New Tenants Improve University Village Outlook

June 24, 2011

University Village has landed three new retail tenants and leased new office space since its owners and manager resumed control of the project this year.

(RIVERSIDE, CA The Press-Enterprise by TIFFANY RAY, June 24, 2011) — Six new leases have been signed so far, according to Sandy Sigal, president and CEO of NewMark Merrill, the company that handles leasing for the center. Among them are Sushi Ya, which plans to open a 3,600-square-foot restaurant near UltraStar Cinemas; Lollicup, a shaved ice and specialty drink shop that is taking 1,500 square feet near the T-Mobile store; and Japanese fast-foot chain Yoshinoya, which has signed on for about 1,700 square feet next to Flame Broiler.

Construction on the three restaurants is under way, and they all are expected to open by the end of the summer.

University Village, at University and Iowa avenues near UC Riverside, was originally envisioned as Riverside's answer to Westwood in Los Angeles, a lively entertainment and shopping hub catering to the local student population. Opened in 1996, it was challenged from the start by construction delays and has faced high vacancy rates and parking problems.

The 180,000-square-foot center was placed in receivership in summer 2009 after owners allegedly defaulted on more than $30 million in loans. Sigal said NewMark Merrill resumed management and leasing duties in January after owners worked out a deal for restructuring the debt and regained control of the property.

Sigal said the new deal has freed up cash flow and enabled managers to work out new tenant deals. Owners have since invested more than $1 million in the property, updating seats in the movie theater and repairing and adding new signs, among other things, he said. "We will continue to fight the good fight," Sigal said. "I think it's a good asset."

Among other recent additions, UCR has signed leases for office space in the center, and the U.S. Air Force has opened a recruiting office.

Sigal said the new tenants bring occupancy up to about 78 or 79 percent --- still not ideal, but a marked improvement from earlier lows in the mid-60 percent range.

Although the center draws a bustling crowd at lunchtime, numbers diminish in the evenings and in summer, when the student population shrinks. Sigal said the next challenge is to diversify the restaurant-heavy tenant roster, bringing in clothing stores, a bookstore or a printing shop, for example.

Tricia Hinckley, director of strategic initiatives for the city of Riverside, said the city wants to help create an environment around University Village that will benefit not only students, but also local businesses and other residents. Officials are looking at ways to use the center, parking areas and undeveloped areas nearby for outdoor concerts or other events.

Jeff Kraus, director of local government and community relations for UCR, said university and city officials recently took a months-long look at off-campus amenities for students, and University Village became a focal point of that study. There is a lot of potential in the center, he said, and its success is important to the off-campus student experience at UCR.

Kraus said officials are looking at ways to improve the link between the university and the center, for example with improved lighting and easier access for cars, pedestrians and bicycles. Officials met last week with University Village representatives to share findings and talk about next steps.

Reach Tiffany Ray at 951-368-9559 or tray@PE.com