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From flannel to fitness, former Atrium mall starts over

The former Atrium mall in Chestnut Hill is being renovated into an office building and home for a massive fitness club.
The former Atrium mall in Chestnut Hill is being renovated into an office building and home for a massive fitness club.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Back in the ’90s, the Atrium in Chestnut Hill was a mecca for suburban teens hunting for the latest flannel shirts and drawstring cargo pants at its Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch stores.

But the mall closed three years ago, and its new owners are now aiming to make it a mecca of a different sort: a hub of health and wellness and fitness that would suit its former customers, now decades older.

The anchor of the new building will be Life Time Fitness, a national operator of giant health clubs that opened its first Massachusetts gym in Westwood a year ago. The Chestnut Hill building will be renamed the Life Time Center, and the company will fill the bottom two floors, some 110,000 square feet, with high-end exercise space, in-house spas, even a healthy cafe and bar.

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Meantime, the building’s owner, a Needham developer known as the Bulfinch Cos., is marketing the remaining space upstairs to doctors and health and wellness providers.

It’s a novel attempt to remake an old mall, many of which are struggling amid fierce competition from newer shopping centers and online retailers. Indeed, even along a moneyed stretch of Route 9, the Atrium long battled to draw customers from bigger neighbors.

But as a hub for offices that draw a lot of traffic, the old mall has some attractive qualities, said Bulfinch chief executive Eric Schlager, including a huge garage and vast floorplates in an affluent corridor just 2 miles from Longwood Medical Area. They’re trying to build a complex that meets a lot of needs, in one place.

“We thought it was just a logical transition,” he said. “It’s a convergence of what customers want to see today.”

Bulfinch bought the Atrium for $46 million in 2012, gradually moved out the last retail tenants, and then launched a major renovation of the building. It stripped out the storefronts, escalators, and marble floors and replaced dark walls with floor-to-ceiling windows.

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Today, the only things left from its heyday are the soaring three-story open space and skylights that gave the mall its name. A gilt-edged elevator is the only echo of its glitzy opening in 1989, celebrated with a doorman and a pianist in a tuxedo. The mostly unfinished interior has one built-out space — Bulfinch’s marketing office — with muted carpeting and clean glass that signal its future look.

The bottom two floors will mostly be Life Time’s. Typically, the Minnesota-based chain builds huge new gyms in roomy suburban locations. It launched a three-story stand-alone facility, with an outdoor pool, in Westwood last year and will open a similar facility in Framingham this week. A third location, in Burlington, is in the planning stages, chief executive Bahram Akradi said.

The Atrium Life Time will be a bit different — no pool or basketball courts, more space for high-end spa treatments and medical care. But the company loves the neighborhood, Akradi said, and worked for a year with Bulfinch designing a club to fit in there.

“We think with us in that building, their direction really becomes clear,” Akradi said. “It’s going to be a center for healthy living, healthy aging, and it’s going to serve the area very well.”

Blending retail and office, fitness, and a new restaurant is a smart use of an old mall, said Haril Pandya, who works on reusing old buildings at CBT Architects in Boston. That mix should draw a lot of people, especially if Bulfinch can find ways to keep it a lively place well into the evening.

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“Gone are the days of that centralized mall experience,” Pandya said. “Now developers are trying to blur the lines between live, work, and play. Putting fitness at the core of a building like this really makes sense.”

Bulfinch is working to nail down more tenants upstairs. Schlager said they’re set to close deals soon with several smaller offices and a restaurant. And Life Time plans to open in 2017, by which point this onetime mecca for flannel shirts and cargo pants will be something else, entirely.


Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.