Sheri Ross is the Director of Lease Administration at North American Properties, a premiere commercial real estate development company headquartered in Cincinnati that serves the Midwest and South. work.shop is working with North American on an exciting mixed-use project in the city of Alpharetta, Georgia called Avalon. The project has won several awards, including Deal of the Year in Metro Atlanta and a New Development Gold award from ICSC. Avalon offers half a million square feet of retail space in addition to outdoor amenities, office space, luxury rental units, and single family homes. Avalon is certainly the future of shopping centers. The grand opening of its second phase is April 13th, 2017. We sat down with her to get her take on the industry, this special project, and the future of retail.
work.shop: Sheri, could you start by telling us a little about yourself and your job as a leasing director?
Sheri: Sure. I work on the leasing team and I also work on the development and construction team. I get to wear two hats. I negotiate all of our leases, that’s my leasing hat and then I also work on tenant coordination. So I take a deal from the time the letter of intent is signed through lease negotiations. Then I work with the tenant to get their store designed, their space delivered, their tenant build out completed and then get them opened for business. Once they are open for business, we hand them off to the property management team.
w: How did you decide to get into this field?
S: I started in this business in 1989 by accident. I was trying to get a teaching job in Raleigh, North Carolina and the Triangle area is very competitive for teachers. I was fresh out of college and didn’t have any experience, so I could only get hired as a substitute teacher and substitute teachers have no benefits. I was barely making the rent and a friend of my step dad’s was looking to hire an office manager for the mall office at North Hills in Raleigh, North Carolina. They offered me a job, making at the time only like $1,500 more than I was getting paid as a sub, but I would get benefits and it was a full time job. I knew that I would get enough work to pay my bills, so I abandoned teaching and took a job with the mall. I have been in retail estate since then acting in various roles. I’ve been in property management, I’ve done some marketing, and now doing leasing and tenant coordination. So my career has kind of evolved over the years.
I think that having worn different hats and come up through the property management ranks certainly gives me a good background to handle a lot of the challenges that I face today. For example, when I am negotiating a lease, if I’m giving something away to a tenant I understand how that’s going to impact the property management team because I’ve been in their shoes. I know what it’s like when you have a lease that is difficult. So, like I’ve said, I’ve been doing this a long time and gained a lot of experience.
w: What do you like most about what you do?
S: I like working with the tenants. I like talking with them – each tenant is different in that their business is very unique. There are very unique things about a shoe store versus a jewelry store versus an electronics store. Their driving factors, what’s important to them, what are their hot buttons. I find all of that very interesting. How you bring all of these people together to operate as a harmonious unit to create a shopping environment and experience that appeals to everyone. Each tenant speaks a different language because they all have different things that are important to them and being able to bring it all together and make it work – that to me is very cool.
w: In what ways have you seen the industry change over the last 10 years? And how do you see it changing in the next 5-10 years?
S: The industry has changed dramatically since I’ve been in the business. The golden child of the industry was enclosed malls for a long time. Then people moved to the burbs and it was power centers – you know Target and Home Depot and Best Buy. And then people started moving back into the cities and the big box centers don’t fit as well in urban markets – it’s very difficult and they have learned to evolve and we had to learn to evolve with them. And then the web, the growth of online shopping and purchasing. Basically you never have to leave your sofa to buy anything, unless you want to go out to dinner. You can sit in your house with your iPad or your phone and buy anything you need. So what is going to make someone want to get out of their pajamas and off the sofa to get in their car or get on a train or bus and come to your center?
“People want the experience and connection.”
To be successful you have to offer them something they can’t get from that iPhone or that iPad. Customers want an experience. And you bring retailers together that offer unique products and an experience with their purchase. You curate a great mix of restaurants and entertainment options, because people want the experience and connection. You bring live music, you bring events, you bring things that people enjoy seeing and doing together and that’s how we have responded to the change in market. That is what we’re doing in all of our centers. If you don’t bring that human element, if you don’t give people a reason to love to visit your project then they’re not going to come- they’ll sit on their sofa with their phone.
w: What makes Avalon such an exciting project?
S: We create an experience. We’ve carefully curated our restaurants to include a great steak place, a great Mexican place that serves the best margaritas in town, a very cool burger joint, sushi, the best pizza in the area. We brought together top restaurants and they serve as an anchor because that brings people together. We have Regal Cinemas, which is another experience-based retailer. Whole Foods adds yet another dimension to the overall Avalon experience. Customers love the engaging environment at Whole Foods and a vibrant grocery store is an important element of Avalon’s success.
“We have curated a property that becomes that third place.”
So we bring all that together and we provide public gathering spaces. The sum is better than each of its parts. We are giving people a third place to go in their daily lives. You have your home place and you have your work place but where do you go when you’re not at home and you’re not working – well that’s your third place. And we have curated a property that becomes that third place where you can go to grab dinner and catch a movie, you can sit in the plaza and catch free live music. You can grab bean bags and play cornhole with your buddies holding a big beer on Tuesday nights. You can bring your kids on Tuesday mornings for ‘Mommy’s Morning Out’ and they do the tot thing in the plaza. So again, it is creating a reason, giving people an experience and that’s what Avalon does best.
