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Steve Brown remade a Raleigh mall into a whole new retail experience

By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services

They say a smart shopkeeper lives over his store, which Steve Brown does, or at least he has his office there.

Brown ’78 works out of a second-floor suite in the heart of North Hills in Raleigh. His company, Kane Realty Corp., has spent the past 14 years transforming the rundown 50-year-old mall into an upscale urban neighborhood. As senior vice president and director of retail leasing for Kane Realty, Brown essentially is the neighborhood’s landlord.

Outside his office, one can see a cornucopia of stores, apartments and a hotel. This view makes it clear why North Hills isn’t called a mall anymore. It’s an urban village.

“Our vision was to create a community where you can live, work, eat and play without ever really leaving home,” Brown says. “And if you do have to leave, we’re right on the Beltline so we’re convenient to about everything in the Triangle.”

Straddling the intersection of Six Forks and Lassiter Mill roads just off the Beltline, North Hills is the heart of a new neighborhood called Midtown Raleigh—because it’s halfway between downtown and the Outer Loop. Economically, it resembles Ballantyne in Charlotte, Buckhead in Atlanta and Reston Town Center outside Washington.

You could call Brown the mayor of Midtown, but he would laugh. Despite the sophistication of the community he is helping to build, Brown is an unassuming person who blushes when people say he could be the twin of former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker, which happens frequently.

He also is a deeply religious person who lives his faith through service to the less fortunate. He and his wife, Joanne Jordan Brown ’80, regularly volunteer with Church in the Woods, which ministers to the homeless in Raleigh and feeds them every weekend in Moore Square downtown.

“I have worked with Steve for 30 years, on and off, and he is just as solid as you can find,” says company owner John Kane.

“He is very committed to his faith and family. He is an outstanding professional and an outstanding person. That’s the reason I care so deeply about him.”

At first, ‘I did not do well’

Brown appreciates his business success because he knows how far he has come.

“I was the first person in my family to go to college,” he says. “I grew up in Nashville, North Carolina, and my parents were working people.”
Steve Brown has led the transformation of an outdated shopping mall and its surroundings into a modern shopping, dining and business center.

His dad worked for the Nash County school bus garage; his mother was a homemaker.

“I majored in business; I had some good professors who pointed me into real estate, and that led me here,” he says, motioning over his shoulder to a splash of high-end logos. “East Carolina changed my life; it really did. And I’ll always be grateful.”

Brown moved to Wilmington after graduation and took a job selling houses.

“I did not do well,” he says with a grin. “So I came back home and lived with my parents for three months trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And then I got a job with the state in Raleigh. I did not see myself being a career state employee, but I needed a job.”

After two-and-a-half years, Brown took another job in residential real estate.

“I was hosting a Parade of Homes showing for a builder I represented. A friend came through who was a classmate at ECU (Nathan Milian ’81) who also was a business major. He said he worked with Kane Realty, and they were looking for someone to do retail leasing.”

After talking it over with his wife, he joined Kane Realty in May 1985.

A native of Henderson, John Kane started his company in Greenville in 1978. By the time Kane and Brown met, the company had developed several retail properties in eastern North Carolina. Among the first projects Brown worked for Kane was the leasing of a second expansion of the Greenville Mall—or what was then called The Plaza. Kane developed the area of the mall that now includes Belk.

Kane Realty grew quickly over the next dozen years and assembled a portfolio of 25 retail properties. In 1997 the company sold all but two.

Then we sat down and talked about what we wanted to do,” Brown recalls.

“We decided to start over and focus on neighborhood shopping centers.”

But the company kept its eye on one piece of property in particular: North Hills.

“About that time we learned that the Dutch pension fund that owned North Hills was divesting its properties.

They decided to split up their real estate assets and sell the properties in pieces. We got the piece across Lassiter Mill from the mall, and a New York company bought the mall.”

‘You won’t believe who just called’

Kane Realty’s property was anchored by a neighborhood grocery store. Around it were paint and hardware stores and a drive-through dry cleaner. It was the homier side of North Hills, overshadowed by the imposing, but aging, two-story mall across the street.

Kane began redeveloping and expanding its property while making overtures to the company that owned the mall. Their offers were repeatedly rebuffed.

Then one day Kane walked into Brown’s office and said, “You won’t believe who just called.”

North Hills was for sale, but they had to move fast. It would be a stretch for the company, but Kane thought he could make the numbers work if Brown was confident he could fill the stores with tenants.

“John and I saw this was a tremendous opportunity, but I told him that I didn’t think we could fix it because the physical plant at North Hills had so many problems. You could literally put a tennis ball on the floor and it would roll away.”

