ESCONDIDO — It's little wonder if North County shoppers are flexing their credit cards and licking their chops these days, their appetites whetted by seven years of anticipation.
Shopping center wizard Ernest W. Hahn, whose Horton Plaza opened to mostly rave reviews in downtown San Diego, turns his attention from the urban to the suburban this month when he opens his newest creation, North County Fair.
Although the $120-million mall has 1.3-million square feet and is three stories tall at its center, it will not be the largest in San Diego County. Both Mission Valley Center and Fashion Valley have more retail space, but North County Fair will be the largest enclosed mall in the region, and it is one of only 17 in the United States to be anchored by six major department stores.
The mall, which is designed to take on the flavor of a light, airy "California barn" and sits next to a largely undeveloped regional park, will formally open on Feb. 20, and the owners of the smaller mall stores will be fined $500 a day for each day they are late in opening. Mall officials estimate that 100 stores will be ready to open by Feb. 20.
Of the six major department stores, The Broadway and May Co. will open a week early, on Feb. 13; Sears and Robinson's will open on Feb. 20; Nordstrom will open Aug. 15, and J.C. Penney will open Nov. 5.
This will be no cookie-cutter suburban shopping center, says Hahn, who developed the fanciful, Disneyesque Horton Plaza as the cornerstone of downtown San Diego.
North County Fair was designed by Los Angeles architect Jon Jerde, who also designed Horton Plaza. But there is no comparing the two centers, Jerde and Hahn say, because the environments that dictated the design of each are totally dissimilar.
"For North County Fair we wanted to give a country feeling--as much as you can with something as big as this," said Hahn. "The colors are light and gay, not heavy and ponderous. This will not be a sophisticated mall. It will be a comfortable mall."
The inland North County market area to be served by the mall, however, is the wealthiest per capita among the major trade areas in San Diego County, Hahn said.
The market area has a population of about 300,000, with no other regional malls now serving it.
For the Escondido project, the two men set out to develop a mall which, from the outside, would blend--as well as anything that large can--with the neighboring Kit Carson Park and the gentle hillsides just north of Lake Hodges.
To preserve the general topography of the 83-acre site, which is higher on its western border along Interstate 15 than on its eastern side along Bear Valley Parkway, the mall was constructed in a tiered or stepped configuration. That is, the western wing of the mall, anchored by Sears and The Broadway, is on the two higher levels. Near the center of the mall, the third and lowest level is introduced, allowing a huge, three-story atrium onto which open the three-floor Robinson's and Nordstrom stores. Easterly from there, the third floor is discontinued and the lower two floors lead to the other two anchor stores, May Co. and J.C. Penney. The parking lot, likewise, is graded so that shoppers can enter on any of the three mall levels.
"We could have leveled the site, paved a parking lot and put the buildings in the middle," Jerde said. "Instead, we wanted this project to be organic--to lock itself into the site."
While some residents had expected the center to feature a Spanish or Mediterranean flavor with the use of tile roof, Hahn and Jerde opted for a gray, seam metal roof, similar to what is common, Jerde said, on many California barns, which after years tend to wash out and blend inconspicuously in the landscape.
Exterior pastel colors, using long, horizontal bands to enhance the length and reduce the vertical impact of the center, range from eucalyptus grays and greens to pale olive to straw to pale rust, and are intended to reflect the natural colors of the area, Jerde said.
"The landscaping is still new and immature, but in time, the center will appear as a colony of kindred buildings, much like a campus setting," Jerde said.
Inside the mall, shoppers will walk beneath a pitched, open-beamed ceiling with liberal use of skylights to flood the mall with natural lighting. The use of heavy beams, wood and landscaping is the most ever in a Hahn project of this size, he said. Colorful banners add splashes of color throughout the mall, and street lights line the walkways to help reduce the mall's scale beneath the huge ceiling.
To conquer the sense of sameness and the gaping entrances into stores that are the signature of many indoor malls, each individual store in this mall was required to construct its own unique storefront, with emphasis on design rather than merchandising, Jerde said.