The Alpharetta market changed dramatically over the past years and the existing retail offerings did not keep up with it. Alpharetta used to be, in an old expression, a “cow town” – way out there, cornfields, not a lot going on. And then the market changed and dozens of technology companies opened up along GA 400 corridor. With technology companies come highly educated people, making good wages and they don’t want to shop at standard department stores anymore. They want to shop at a nicer place. They want to be able to shop at stores carrying the hottest brands like a Lululemon, they want to be able to have a nice meal and a great bottle of wine. In order to get what they were craving these people were having to drive south, all the way to Buckhead in northern Atlanta. The market had changed, the existing retail never saw that evolution and didn’t keep up with it. So we filled in that void.
w: What was the biggest challenge with this project?
S: The biggest challenge was that it was a new, untested market. We were reaching out to national retailers in a time coming out of the recession. So we were starting our pre-leasing in 2012, people are finally starting to shake the cobwebs of the recession and we were talking to merchants such as Banana Republic and Lululemon and J. Crew and Crate & Barrel. All of these tenants are saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know if we’re ready to make a move to an unproven market. We’re really happy with our store in Buckhead.’ And it was a lot of, ‘I don’t know, it’s new, we don’t like new, we’d rather wait for a space to open up in say Lenox Square down in Buckhead, a proven market.’ That was a big deal, getting brands like Anthropologie to go to Alpharetta. That was hard. It was a huge challenge.
“We were trying to create a village.”
The other huge challenge was that we had never built a mixed-use center before. We had never built a project this complex with ground floor retail with apartments and offices above. So that was a learning curve for us here at North American. We have a multi-family division so they built the apartments and we did build the office lofts over retail as well. And because we were trying to create a village that offers guests a meaningful & unique experience, we didn’t want it to physically look like or operate like any other shopping center.
One of the ways we did that was we had each tenant design and build their own flagship storefront. We delivered cold dark shells and had each tenant fit-out their stores including a custom designed storefront. In the past we would deliver to tenants what is known as a white box. So they get their floor, they get their lights, they get their bathroom, and they get their storefront. They go in, provide and install their inside finishes and put their sign on the front. That’s not what they got here. We wanted each retail space and each restaurant space to look completely different. We wanted it to be an authentic storefront along a new main street similar to those traditional downtowns in Cool Town, USA. And that was incredibly challenging to get retailers to do that much of the work themselves and design their own storefronts. And then, where those storefronts meet, where those two tenants touch like where Lululemon meets Madewell, how do you waterproof between the two of them? How do you connect them? One storefront is taller than the other and one sticks out in front of the other, how do you work that out to be waterproof and beautiful? Design coordination was super difficult. Also, physically and logistically that was a big challenge. We were building 60 stores at the same time and they all have their own general contractors with their own dozen subcontractors. It was controlled chaos during tenant build out. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And the most interesting and challenging thing I’ve ever done.
The work.shop team – we rely on work.shop for systems and managing our “boots on the ground” tenant coordination. We had Michael Greeby, whose role was to lead the tenant coordination team, set up the tracking system, write the Digital Design Criteria Manual. He also had to review all the Tenant storefront designs, tweak them so they looked awesome, figure out what was going to look good next to one another, and get them through the City of Alpharetta’s Design Review Board approval and permitting process. Also, we have Jeff MacMillan on site as our senior tenant coordinator. At our busiest time during Phase I we had four people on site from work.shop and the Greeby Companies. So there were two pieces that work.shop provided for us that we relied on very heavily. Michael talked more to tenants and their architects than we ever did. We relied on Michael to be our voice, communicating our vision. We are doing the same thing for Phase II with Brandy [Kardys of work.shop] and Michael. Very seldom did I need to get involved with a phone call to the Tenant design teams. Brandy brings me in only when a tenant is just being too difficult or we can’t reach a resolution, or the resolution is going to cost the landlord money.
w: Why did you decide to use work.shop’s DDCM?
S: Because we had never done this before. Members of NAP’s development and construction team knew Michael from previous jobs and so we knew Michael had the vision with his design perspective and the technical expertise to hold our tenant’s hands through this process. They had done mixed-use projects before, even though ours was probably at the time one of the bigger challenges they’ve had. But they were there every step of the way.
“We knew Michael had the vision with his design perspective and the technical expertise to hold our tenant’s hands through this process.”
As they say, it takes a village and Avalon took a village to get it open. Michael and work.shop in writing our design manual and doing all the things he did through the entire tenant coordination process – from the storefront review, to construction drawings review, and the sign package review was a very key member of our team to bring it all together.
w: What are you looking forward to most this year, either personally or professionally?
S: Professionally, I am looking forward here to working on our new Colony Square project. We bought an existing property that we are going to redevelop, including ripping the roof off of the retail atrium that connects the two office towers. My role right now on this project is to deal with all the existing tenants. So professionally, by September 1st I have to know exactly who’s staying and where they’re going or exactly who’s leaving and how much it’s going to cost us and have all of the deals papered by August 31st. It’s a pretty big job that’s taking up a lot of focus because there are so many moving parts.
Personally, I am renovating my townhome. I bought a new townhome and I moved into town from the burbs in November of 2015 and I’ve been slowly renovating it. I finished my bathroom renovation about 60 days ago and currently I’m in the middle of my kitchen renovation, which should wrap up by March. So my goal is to have a house that will be worthy of actually inviting somebody over and they don’t have to step over plywood and tools and they can actually sit on a piece of furniture without getting dust all over them.