The Call of the Mall


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If the mall is the American public’s second home, as sociologists contend, someone should warn Mr. and Mrs. J.Q.P.: Their home-away-from-home is about to change—radically.

Instead of look-alike storefronts, expect unique designs. Look for a creative spill out to the sidewalk in the form of psychedelic floor tiles, whimsical displays of merchandise, announcements of interactive games. Instead of shoppers strolling the malls in singles or duos, expect crowds gathered around entertainment centers, petting zoos, free concerts. Instead of customers darting into the mall for a single purchase, expect families spending the entire day there, going to movies, eating in sidewalk cafes, watching “the scene.”

Southern California has taken its cue from other regional malls around the country. Park Meadows, just outside Denver, is like a giant ski resort. It’s a theme mall by TrizecHahn, with decor borrowed from chalet territory. Huge stone fireplaces dominate its restaurants. In fact, the mall calls itself a “retail resort.”

TrizecHahn is also laying plans for Desert Passage, a Las Vegas mall that re-creates North Africa with Moorish fortresses and ruins. And the Gordon Group is planning an expansion of its Forum Shops attached to Caesars Palace—a Las Vegas re-creation of an Italian hill town. Teams of white horses pulling chariots gallop around a dirt track, like the racers in Ben Hur, as shoppers watch.

Mall of America outside Minneapolis, the largest mall in the country, is a huge center with eight department stores as anchors. It covers 3 million square feet and encloses a theme park with rides. And Los Angeles’ Hollywood and Highland Mall will be no slouch, either, with a ’30s movie theme and glamour touches everywhere. TrizecHahn has announced its intention to include a permanent home for the Oscars within the center.

With so much going on around the nation, San Diego shopping centers got a wake-up call. They had a hard time during the recent recession, particularly with so many off-price stores springing up to drain away dollars.

“It’s been a Darwinian struggle of survival,” says Jim Flocke of Flocke & Avoyer Commercial Real Estate. “Many regional malls were threatened with extinction.” They had to rethink their strategy. Something was needed to bring people back to the malls.
It turned out to be two things: entertainment and low pricing.

First the multiplex movie theaters came to the shopping centers. Then other attractions came to keep the customer longer in the mall. Concerts and community events. An exciting ambience. A sense of place—almost like a stage set. Surroundings people would like to be a part of.

In downtown San Diego, Horton Plaza started the local trend with its festival decor, bold colors and strolling musical groups. La Jolla Village Square led the way to low pricing when it replaced high-end stores such as I. Magnin with stores like Tower Records, Cost Plus and Linens ’n’ Things. Thus the two key elements took hold in San Diego.

Every marketeer needs a plan. To some, it came easily. University Towne Centre, a TrizecHahn property (as is Horton Plaza), felt its location adjacent to La Jolla dictated an outdoor, park-like theme. As part of a recent remodel, the grounds have been enhanced with grassy areas, trellises with flowering vines, palm trees and fountains.

“San Diegans love the outdoors,” says UTC marketing director Margaret Stevens. “We wanted to create a European village atmosphere, with carts, flowers, fruits and an al fresco food pavilion.” (Perhaps the inspiration was Del Mar Plaza, designed like a small Italian village, creeping up a hillside.)

Families are invited. At one fountain near Sears, toddlers’ wobble-toys keep Junior entertained while Mom sits on a shady bench. Water spurts sporadically at the pop-jet fountain to entrance the children. A fountain in the Macy’s court features eight sculpted dolphins with water splashing over their leaping backs. A formal fountain dominates the marketplace, where a 57-foot clocktower acts as a landmark for those who might get lost in UTC’s meandering pathways.

UTC spent $12 million on this cosmetic remodel. Two other shopping centers chose a complete overhaul: Mission Valley Center and Fashion Valley—the latter to the tune of $220 million, with a grand reopening October 8. The red San Diego Trolley, connecting with downtown and areas south and east, is scheduled to extend to Mission Valley by late November, bringing shoppers from all over the area.

Anyone traveling Interstate 8 has been uncomfortably aware of the major construction going on in this area. For the past three years sites have been leveled, roads blocked, dust swirled onto windshields. New structures seemed to have appeared overnight.
Mission Valley Center got a headstart on its competitor, Fashion Valley, several years ago when it made the deliberate decision to assume an entirely new character.

“We were competing head to head,” says Scott Turcotte, general manager of Mission Valley Center. “Fashion Valley was doing a better job at the higher end of the market.”

