Facing sharper retail competition from the nearly completed Chevy Chase Pavilion across the street and major new renovations at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Mazza Gallerie is undergoing a $3.5 million rejuvenation to lighten up its dour presence on the northwest corner of Wisconsin and Western avenues.
But the 13-year-old building isn't all that's being changed. Its owners -- the 5300 Wisconsin Avenue Joint Venture, made up of Prudential Insurance Co. of America and British Petroleum's pension fund -- also are adjusting the mall's management and strategy in hopes that it can finally compete and thrive in the burgeoning Chevy Chase shopping district.
To start, Prudential Property Co., the real estate arm of the parent, is replacing Mazza's leasing-management firm for the past eight years, Norfolk-based Goodman Seger Hogan Inc., and it is churning the mall's tenant mix.
"With all these glitzy new malls all over, we have had to do something to compete," said Skip McKenzie, a general manager at Prudential for Mazza, which has 416,000 square feet of retail space on four levels. "We are eliminating dumpy stores and have been refining the poorly leased mix and we're still debating what we want."
Even on sunny days, the interior of Mazza Gallerie has been gloomy. The heavy, smooth marble and hulking, oft-criticized design reminded many of a mausoleum. After troubles getting built, Mazza struggled throughout the 1970s and '80s with a mishmash of stores that did not attract shoppers in the numbers expected by planners.
Its present owners acquired the 57-store mall eight years ago from HSL, a five-member partnership including Exxon Corp. and the Mazza family, which developed the 8.5-acre site. The current owners did some minor face-lifting in 1982 after bringing Goodman Seger Hogan on board.
The almost completed Chevy Chase Pavilion across the street seems to have been a major impetus for the latest changes. The 60-store Pavilion is scheduled to open in October and is 80 percent leased, with a plum in the signing of the popular clothier Barneys New York.
The Pavilion enticed the Limited out of its 4,000-square-foot space in Mazza and into two 17,000-square-foot spaces for the Limited and Limited Express there. McKenzie discounted the move, saying, "You will always have defections at first and, really, the Limited never really was the kind of store that belonged here."
Chevy Chase Pavilion developers think they will help Mazza. "We are comrades in arms -- Mazza helps us and we help them," said William Vose of the Donohoe Development Co., which owns the Chevy Chase Pavilion.
Mazza may need a lot of help, local retailers say. Its shoppers, according to internal polls, are mostly older women, not a group some of the bigger-volume retailers covet.
Others see continued problems because it has only a single anchor store, Neiman-Marcus, with 124,000 square feet of space. "One-anchor shopping just does not work," said Walt Petrie, a local mall developer. "That setup does not generate the kind of traffic that a pair working together does."
Rumors in the retail community have the Hecht Co. once again considering a possible link with Mazza by building a new store attached to the back of the mall.
The Mazza family still owns a parcel of land next to the mall and the May Co., which owns Hecht's and has a Lord & Taylor nearby, reportedly holds leases on it.
"We have always been interested in getting a store in Chevy Chase," said Hecht's Chairman J. Warren Harris. "And we are anxious to get a store in the area. ..."
Prudential's McKenzie said another anchor would be welcome, though he named more upscale stores such as Nordstrom and Macy's as better matches for Mazza than mid-priced Hecht's.
Whatever happens, McKenzie sees Mazza as a mall whose time has come.
"We were the first important development in the Chevy Chase area and we have been wallowing in mediocrity for a long time," he said. "Now we can take off like a rocket."