"We don't call it a mall, we call it a regional retail development," said Robert Phelps, the manager of Lakeforest.
"We considered it more of a retail entity," echoes Nancy Craig, his public relations assistant.
The people who work for the Taubman Co. insist they are different from ordinary shopping center builders.
They are - in at least one respect - they are bigger. Taubman has built 65 million square feet of shopping centers in the last 25 years and currently owns and operates 17 major regional centers. That makes the privately owned Southfield. Mich-based company the all-time leading developer of shopping centers, according to National Mall Monitor, an industry publication.
Now Taubman has come to Washington, opening a new regional office and adding 1.3 million square feet of stores to its total with Lakeforest, in Montgomery County. "We think Washington is one of the most viable markets in the country," said Phelps.
When Lakeforest opens Sept. 8, it will be the first of the far-out malls. Located just east of Interstate 270 at Gaithersburg, it is almost 10 miles outside the Beltway, leading the leapfrog game as the suburbs sprawl outward.
The only other shopping project planned that far from downtown is the Dale City mall on I-95 that is still several years away from construction. Even Taubman's next project here, a six-department-store development near I-66 and Route 50 in Fairfax that will be announced officially in a couple of weeks, will not be as far beyond the Beltway, although it too will be located beyond other major shopping areas.
Lakeforest is part of the new town of Montgomery Village. Kettler Brothers, the firm building the residential community, originally planned to put up the retail project as well, but instead sold the 130 acres to Taubman.
About 20 percent of the land has been set aside for what is supposed to become the new downtown Gaithersburg. Another 10 acres is taken over by three man-made lakes - ponds, really - that PR person Graig said have been stocked with 800 guppy-sized bluegills. The forest in Lakeforest - a name that begs to be made into two worlds - also is being created by the developers, with hundreds of trees that, like the bluegills, will have time to grow up.
Counting on its investments to grow is a corporate strategy for Taubman. Unlike most major developers, Taubman routinely opens its shopping centers with barely half the stores in business. Manager Phelps estimated that 30 to 50 of Lakeforest's 125 small stores will be leased when the mall opens this fall.
"If we ever leased a mall in advance, Mr. Taubman would figure we built it only half big enough," said Phelps. "Normally it takes us about two years to fill up."
Others in the shopping center business suggest Taubman's leasing department can't find tenants as fast as its construction department can build stores, and say the company has a reputation for tough lease negotiations, holding out for top dollar, and ignoring merchants who aren't willing to pay it.
"Some people have told us our square-foot lease price is quite high," acknowledged Phelps. "We're willing to wait to get the exact store we want."
Like most mall builders, Taubman counts on a coterie of mall merchants who will usually put a store anywhere the company puts a shopping center. But Phelps said Taubman's leasing team - like everything else, an in-house operation - agressively recruits strong local merchants.
Local merchants, especially, want to see how well a mall does before they sign a high-priced lease, and are the kind of tenants Taubman counts on getting after a project is open. Despite Taubman's tardiness in leasing projects, even the company's critics admit its centers are universally successful.
Taubman executives say the company's strength is based on the demand of chairman A. Alfred Taubman for running the entire project, from top to bottom.
Lakeforest carries that concept to fulfillment because it is the first center developed totally by Taubman, without the joint venture partnership with another builder that is nearly universal in the mall business. One reason Taubman can go it alone is that all four department stores in the center own their own buildings, land and parking lots, reducing the developer's capital requirements.
In all Taubman projects, Taubman's own market research people pick the markets. Taubman's real estate people get the property. Taubman construction builds the mall. Taubman leases it. Taubman manages it, Taubman cleans the parking lot and, in the case of Lakeforest and several other centers, Taubman even has a subsidiary to run the ice skating rink.
The skating rink - Olympic size, with bleachers for 200 - is the kind of amenity the company builds into its projects to attract shoppers, Phelps explained. In some Taubman centers, the indoor skating rinks are so successful that they are open around the clock, with Little League hockey players dragging their parents out of bed before dawn to get ice time.
The pride and joy of PR person Craig, however, is the indoor amphitheater in the center of the mall, with a stage surrounded by a water-filled moat, an elevator to deliver the stars (or Santa Claus), and even a dressing room. Lakeforest, said Craig, may be the only shopping center in America with a "green room."
Thousands can watch performances from both levels of the mall around the stage and a few hundred can find benches that are scattered among the indoor jungle around the moat. Although, as Phelps stressed, "Mr. Taubman does not allow articifical plants," the greenery is provided by an outside service firm.
As workmen scrubbed down the pink aggregate planters the other day, Phelps explained, with typical attention to detail, that the planters at Lakeforest are fiberglas resin impregnated with stone rather than the usual travertine marble. "Travertine stains" he said, and it takes too long to get replacement parts from Italy.
Radiating away from the central stage, like roads from a Washington traffic circle, are four lanes leading to the mall's anchor stores - Sears, Penney, Woodies and Hecht's. From the central court, shoppers can see all four department stores, each down an angular line of shops, on two levels.
The developers said the four department stores will utilize about half the total leasable space in the center. The Sears store will be 201,000 square feet; Hecht's, 170,000 square feet; Penney, 159,000 square feet; and Woodward and Lothrop, 150,000 square feet. The Penney store is only the chain's second major outlet in the Washington market, and the first to go head to head against Sears and the two local department stores.
Because, as Phelps put it, "We don't think Burger King belongs next to a boutique," the food stores that will occupy about 12 percent of Lakeforest's small shops will be clustered around the entrances.
Only the Sears store, which will open July 29, six weeks ahead of the rest of the mall, even is approaching completion. None of the little stores even has a front yet, because Taubman construction crews are just finishing their job and the merchants' crews are just starting to work.When a store leases space in a mall, space is all it gets.Taubman's Mexican tile floors stop at the front door, leaving crude concrete for the shops to clad at will.
In most malls, the developer only worries about heating and cooling the public spaces, letting store owners put their own furnaces and chillers on the roof; Lakeforest, however, comes with central heating and air conditioning. The complex air handling system can pull warm air from beneath the malls' many skylights on winter days, and duct it to cool corners the first floor, cutting energy use substantially, Phelps explained.
Expounding on the company's operating philosophy and management techniques on a tour of the cavernous shell, Phelps talked about everything but how much Lakeforest cost and how much business it will do. "We don't talk about numbers; we're a private company," he said.
Other developers say Lakeforest will have to pull in $130 million a year in sales by the time it is fully leased, and say that if sales per square foot are up to Taubman's standards, it could mature into a $200-million-a-year operation.