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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Patriot Place Puts the Stamp on the Krafts' Empire in Foxborough

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Town of Foxborough

FOXBOROUGH -- It’s a weekday morning at Patriot Place, the sprawling retail extension of Gillette Stadium, where the autumnal temperature is brisk and the crowds are not.
 
Only a handful of visitors – mostly retirees – enter into Bass Pro Shops, the outdoor equipment anchor of the center’s South Marketplace. Dining establishments including Red Robin, Skipjack’s, and Olive Garden have yet to welcome the lunchtime crowd. The day’s first showing of “The Maze Runner” is still a few hours away at Showcase Cinema de Lux, and the morning crowd is even light at Trader Joe’s, the popular specialty supermarket known best for its selection of gourmet offerings and cheap wine.
 
As the day progresses, the empty atmosphere of the outdoor mall will begin to wane, with customers filtering in and out of shops Eastern Mountain Sports, Christmas Tree Shops, and Victoria’s Secret. The dinner hours will bring hundreds more to the establishment along Route One. Many will remain later into the evening, imbibing at nighttime hotspots such as Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill and CBS Scene Restaurant and Bar, while the newly-opened Splittsville Luxury Lanes and Howl at the Moon, now, respectively, give Patriot Place patrons bowling and piano bar options for entertainment.
 
But on Sunday afternoon, when the New England Patriots play the Oakland Raiders in their first home game of the season at adjacent Gillette, the area will be a mob scene as it typically is during the pre-game hours. While thousands of fans pack no less than a dozen tailgating-friendly lots within a mile-walk of the stadium, Patriot Place has brought a new dynamic of prepping for the game, independent of firing up some sausages on a portable grill with a cooler filled with beer within arm’s reach. The new pre-game may include a quick burger at Five Guy’s, a roast beef sandwich at Capriotti’s, or even a steak and wine pairing at Davio’s.
 
Your normal football tailgate it is not, but the home of the New England Patriots has rarely been anything typical of the NFL game day experience throughout its history in any case. If Route One once made for a quaint experience while traveling to Patriots games, today it can still be every bit the ordeal that a two-lane highway can handle with more than 70,000 navigating the roadway over a stretch of only a few hours. Let’s face it, the Patriots and Foxborough has always been an odd marriage, but it’s one that both parties have made work to the best of their abilities. The reward is having the presence of one of the most profitable teams in the most profitable sports league in America in town.
 
So, when the owners of the Patriots expressed interest in creating a sprawling, $350 million retail and entertainment complex on the same site where the three-time Super Bowl champions call home, you can imagine how quickly Foxborough jumped at the request.

"We're betting on the future of New England,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft told the Globe in 2007, during the construction phase of Patriot Place.

Some might argue that the future of New England isn’t necessarily dependent on a Charlie’s Cupcakes location, but that doesn’t make the scope of the project any less impressive. As the site plan approval, submitted to the Foxborough planning board in July, 2006, noted, “The Project, to be constructed as a phase of the New Patriots stadium and Related Infrastructure Project that began in 2000, is compromised of a leasable area of up to 1,350,000 square feet, anticipated to be programmed for the following mix of uses and approximate areas: 600,000 sq. ft. of retail use, 70,000 sq. ft. of entertainment use, 75,000 sq. ft. of general office use, 100,000 sq. ft. of medical office use, 60,000 sq. ft. of restaurant use, 250,000 sq. ft. of hotel use, a 55,000 sq. ft. wellness center, 40,000 sq. ft. of stadium-related uses, and 100,000 sq. ft. of theater use.”

The approval was voted unanimously on Jan. 11, 2007.

"For me, this is a legacy project," Kraft said a few months before the first phase of the project was scheduled to open. "This is where I come to work every day. We want to build something special.”

First-time visitors won’t confuse Patriot Place with the approach to Shangri-La, but it is interesting to note that there seems to be a more discernible care to detail and character than there is at the main Route One attraction just next door. The privately-financed Gillette Stadium may indeed be an outlier in a professional landscape of team owners fleecing voters into public funding, but it doesn’t make the place any less cold. More than a decade into the marriage with Gillette, the honeymoon is somewhat over with Patriots fans, who rightfully complain about the lack of escalators, the nightmarish headache of security lines, and an atmosphere with a lack of excitement that one might expect where the team in question isn’t a perennial contender. Even the details that are present, like the lighthouse at the stadium entrance, are hackneyed additions meant to symbolize the region’s coastal atmosphere. The best that can be said about the place is that it isn’t Foxboro Stadium and it has seats instead of metal bleachers. For usefulness’ sake, Gillette is a home run. From a design standpoint, it’s a fat whiff.

