Talking shop: Filling Stonefield vacancies is a priority

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The new owner of The Shops at Stonefield, O’Connor Capital Partners, has developed shopping centers throughout the country, but Stonefield, its 19th retail property, is its first in Virginia. Staff photo The new owner of The Shops at Stonefield, O’Connor Capital Partners, has developed shopping centers throughout the country, but Stonefield, its 19th retail property, is its first in Virginia. Staff photo

It was difficult to snag a parking space on a recent middle-of-the-day trip to The Shops at Stonefield—the upscale shopping center that houses Trader Joe’s and Regal Cinema and was recently acquired by a national development firm. Though the place was crowded with shoppers before New Year’s Eve, the new owners say filling the center’s vacancies will be an immediate challenge.

Currently, nine spaces—a total of 28,000 square feet—are vacant, according to O’Connor Capital Partners, which is based in Manhattan and has developed many retail centers, residential and office buildings, but never in Virginia. It purchased the shopping center from EDENS, a development firm headquartered in several major cities across the country.

“The plan is to bring in more key tenants that aren’t already represented in the market and that have made The Shops at Stonefield the preeminent retail destination in the region,” O’Connor Capital spokesperson Mitch Breindel said in a press release.

Keith Rosenfeld co-owns HotCakes, a full-service catering business with an eatery in the Barracks Road Shopping Center since 1992. In the age of the Internet and online stores such as Amazon that can deliver goods to your front door, he says it’s becoming increasingly difficult for retail storefronts to be profitable while competition increases.

“The pieces of the pie just keep getting sliced thinner and thinner for each individual store because there are so many new ones, yet rent and other expenses keep going up,” Rosenfeld says.

Though the new owners have expressed some concern about the number of vacancies at The Shops at Stonefield, he says shopping centers are built today in anticipation of making sales over the next 20 to 30 years, and “Charlottesville may well grow into it.”

And development itself is competitive. “If a developer does not ‘buy the dirt today,’ he risks losing it forever,” Rosenfeld says. “A competing firm may swoop in, buy and develop the site, and box that developer out of the market. It’s the landrush aspect of development.”

Is there room for more retail in Charlottesville? “Nobody knows, but everybody’s got an opinion,” he says. “There’s no question in my mind that we are over-restauranted. I would also argue that we’re over-supermarketed.”

High-end retailers, such as the Jared jewelry store opening at Stonefield, might be in the best position for the future, he says, because people generally don’t order wedding rings and other expensive jewelry online.

Developers will likely also continue renting to restaurants because they draw customers into shopping centers and provide a lifestyle element. Rosenfeld notes the number of eateries currently open at Stonefield—14 out of the 41 spaces listed on the shopping center’s website—make up about one-third of its total retail. The question he asks, though, is how many of those restaurants will survive the intense hyperlocal competition for diners.

The owner of Whimsies, a children’s clothing and toy store that recently relocated from Barracks Road to Stonefield, says she was wary of moving at first and had heard about insufficient parking and low customer turnouts at the latter shopping center. But now, patrons who are waiting to eat dinner or for a movie to start often enter her store to kill time.

“We recognize a lot of traffic from those things,” owner Jessie Wright says. “We’re very excited to be at Stonefield. It was a scary thing to do after 30 years of being in one spot. …We are happy with the decision and it has really helped us.”

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