They devised a new plan for the property. Putting everything on the line in early 2000, they bought North Hills, tore it down and began building something Raleigh had never seen.

Midtown rises

What is now North Hills reopened in October 2004. Brown calls this type of development “recycling.”

The first two-story enclosed mall to be built between Washington and Atlanta, North Hills was surrounded by acres of parking lots. Today, dozens of shops and restaurants stand where the parking lots once were.

Rooftop solar panels generate power that heats the saltwater swimming pool at an apartment complex. Level-2 charging stations for electric cars are available. Golf car-like electric vehicles whisk shoppers around the site. Those touches earned awards from Triangle Business Journal and the city of Raleigh for green development practices.

Several major national chains complement the small, niche retailers in North Hills. For entertainment, there’s a 14-screen cinema and a combination restaurant/upscale bowling alley/event space large enough to accommodate groups of 400.

Kane says Brown possesses a special talent that explains much of North Hills’ success: his eye for creating the kind of shopping experience retailers desire.

“I can handle the business side of things, but what we build has to be guided by Steve’s sense of the market—what will create the atmosphere that will make this an inviting place to come to and come back to,” Kane says.

Brown gives a lot of the credit to his colleague Wendi Wood Howell ’84, the company’s senior retail leasing agent. “Wendi and I have worked as a team for over 20 years,” Brown says.

North Hills also is a business center. The development has roughly 120,000 square feet of boutique office space, most of it above first-floor shops.

Across Six Forks, Kane Realty assembled 18 separate parcels into a 45-acre tract ripe for development. Their first project on that site, Captrust Tower, contains 300,000 square feet of mixed-use office space. Captrust is headed by J. Fielding Miller ’84 of Raleigh, who is married to Kimberly Grice Miller ’83.

Surrounding Captrust Tower is a master-planned community that’s about half-finished. Eventually the parcel will have 1 million-plus square feet of office space, 300,000 square feet of retail space, more than 1,800 residential units and 800 hotel rooms.

At the center will be another park.

Wendi Wood Howell '84
When it’s all completed, Kane will have spent upward of $2 billion on the development.

Brown was recognized by the Triangle Business Journal for executing the Triangle market’s largest retail leases in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2011. In 2010 the publication honored him for completing the largest retail lease of the decade.

None of that is on his office wall. It might look like he was bragging.

Giving back to ECU

Convinced that it was East Carolina that set him on a path toward North Hills, Brown is a dedicated volunteer and donor. He recently completed a two-year term as chair of the ECU Board of Visitors. He’s a member of the Pirate Club and a life member of the East Carolina Alumni Association.

Brown says his best contribution to the Board of Visitors “was identifying talent and getting the right people in place to lead.” Among those he encouraged to take larger roles are current chairman Terry Yeargan ’79 of Willow Spring, whom Brown persuaded to lead the Legislative Relations Committee; Angie Moss ’97 ’98 of Raleigh, who followed Brown as chair of the Engagement Committee; and Sabrina Bengel of New Bern and Brenda Myrick ’92 of Raleigh, who became co-chairs of the Fundraising and Development Committee.

“These strong leaders have done an amazing job, and I could not be prouder of them,” Brown says.

Brown also worked to increase the diversity of the board. “I was pretty vocal about the need for our board to reflect our student body in its makeup. And while I haven’t compared the metrics before and after my tenure as chair, I am pretty confident we had some success in this area.”

He also urged board members to give back to ECU. The board now funds four Access Scholarships.

He and his wife, Joanne, a former kindergarten teacher, have two daughters. Younger daughter Jordan Brown Shaw ’11 got married in November. Older daughter Mallory, who graduated from Meredith but is a big Pirate football fan, will be married in June.

Joanne Brown says her husband “likes to read, play golf and cook. He also really enjoys playing his guitar. But what he mainly does is, he just adores his daughters. And his dog.”

Yeargan says Brown “possesses the rare traits that we all admire and aspire to have ourselves­—integrity, discipline and strong character.” He says his friend “is guided by faith to truly do the right thing for everyone.”

For more than 15 years the Browns have been part of a group of around a dozen couples that meets regularly for Bible study. They also are in a supper club with former friends and neighbors in the Zebulon area where they previously lived.

They met as students at ECU. “Both of us were lucky enough to (have been trained for) professions that we truly enjoy,” Joanne Brown says. “I hear people say they just want to get through the workweek, but we are so excited that we have professions that we truly enjoy, and ECU equipped us for those jobs.”

Back at his office, Brown leans against the rail on his balcony and reflects.

“After I got my driver’s license when I was in high school at Northern Nash, I would drive up to Raleigh to buy school clothes in the fall, and I came here to North Hills. I remember thinking then that this was a pretty wonderful place.

“And it still is.”