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Natick Collection
In computer illustrations of Natick Collection, a diamond-like elevator is surrounded by floating, modern-art-inspired birch leaves. (Beyer, Blinder, Belle Architects)

Extreme makeover: mall edition!

With a world-class array of luxury shops and a new name, Natick Collection is taking aim at Newbury Street

Despite the bins of construction debris and a nearby group of pot-bellied men wearing hard hats and stained T-shirts, architect Stefanie Ashton seems confident that the site that she's touring with a group of developers will emerge as a sparkling 550,000-square-foot beacon of innovative, posh shopping come September.

"We didn't want this to be another shopping mall," says Ashton of Beyer, Blinder, Belle Architects , walking toward the end of the mall where Nordstrom will open late this summer. "We knew this was a space for luxury retailing, and we wanted to have a special building."

Special, because the Natick Collection (known in less fashionable times as the Natick Mall) is hoping to move beyond its Spencer Gifts lineage by adding a wing for Neiman Marcus , Louis Vuitton , Tiffany, BCBG , and Stil . Other tony boutiques soon to arrive include Burberry , Juicy Couture , Bet sey Johnson , Michael Kors , and Stuart Weitzman . The area's first Zara , a Spanish chain known for its cheap chic, will locate here, along with the first Nordstrom in Massachusetts. J.Crew and American Eagle will unveil concept stores. Legal Seafoods is opening a second concept restaurant . Upscale Boston eateries Sel de la Terre and Finale will make suburban forays there, too.

Outside of Chestnut Hill, it is the first time a non-outlet mall in Massachusetts has made a direct play for the luxury shopping market in the suburbs. Owner General Growth Properties is so sure that people will want to be at the mall -- sorry, the Collection -- that they are building a 215 -unit luxury condo development, called Nouvelle at Natick, on the premises.

After Boston experienced a luxury shopping boom last year with the opening of Barneys New York, Valentino, and Juicy Couture, a westward expansion is a logical progression. Betty Riaz, owner of Stil on Newbury Street and in the Chestnut Hill Mall, is opening her third store in the Collection. She is so certain about the Natick luxury market that she plans to stock higher-end labels than she carries at Stil's Newbury Street location.

"I never go into the Natick Mall," she says. "But the Collection is going to have a whole new customer base. They're making this a destination. The Louis Vuitton in the Collection will have clothes. You can't even get Louis Vuitton clothes in Boston."

Riaz and Collection developers are hoping that the mall will not only draw Metrowest shoppers, but also customers from Boston. Still, it won't be easy to retrain shoppers to associate Natick with luxury, says retail analyst Michael Tessler of Retail Concepts, a Norwell consulting firm. Route 9 in Natick and Framingham has a reputation for big box stores, mattress shops, and strip malls. Metrowest shoppers have grown accustomed to driving east for their luxury shopping, and keeping them in the neighborhood for Burberry plaid could be challenging, he says.

"Going into the city is shopper-tainment for them," Tessler says. "It's more than just purchasing things, it's people-watching and atmosphere. The Collection is going to have to do something really different to get these shoppers to come in."

It's clear that the architects are betting that forward-looking design and luxurious interiors will be a big part of that difference. The centerpiece of the new wing is an undulating glass ceiling that resembles the curves of hills. Such a dramatic design element is not something one generally stumbles across in a mall.

"We found out that Natick loosely means 'Place of rolling hills,' " says Ashton. "It's the only town around here that's kept it s Native American name. One of the first things we wanted to do was figure how we could create a rolling hill into the building, and that became most of the ceiling."

Ashton says that the curved ceiling is one of several touches employed to make the mall feel like a natural formation rather than a gigantic rectangle. Openings between the first and second floor appear to have been scooped out. An elevator resembling a canary diamond rises from the gem stone-themed underground parking garage. Inside, the mall is filled with groves of birch trees that have been reinterpreted as modern art. The floor is made of cream-colored Jerusalem stone, and there'll be an infinity pool that can be drained and used as a catwalk for fashion shows.

"The idea was to create a space that feels warm, very sculpted, and very curved," Ashton says.

Collection developer General Growth Properties thinks the "urban retail center" will succeed thanks to amenities such as valet parking. It will also offer other new features, such as free-standing stores in front of the mall which they believe will minimize the usual boxy mall feel.

The city's current purveyors of luxury shopping -- Newbury Street, Copley Place, the Chestnut Hill Mall, and the Atrium -- are facing direct competition from the Natick Collection. Still, none of these entities are, at least publicly, admitting that they're concerned. A marketing representative from the Simon Property Group , which owns Copley, the Chestnut Hill Mall, and the Atrium, says a new mall is good for all retailers. Meanwhile, the head of the Newbury Street League, an association representing Newbury businesses, says the shopping boulevard draws a different clientele.

"We are quite close to another mall, and it hasn't seemed to affect us," says Kate Quinn, chief administrator of the Newbury Street League. "When people want to experience being outside and shopping, they tend to come here."

Gretchen Monahan, owner of Gretta Luxe boutiques in Boston and Wellesley Center, says the Collection is part of a trend happening nationally. An avid follower of retail currents, Monahan says she thinks luxury retailers have reached critical mass in primary markets and are now reaching into the suburbs. While she thinks the Collection will have no problem drawing high-end shoppers, she opted against moving Gretta Luxe into the mall.

"Bottom line, I think the Natick Collection is going to be hugely successful," Monahan says. "The parties in this area are dressier than they used to be -- people are definitely dressing on a new level. We're not the city that we formerly were thought to be, which is just a bunch of frugal Yankees. Personally, I love smaller shops that aren't in the middle of 10,000 cars, so I decided to stay in Wellesley."

For their part, Collection developers hope some people will decide to stay in Natick -- putting down roots right next to the mall itself. Nouvelle at Natick condos range in price from $425,000 to $1.5 million. The glass hills of the mall's ceiling will frame an acre-plus rooftop park, roughly the size of two football fields, for condo residents. The park, landscaped by Martha Schwartz Inc. of Cambridge, will include two putting greens, a boardwalk, picnic areas, and fountains. It's one of the ways that General Growth Properties plans to attract empty nesters -- and set aside any reservations people may having about living at a mall.

"Anybody who understands planning and development would appreciate that the Natick Collection is going to be a unique mall on the Eastern Seaboard," says Aaron Bartels, senior director of residential development for the property. "It's no longer the two-story retail model with a sea of parking surrounding the building."

"I think it's a great carefree lifestyle," says Claire Sandell, who is in the process of buying a three-bedroom condo at Nouvelle. "I like the idea of going downstairs to the mall to grab a bite to eat, or get my shoes fixed."

Not everyone, however, agrees with Bartels's view. Boston resident Patrick Hough, who was recently shopping at the mall's Banana Republic, said he would "rather share a cave with Osama" than buy a condo at the mall.

"I like coming to the mall, but I also like leaving the mall," he says. "The artificial light, the artificial air . . . it's fine for a while. It doesn't matter how upscale the mall is, I wouldn't want to constantly smell Yankee Candle and Cinnabon in my condo."

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

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