As the recession bites great chunks out of profits nationwide and gobbles some businesses whole, Columbia’s Edens & Avant continues to hold on to its principles and build its holdings – as well as its signature tree-lined, awning-dotted, open-air shopping centers – from New York to Miami.
Founded in 1966 by Columbia grocer Joe Edens and initially located only in the Southeast, the company now operates regional offices in Atlanta, Boston, Columbia, Miami, New York and Washington, D.C. Its portfolio comprises 126 centers that house 3,000 retailers.
“Our success in the economic downturn is relative to our success up and down the East Coast,” says CEO Terry Brown, 49, who joined the company nine years ago. “Despite the worst global economic conditions since the Great Depression, our company has not only survived the downturn, but we have actually thrived over the past several years.”
How does Edens & Avant not only continue to grow but also to lure new investment? By being conservative – “Very conservative,” Terry stresses – and focusing on urban retail investments in major East Coast markets while pursuing a mission of limiting environmental harm.
The company’s newest project will transform a veritable sow’s ear – a derelict center once anchored by a 1960s-style Kroger – into a silk purse of small shops surrounding Columbia’s first Whole Foods Market. The transformation into Cross Hill Market is expected to cost $23 million and be completed in October 2012.
Cross Hill Market, which will house the area’s first Whole Foods Market, is expected to open by October 2012. Rendering courtesy Edens & Avant.
Terry says, “The center will become a unique gathering place that can serve as a catalyst for the continued evolution of our great city and its surrounding neighborhoods.”
The center marks an ongoing partnership between Edens & Avant and Whole Foods, which also worked together on a recently-opened Atlanta development. “For environmental reasons, when we can make it work, we like going into existing centers,” says Scott Allshouse, president of Whole Foods’ southern region. “And I believe that Edens & Avant is committed to making this a solid retail anchor that will be an attractive addition to the community.”
When the Columbia partnership was announced in July, amid much fanfare, Mayor Steve Benjamin said that we should look at this like a multiplier effect that would bring in retailers never before seen in Columbia. “Whole Foods is really the gold standard,” he said.
Cross Hill Market is expected to create 180 permanent and 120 part-time retail jobs, as well as 100 temporary construction-related jobs.
Terry says, “We took our time to find the right retail partner in Whole Foods, a company that promotes the same values that are important to us. Together, we are striving to make Columbia a world-class city where individuals and families can be healthy, happy and prosperous.”
Edens & Avant locates its developments only in areas housing 100,000 people within a three-mile radius. The wedge of land that will house Cross Hill Market is nestled between USC and Fort Jackson, in the midst of some of the city’s most established and affluent neighborhoods. Just down the road sits the rejuvenated Shoppes at Woodhill on Garners Ferry, which a $20 million Edens & Avant investment and an anchoring Target store have made into a thriving concern.
Edens & Avant relies on a tried-and-true formula: usually a higher-end grocery store as an anchor, plus maybe a Home Depot, Lowe’s or Best Buy. It signs leases before breaking ground and doesn’t depend on growth in the areas where it develops, instead locating only where growth already has occurred.
Though business publications had speculated a few years ago that Edens & Avant centers would begin to appear in unexpected places, Terry says the company plans on sticking really tight to the eastern seaboard, where opportunities abound from New York to Miami.
The company spends 60 to 70 percent of its investments on acquisition and development – “It would be hard only to develop,” Terry says – so refurbishing floundering centers has become both a company focus and a strength.
Many Edens & Avant centers are suburban, such as the Lenox Marketplace in the tony Buckhead area of Atlanta. But in Washington, D.C., the company’s City Vista development occupies the ground level of a high-income high-rise in sight of the Capitol. And in Charlotte, Atherton Mill stands less than a mile from the city center.
The company had $275 million in holdings in 1997 and expects growth in the near future to reach $4 billion to $4.5 billion.
Last April, Edens & Avant announced that it had secured $150 million in equity commitments from the State of Michigan Retirement System, New York State Teachers’ Retirement System and institutional investors advised by J. P. Morgan Asset Management. The commitment comes atop an existing equity commitment, bringing the total capital raised by the company in the preceding 12 months to nearly $1 billion to spend on developments during the next three years.
Woodhill Mall (top) and Trenholm Plaza (center and bottom) are two more shopping centers Edens & Avant has developed in Columbia. Photos courtesy Edens & Avant.
“This equity commitment demonstrates the continued support and confidence our blue-chip institutional investors place in Edens & Avant,” company CFO Jason Tompkins said at the time of the announcement.
But money isn’t the only sign of the company’s vision of future viability: The company works hard on “going green.”
Edens & Avant built and operates its Columbia headquarters at Main and Gervais streets with an eye toward sustainability – something it goes to great lengths to encourage in its shopping centers. “There’s a lot of talk about sustainability,” says Terry, who was just a grade-schooler on the original Earth Day. But Edens & Avant doesn’t just talk; “We do things,” he says.
On Earth Day this year, the company boasted that it had reduced energy use in the common areas of its shopping centers by 13 percent. During the same period, water use dropped 25 percent.
The company was the first to develop a sustainability handbook for retailers, who have to be convinced that spending a little more in construction might be worth the cost. The guidelines encourage efficient management of water, electricity and waste.
Edens & Avant benchmarks water and electricity use in the common areas of its centers and then attempts to reduce costs by using lower-maintenance plants and longer-life lighting. One center in Boston uses solar panels to power the lights in its common areas. Edens and Avant also uses sustainable building materials and attempts to persuade its retailers to do the same.
The company won’t immediately recoup the investments it makes in going the green route, Terry says. Instead, it hopes for cultural and behavioral dividends in its many communities.
“It’s important in the neighborhoods and communities where we work to set a standard,” he says.
Edens & Avant’s current South Carolina development projects are Argent Lake Village in Hardeeville, an 81,000-square-foot center anchored by Publix, and Carolina Forest in Myrtle Beach, 80,000 square feet anchored by Lowes Foods. Redevelopment and expansion is taking place at Cross Hill Market, 74,000 square feet of space anchored by Whole Foods. Past developments have included Columbia’s The Shoppes at Woodhill, at 209,000 square feet, and Trenholm Plaza, 188,000 square feet. Developments in Lexington include Hendrix Crossing at 62,000 square feet and Lexington Pavilion at 245,000 square feet.
In 1997, the company had developed its open-air centers only in South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Now it has 124 developments, in places as far flung as Atlanta, opened in 2000; Boston, in 2002; Miami, in 2006; and New York, in 2011.