So Mission Valley Center decided to concentrate on new turf. Thus the arrival of the purple-and-orange AMC 20 Theaters. The brightly painted Bed, Bath and Beyond, replacing staid Saks. And a string of “value” stores: Loehmann’s, Nordstrom’s Rack, Marshalls, Michael’s—some new, some transplanted from a few blocks away.

Enter the terms “big box,” “value store,” “category killer.” Big box refers to large retailers like Kmart. A value store (the word “discount” is frowned upon) is essentially, well ... a discount store—like Nordstrom’s Rack. A category killer is a store that is powerfully focused on one type of merchandise. “Like Bed, Bath and Beyond, with depth in one field, good pricing,” says Turcotte, “and impossible to compete against because of its narrow focus.”

These are the stores Mission Valley has chosen to concentrate on.

Bed, Bath and Beyond moved into the old Saks building at the east end of Mission Valley Center. “That area was never good for retail,” says Turcotte. “So we replaced 25 smaller stores in that area with Bed, Bath and Beyond and three value stores: Loehmann’s, Nordstrom’s Rack and Michael’s, with Seau’s added as a restaurant. Customer accounts are up 20 percent year-to-date.”

How does he know? “We count vehicles in the parking lot. Cars are the earliest indication of how busy it is.”

Across Camino de la Reina from the Rack and Loehmann’s —actually, directly across from where Saks used to be—is the new Saks Off 5th, an outlet store that opened in August. Off 5th is elegantly designed, with clothing attractively displayed, good lighting and great values in the high end of couture. The women’s section features big Saks names—Ungaro, Ellen Tracy, DKNY, Dana Buckman—at 60 percent off. The men’s department carries Armani, Hugo Boss and others. The merchandise is drawn from Saks full-line stores across the country or is purchased from Saks-brand designers. Prices are always discounted 40-70 percent. The slickness of the presentation and the deep discounting of fresh merchandise should make Nordstrom look to its Rack.

Off 5th is technically not in the Mission Valley Center, but it will benefit from proximity. Also, a row of semifinished structures lining Camino de la Reina to the west will contain other outlet stores, among them Mikasa.

By changing its focus in such a sweeping manner, Mission Valley Center has conceded the full-price, high-end fashion scene to Fashion Valley—a move long overdue. For years, the two malls appeared to duplicate each other’s merchandise. Now shoppers are offered a definite choice. The addition of Tiffany to Fashion Valley (moving from the downtown Paladion) further emphasizes the distinction. Even J.C. Penney has added a day spa.

Fashion Valley, originally developed by TrizecHahn but recently purchased by the Equitable Assurance Society, has added a second level center-wide. It is almost impossible to imagine the scope of this project. With an investment of $112 million ($220 million if renovations to the interiors of the stores are included), it has become the largest outdoor “build-over” in the United States. In adding the second level, 80 new stores have joined the mix. And Nordstrom, Robinsons-May and Macy’s, three of the few stores that were already two stories, are adding 70,000, 40,000 and 30,000 square feet respectively.

Everything about the new Fashion Valley is larger than life. A stylish new motor entrance appears in a curved portico off Friars Road, rimmed with palms and serviced by valets. Another elaborate entrance soon will be readied on the San Diego River side. Everything is on a grand scale—columns, towers, curving staircases, ramps connecting the two upper levels. The geometry is dazzling.

Unlike Horton Plaza or Mission Valley Center, the colors are subdued. The design, by Altoon & Porter Architects of Los Angeles, is Mission style, with neutral stucco and soft pastel accents of light peach and teal. Garden trellising shades the new second-floor arcades. Several tile-domed towers add architectural interest, and a large patio balcony seats food-court patrons near the soon-to-be-completed 18-theater movie complex. And five new parking garages have been added on the river side.

Yes, they know about flooding. The lower levels of these five garages are designed so that access can be cut off easily when flooded. Meanwhile, there is no waste of space.

The magnitude of the reconstruction demands respect—particularly since work progressed without closing the mall for a single day.

“The construction period was arduous,” says Debra Palmer of Saks Fifth Avenue. “When I think back on the last year, it’s scary. When the Republican Convention was here, we had barely finished the frontage road.”

Two fatal accidents among construction workers were tragically worrisome, too. There is no doubt many customers, viewing the scaffolding and the mud, simply stayed away. In mid-July, 60 extra contractors were called in for the store build-outs, adding to the 250 workers already on the job daily, wheeling concrete, shifting heavy planks of wood and laying tiles. It took a hardy shopper to identify the canvas-draped portico of a favorite store.

