel is currently zoned residential. That will easily be changed under the new zoning code.
Until Equity One reaches out to the community, we won't really know. What I do know is that Westbard is a community retail area designed to provide basic services and shopping (groceries, barber shop, pet store, drug store, gas stations, auto repair, and even watch and shoe repair) to nearby residents.
And it is currently "walkable" for surrounding neighborhoods.
It is not a sensible place for high-density, urban development or a regional destination.
And I noticed Olson used one of those "smart growth" buzzwords, "underutilized." Oh, brother.
The Westbard area has a lot of unacknowledged history in it, and has been disrespected by elected officials and the Planning Board as long as I've been alive. That prologue absolutely sets the terms for future decisions in the Westbard Sector Plan. There's no negotiation on that point.
Now, here are the words of the new landlord himself, Equity One CEO Jeff Olson, regarding the Westwood Shopping Center:
"[W]e're excited to buy the property. I was just out there this past weekend and I mean it's a very exciting redevelopment opportunity. In many ways...this reminds me of Serramonte, because it's an old large piece of underutilized real estate with incredible demographics and severe supply constraints. But like Serramonte, it's only had one owner since the developer built it and that owner had never expanded the property. So that's as unique in many ways. It was built in 1959 and if you look at the center today it looks like it's from 1959. I think you could do a Back to the Future movie there. It's anchored by a Giant Food with a 50-year lease [not true - Giant had a 99-year lease which they renegotiated for a shorter term a few years ago] that expires in 2019 and they pay $2 bucks a foot in rent. By way of comparison we've some other grocers in our portfolio that are doing similar sales volumes that are paying us in the 40s. And in addition to that below market lease there's a vacant 3.3 acre parcel that's never been developed. So there's a lot for us to do with that center."