Sprawled over 170 acres at the intersection of Lakewood and Del Amo boulevards, the Lakewood Center Mall was created out of a bean field as part of the first planned community in California.
The center was built in 1951, three years before the city of Lakewood was incorporated and a couple of decades before nine other major regional shopping centers were firmly established in the Southeast area.
Today, Lakewood is still the acknowledged king of area shopping centers, with 245 retail and service outlets that sell everything from tans to diamonds.
You can ride a vintage carousel in the middle of the center's enclosed mall, see a movie on one of seven screens, pick up your dry cleaning, cash a check at one of five banks, or make plane reservations at a travel agency.
One of the newest retail businesses, Freeze Frame, will dress you up in clothes and jewelry, put on your makeup, and take a glamorous picture. A medical clinic, operated by Doctors Hospital of Lakewood, offers free screening for heart disease, high cholesterol, or breast cancer.
A Nintendo sales outlet's performance attests to the volume of shoppers that traipse through the Lakewood center. The outlet, located in a 10-by-20-foot kiosk in one of the mall's aisles, generated "in excess of $1 million" in sales last year, more than $5,000 per square foot, according to manager Mike Keya.
Overall, the center last year generated $350 million in sales, the third highest of the top 45 malls and shopping centers in Los Angeles County.
With 2.4 million square feet of retail space, Lakewood was for many years listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest shopping mall in the world. A 5.2-million-square-foot mall in Alberta, Canada, now holds the title.
The Lakewood Park Corp. set aside space for the sprawling shopping area in 1948 when it bought up vast agricultural fields in the area and began building the thousands of small tract homes that sold then for about $6,000. Those homes today make up the city of Lakewood.
After most of the houses were built, the developers turned their attention to building the shopping center, which remains today the city's only downtown.
As the commercial and entertainment center of the city, the shopping mall accounted for 48% of Lakewood's sales tax revenue last year. The city's economic health is so closely tied to sales volumes at the center that city officials, heeding warnings of a recession and a decline in consumer spending, are talking about readjusting their budget halfway through this fiscal year. Officials have drawn up a list of capital improvements to put on hold if the center's Christmas sales tax revenues drop.
The sprawling center, which spills across one city street, does not have the impressive dollar-per-square-foot sales records of newer malls that feature two or three stories. Many commercial and service buildings at Lakewood are detached from the main mall.
But the developer seeks to overcome the inefficient layout with a marketing strategy that calls for adapting quickly to changing retail trends.
MaceRich Corp. of Santa Monica bought the center from the original developer in 1975 and enclosed the mall portion in 1977.
At the time the mall changed hands, 35% of the outlets were shoe stores, said Chuck Ebner, the city's chief urban planner. "That (didn't) make a lot of sense, so, what they have done is make sure there are theaters and a good mix of merchants in there."
Skip Keyzers, senior vice president of MaceRich, points to the Circuit City outlet near the southeast corner of the mall as an example of how Lakewood has changed over the years. The building first housed a bowling alley, then, for several years, was occupied by the discount Akron store. Circuit City moved in when the Akron chain went out of business.
Keyzers also points to the highly successful Nintendo kiosk as an example of how quickly retailing tastes can change. "Three years ago it wasn't even here and in two years it may be gone," he said.
LAKEWOOD CENTER MALL, LAKEWOOD * Year opened: 1951
* Retail square footage: 2.4 million
* Anchor stores: Mervyn's, Bullock's, Buffums, JC Penney, May Co., Montgomery Ward
* Number of stores: 245
* 1989 sales tax paid to city: Estimated $3.5 million
* % of city's total sales tax revenue--48%
* Most memorable feature: A walk-in clinic that offers free medical tests.