“The customers have had a rough go of it,” concedes Carol Sullivan, the center’s director of marketing. “But they have always been agreeable, and it’s worked. Now we see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Viewing the new façades and the changes everywhere, it’s hard to recall how the old Fashion Valley looked. A glimpse of familiar signage—Penney’s at one end, Robinsons-May at the other and Macy’s in between—provides some directional reassurance. But many favorite stores, such as Banana Republic, have new locations and must be searched out. Some, like Victoria’s Secret, are twice their former size.

The Nordstrom–Neiman Marcus corridor, pretty much unchanged (that section was always two-story) except for new paint on the smaller stores, is a haven for the confused shopper. But that’s probably because Nordstrom has only just begun its expansion—out into the parking lot. Probably the one you always use.

“How are you going to keep the customer from mental disarray?” we ask.

“It will be an education process,” admits Sullivan. “Especially with the parking. But we’ll manage.”

In the midst of all this rebuilding, some shopping centers in San Diego are staying much the same. For the moment, Horton Plaza has announced no definite plans.

“We don’t want to change our character,” says Joe Larson of TrizecHahn. “We created the wave of new thinking—an image that is uniquely Jon Jerde [the architect], uniquely Horton. So much good has happened in the downtown area—the Gaslamp for dining; the residential towers are going full bore again. Our sales continue to grow.

“We might like to create more of a street scene—to relate to the Gaslamp restaurants. But to do that, we’d have to turn our project inside out.” He hints that the parking structures insulate the center from the very street scene it would like to join. “We furnish a lot of parking for dining and theaters and Planet Hollywood,” Larson says.

North County Fair in Escondido plans no reconstruction. In addition to allowing shop owners more freedom in planning their storefronts (for instance, a giant sheet-metal shoe adorns the front of a shoe store), general manager Roger Brazel encourages what, in the business, they call co-tenancy—assembling similar stores together. “Putting an Ann Taylor next to a Nordstrom,” he explains. Or grouping all the children’s stores together, or those that cater to juniors—making it easier on the shopper.

“Ernie Hahn had the foresight,” Brazel says. “Our company learned a lot from that. Once we found out that’s what you had to do...” And North County Fair provides free kids’ shows every Wednesday morning.

At the other end of the county, Plaza Bonita mall follows somewhat the same strategy. No big changes. They already have a six-plex theater. And community events. Plus a kids’ club. A fitness walk for adults.

San Diego is not alone in its revitalization of shopping centers. According to Steve Avoyer of Flocke & Avoyer Commercial Real Estate, the whole mentality of the U.S. shopper has changed. The center-city malls have become tourist attractions, while the suburbs are the “big box” users, with value-oriented retailers. Or, as in Mission Valley, two neighboring malls carve out their own turf—Mission Valley Center aiming for value-oriented, Fashion Valley going the high-fashion way.

“But both incorporate movie theaters. The AMC 20 is one of the top-five grossing cinemas in the United States,” Avoyer says. “The entertainment factor keeps the customer in the center longer, through the afternoon and evening. They eat in restaurants—Wolfgang Puck or Seau’s in Mission Valley, an upscale food court in Fashion Valley, Applebee’s in Bonita. Even Parkway Plaza in El Cajon is bringing in theaters.” Parkway, which nearly doubled the number of its stores in a 1990 expansion, plans a mid-1998 opening of its 18-screen movie theater.

“And Grossmont Center has redone itself,” Avoyer says. “It was always a good user but never a star. Yet the location was near good people. The big-box guys took a hard look, and now instead of Bullock’s and Broadway, which closed, you have Circuit City, Staples, Trophy’s Restaurant.”

What’s ahead for shopping centers? Avoyer sees Steven Spielberg’s concept of GameWorks, interactive entertainment, as the next rage. “Not an arcade,” he says. “But teenage and adult entertainment. The Disney concept in Orlando.

“Of course, the jury is still out on those concepts. We’ll have to see how successful they are five years from now.”

For the present, the trend is toward fun and games, films and food, outlets and category killers. A true town center, with movies, restaurants, concerts and—yes—also shopping. And a place to feel good—as if you were a mountain-bike athlete, or a visitor to a carnival, or a Hollywood star. Whatever your dream.

Who ever thought the evolution of the shopping mall would tell us so much about ourselves?

The whole mentality of the U.S. shopper has changed. Families spend the ntire day at the mall, going to movies, eating at cafes, engaging in interactive GameWorks. "It keeps the customer in the center longer," say the experts.

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