The same can’t be said for its development neighbor. The stretch of stores at the South Marketplace may not look much different than any other strip mall in the Commonwealth, but the next-door Bass Pro Shops, the first of its kind in New England, is an almost overwhelming destination set into its own corner. The mammoth interior features a central aquarium, restaurant, boating supplies, and a general sense that you just walked into a Disney World property. At the rear of the building, visitors can walk out onto a half-mile scenic walking trail through cranberry bogs. Sponsored, of course, by Ocean-Spray. It’s the last active cranberry bog in Foxborough, and really is a nice respite from the brain exercise that can be Bass Pro Shops, perhaps serving as a reminder of why you’re there in the first place.

At the North Marketplace, leading up to Gillette Stadium, the Patriots’ Pro Shop, the Showcase Cinemas, and the well-received Patriots Hall of Fame, the development displays some level of attention to its appearance. The site plan approval notes the construction, completed by local companies, would include significant vegetation and preservation by constructing on already-developed sites. “As described herein, the vast majority of the Project is confined to the “envelope” of the previously paved/developed land and environmentally sensitive areas. Furthermore, but utilizing the existing infrastructure constructed for the new Stadium in anticipation of the Project, the Project makes better use of these significant investments in infrastructure and eliminates the need for major new infrastructure.”

Not only did the development have to walk that fine line, but it also had to preserve thousands of parking spaces that bring in $50 per car during Patriots games, a source of revenue the Krafts weren’t about to surrender lightly to the private lots surrounding the stadium. The end result is a destination without uniformity, giving it character and detail bereft of your typical outdoor mall. For everything that Gillette Stadium lacks in warmth, there’s a comfortableness to Patriot Place not normally present in the cold world of retail. In that regard, the project’s footprint is very much a success.

But how much of one is too much for Foxborough? Earlier this year, the Kraft Group was forced to make a public relations push because Foxborough selectmen were divided on approving a liquor license for Splittsville and Howl at the Moon. According to the Attleboro Sun-Chronicle, even the addition of Trader Joe’s met “eight layers of resistance,” to the point that the franchise nearly pulled out of putting a store at its current Foxborough location.

“There was a lot more conflict than we collectively contemplated,” Patriots spokesperson Stacey James told the newspaper.

In a town with a population of just under 17,000, Patriot Place serves as a mecca of options for entertainment, but it also comes with safety issues, including the perception of drunk driving-related incidents. But Brian Earley, general manager of Patriot Place, told the Chronicle that a 2006 study done for the town predicted there would be 1,200 police incidents there by 2012. Instead there were 895, a number that dropped to 570 in 2013.

Patriot Place also generates more than $3 million in tax revenue for Foxborough and boasts more than 3,000 jobs as well. Those kind of numbers make it difficult for the town to say, “No” to the Krafts, as voters overwhelmingly suggested they would do when Kraft and Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn started laying out plans for a casino that would sit on land across Route One. In fact, the Foxborough planning board approved further expansion at Patriot Place over the summer, additions that will include a second hotel by Marriott and a fast-service restaurant.

Because retail outlets are struggling nationwide, it’s a safe bet that further expansion would also include more dining and entertainment options, lest Patriot Place would one day take on the feel of your average, depressed indoor mall which has seen its heyday. Even Bass Pro Shops isn't the destination it once was. A second New England location has since opened in Hookset, N.H., and in the view of Foxborough town planner Sharon Wason, that has affected sales at the Foxborough location. Based on the scene that takes place during Patriots games, it’s a much safer bet to bring in the crowds to grab a bite at CBS Scene than it is a necklace at Alex and Ani.
 
In only 13 years, the Krafts have transformed a destination barely fit for the NFL into a palace of riches. But what Patriot Place brings Foxborough is a steady stream of tax revenue it only enjoyed sporadically with Gillette Stadium, an everyday venue that attracts a wide array of customers with the New England Patriots as the backdrop. In fact, there was instant buzz last week that Kraft may be willing to duplicate the scenario in East Boston, where it was announced that Suffolk Downs would be closing in the wake of not getting the casino vote. Kraft has been seeking a spot within city limits to house the New England Revolution, and the thought is that the 160-acre property might be fit for a similar development to what the Krafts pulled off 35 miles down the highway.

“Boston is a hot market, and you can’t find this kind of expansive property pretty much anywhere else in Greater Boston,” David Begelfer, CEO of the real estate development group NAIOP Massachusetts, told the Boston Herald, likening the Suffolk Downs area to a Seaport District waiting to explode. “It’s a unique opportunity. The imagination can run wild a bit.”

Based on what Patriot Place has delivered in size and scope, a “Revolution Reservation” might one day be a safe bet.

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