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A shopping mall on life support looks for a second chance

A seating area in the center of the main area of Life Time Center. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

You can do a lot of things at the Life Time Center, the new fitness facility opening this week in the Chestnut Hill location previously occupied by the Atrium Mall.

In the two-level, 129,000-square-foot space, you can hop on a treadmill then order a turkey burger on a gluten-free bun at the LifeCafe. Book a manicure in the spa or a bone mineral density scan in the medical center. Or take a spin class while your child practices tumbling.

But the new development is also a experiment that has the local retail industry talking: Can a collection of businesses focused on healthy living revive a mall that was once on life support?


In many ways, the shuttering of the mall’s remaining retail storefronts in 2013 was a harbinger. Today, as traditional department stores like Macy’s and JCPenney are closing, property owners are increasingly looking to incorporate health and wellness facilities into preexisting structures to inject new life to zombie malls.

The Atrium Mall in 1995.Globe Staff/File

When the Atrium Mall opened in 1989, it too was hailed as the cutting edge luxury complex for high-end patrons. Shoppers at the mall on Route 9 will remember the odd-shaped building crisscrossed with a network of escalators. The “vertical mall” was developer Stephen Karp’s vision for the future of retail, and a Boston Globe article wondered if customers were ready for doorman service, marble floors, brass handrails, and glass balconies in a suburban shopping center.

The answer, succinctly, was no. Without an anchor department store or a food court, the Atrium struggled to gain traction. After opening as a boutique-centric suburban answer to Newbury Street, it reinvented itself several times, ultimately failing as both a restaurant destination centered around the Cheesecake Factory and a haven for upscale children’s furniture and clothing.

Perhaps the lowest point, said Jeffrey Arsenault, the Boston-based principal of the Avison Young commercial real estate firm, was when the mall owners attempted to fill vacant storefronts with the traveling “Bodies Human: Anatomy in Motion” exhibit in 2011. It turns out that the curated collection of skinned cadavers did little to boost the mall’s own body count. The exhibit closed two months early due to lack of foot traffic.


“It was creepy,” Arsenault said, still marveling at the thinking behind the strategy. “It was like, ‘Hey, let’s look at skinned dead people and then grab a cheesecake.”

A customer pulled into the parking are at the upscale Atrium Mall in Newton in 1994.Globe Staff/File

Reincarnating traditional retail storefronts into wellness outposts was very much on everyone’s mind at ReCon, the International Council of Shopping Centers’ annual conference held in Las Vegas late last month, said Arsenault, where panels were devoted to topics like “How to Pivot and Create a Customer-Centric ‘Living Business.’ ”

Jason Thunstrom, the communications manager for Life Time Fitness, said that the shifting retail landscape has provided a variety of new opportunities for the Minnesota company, which already operates two expansive health club facilities in Westwood and Framingham.

“As the anchors are folding these property management companies are looking for new ways to reinvent what they’re opening for consumers,” he said. “This opens an incredibly new nontraditional thought about how we grow our footprint throughout America.”

It was that same line of thinking that led Bulfinch Companies Inc., to buy the struggling site from the mall giant Simon Property Group in 2012. At the time, the idea that they would retrofit the complex for medical facilities was met with some skepticism. Over the last few years Bulfinch spent more than $100 million between the acquisition and construction of the site, while Life Time spent about $17 million for workout facilities and an in-house medical center. It shares the space with several doctor’s offices on the floors above.


The exterior of the Life Time Center at the former site of the Atrium Mall.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

“We saw the location as an optimal location for the medical office community,” said Bulfinch’s Michael Wilcox, who is overseeing the leasing for the rest of the building, including a high-profile medical center that will soon sign a lease to occupy the building’s fourth floor. He said that potential tenants have been drawn to the healthy ideals that Life Time promotes, and that the mall’s ceiling heights and preexisting infrastructure lended itself well to clinicians’ needs.

One thing is also clear: physicians are attracted to Life Time’s well-heeled clientele.

The women's locker room inside Life Time Center.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

In targeting those who choose to live well, the center is also taking on the luxe Equinox gym just up the road at Chestnut Hill Square. But the nearby competition doesn’t faze Life Time’s founder and chief executive, Bahram Akradi, who says the center is much more than a mere gym. (Along those lines, Life Time employees don’t use the G-word, and the company is actively looking to drop ‘fitness’ from its name, as it doesn’t reflect its full array of amenities).

Calling the complex an “athletic country club,” Akradi said the center is a manifestation of his original vision for the company, which launched 25 years ago this year. The Chestnut Hill site is a Diamond Premier club, the highest tier of Life Time’s offerings, with seven fitness studios, a full service salon and spa, and an onsite team of medical providers and registered dieticians who will work alongside the facility’s trainers to help members optimize their health. Rates start at $169 a month for access to the center (with $80 memberships for spouses, and $50 for children under 13). Members of the other Life Time clubs in the region must upgrade their plans to use the Chestnut Hill location.


The treadmills at the fitness facilities.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The center’s goal is to provide its members with enough amenities that they can spend an entire day reveling in their own wellness.

“We’re really taking the healthy beyond the perspective of exercise,” Akradi said. “In order to truly be healthy you have to connect all the dots to become physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. If the first picture someone gets from this facility is that this is just a great looking fitness center, then we’ve failed.”

One of the treatment rooms in the spa.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.