Wilmette, News

‘Our report card should come the day it reopens’: A conversation with Samantha David, president of WS Development, on Plaza del Lago and Edens Plaza

As far as the future of commerce in Wilmette, maybe no one holds a bigger stake than WS Development — the Boston-based developer that purchased the village’s most prominent shopping centers, Edens Plaza and Plaza del Lago, in 2021-’22.

Since, significant changes have been afoot. Renovations in Edens Plaza have centered on the development of Wayfair’s first retail location. Down on Sheridan Road, work has just begun, but a public review and storefront changes have been ongoing for months.

Along with the changes, speculation and rumor have become regular fodder around town. With that in mind, The Record on Jan. 18 spoke with WS Development President Samantha David about the two shopping centers development, the company’s vision and what if anything she can say about their futures.

Samantha David, president of WS Development

Your organization has an impactful stake in the future of Wilmette. Anything you want residents to know about you or the current state of Plaza del Lago and Edens Plaza?

We are based in Boston and have just over 100 properties across the country and we’re one of the largest privately owned developers in the country. The privately owned part is quite important to us. It means we can be long-term thinkers and we don’t have what I think is really a burden of reporting to Wall Street every quarter. … We listen, we learn and then we develop a plan for what we think will best serve the neighborhood. And for Edens Plaza and Plaza del Lago … it’s very different, what we think they can be for the community. We believe in the North Shore. We believe in this market, in terms of people wanting to plant their flag, and being younger and younger and moving out of the city, and we need to serve the families who are choosing to make Wilmette or the surrounding communities their home.

(Plaza del Lago?) Anybody who grew up around here knows the history of Plaza del Lago and just how important it is, not just to the community but in the canon of retail and shopping centers it holds a really special place. … It’s our job to take what has been, quite frankly, two underinvested-in assets and bring them back to what they could be. That’s two different things, but in the place of Plaza del Lago, to restore it to this truly iconic, incredible place that Wilmette can really be proud of. And similarly for Edens, to bring in the best new brands and the best food and obviously Wayfair.

You met with some neighbors of Plaza del Lago (on Jan. 17). How did that go and what was some of the feedback?

It went very well, which I was happy to experience. I said to them, which is undoubtedly true, development is emotional. These are places where people live and have chosen to spend their money and settle down and maybe retire or raise a family. If something is happening across the street or it’s going to impact your day to day, emotions run high. People care deeply, and at the same time, we are excited people care deeply. It means it’s a place people are invested in. … We know there are a lot of opinions. We know there are a lot of rumors. We know we can’t stop those rumors. We tried to address as many as we could, but our report card will and should come the day Plaza del Lago reopens. The grand reopening is scheduled for early summer 2025, so just about 18 months for that. Between now and then, people can do their homework and I hope see the properties we’ve developed and see the historic properties that we’ve invested in. But if not, they’ll see in 18 months. It’s our job to make people excited and do right by them. And that’s what’s going to happen.

WS Development is based in a different corner of the country. What are your plans to operate these shopping centers with a local mindset?

We do this all around the country, where we build local teams. We already have a local team that is operating between Edens Plaza and Plaza del Lago. We will have a dedicated on-site team at those assets, in addition to a regional presence (Chicago). We did this in Florida and California; we’ve done this in Kansas. Our job is to pick extraordinary people and have the oversight that gives them all the support they need. … And also to have strong enough people so it isn’t all top-down, but it’s also bottom-up: them hearing from the community and telling the global team what should be happening.

Talking about restoring Plaza del Lago, what does that mean to you?

When this opened in 1927 … no one had seen anything like it. And it was a new way for people to spend time and … at the core of it, because this was a beautiful building in what was becoming an affluent area, it attracted the best retailers and the best food and the things people really cared about, and it was a place people really wanted to spend time. … So when we talk about restoring it, there is the very tactical of truly restoring every facade and every storefront, every piece of detail of stucco and metal work … so you are welcomed into a place that feels like, ‘I just want to sit and have a cup of coffee. This is going to make me happy.’

From a macro standpoint and what that allows us to accomplish is to go back to bringing in the best quality businesses. Our business everywhere is always a mix of nationals and locals. It will always be better for the success of a shopping center to bring in the best local businesses. We have literal teams of people here who just go out and talk to business after business after business. … This should be a mix of all of the best stuff — of every level, of every type.

Can you respond to a regular concern we’ve heard that WS Development is pushing out local retailers to make way for more “posh” businesses?

That’s not the intent. A bunch of businesses have left, often because the extent of work we were about to undertake meant we’d have to move them to temporary locations and move them back and at that point many businesses chose to move downtown permanently. (Three businesses did so: Chantilly Lace, Hanig’s Footwear, and La Colonna/Giggles & Giraffes.) The tower building (at Plaza del Lago) … we’re about to build two-level commercial to hopefully last the next hundred years. We are rebuilding every inch of that structure. We couldn’t have tenants in that building. So a lot who left were really a question of staging and sequencing a massive renovation project. We think quite a few of the businesses people love we worked hard to keep and some we worked hard and haven’t been able to keep and some we are in the process of trying to keep. We don’t talk about specifics of lease negotiations, because we don’t think it’s fair to the tenants; even though, our tenants don’t seem to abide by that same rule. … So even if we’re getting smeared, we’re going to have to live with it and people will judge us by what ends up happening.

As for the businesses that are going to come in, “posh” is a hard word. They are not going to be at one price point. There is going to be stuff that people love of all different price points — some high price points, some low price points, some local, some national. All different things. It is going to be a very eclectic mix. Basically anyone should be able to find something there they like and they can afford. There’s a CVS and a Jewel. This is not going to be a standoffish place, even if some of the stores have expensive stuff.

CVS and Jewel are staying?

Yes, so far as we’re concerned. Tenants can always choose to leave, but we have no intention of them leaving.

Since WS has taken over Plaza del Lago, have rents risen?

We really can’t talk about rents. But hopefully if we do our job well sales will go up a lot and the businesses will be more and more successful. That’s our goal.

Can you respond to Yellow Bird’s claim that they were misled about their future in Plaza del Lago?

All I can say is we’ve worked hard to try to keep them in Plaza del Lago.

Do you have any new Plaza del Lago tenants signed that you will announce?

We have tenants signed but none of whom we can announce yet. Tenants want announcements about openings to happen closer to the opening. … A tenant wants to announce the moment before the opening. So we hope to have the ability to announce something in advance of opening but we’re working on that. We have a good portion of the property committed.

Anything else related to Plaza del Lago you’d like residents to know?

When a shopping center hasn’t been invested in, there is so much that needs to be done to bring it up to current day standards. We’re replacing all of that infrastructure to bring everything into this next century. It was built in ’27, so it’s almost at 100 years. Our job is to make it what it needs to be for the next 100 years. What people will see over the next 18 months is we’re going to invest heavily to do this right. We’re not going to take shortcuts. We have no intention of selling this. We plan to own it forever. If you do your homework on us, we don’t sell properties.

Over to Edens Plaza, what are we looking at with progress on Wayfair and the center overall?

It’s looking great. Wayfair is going to open in May. They are working really hard for that May grand opening. It’s their first-ever retail store. I think it’s going to be an incredible retail experience and a huge addition to the community. … We’ve really prioritized that and getting it open. We’re now in advanced negotiations with a bunch of tenants for a bunch of space in Edens Plaza. The tenant interest has been incredible. There is a ton of momentum. (Declines to comment on those tenants, but confirmed more dining options.)

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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