SAN DIEGO — Ernest W. Hahn, a German immigrant's son who helped invent the suburban shopping mall and became one of America's wealthiest men in the process, died early Monday at his Rancho Santa Fe estate after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 73.
Along with developers Edward DeBartolo, Leonard Faber and James Rouse, Hahn refined the concept of the modern shopping mall to something beyond mere commercial centers. In Hahn's vision, shopping malls became focuses of community activity, complete with skating rinks and day-care centers.
Starting out as a Hawthorne-based general contractor, Hahn founded Ernest W. Hahn Inc. in 1958 and opened his first regional mall, La Cumbre Plaza in Santa Barbara, in 1967. Now known as the Hahn Co., the San Diego-based firm owns and operates 53 shopping malls totaling 40 million square feet of retail space.
Half of the Hahn centers are located in California and include Palm Desert Town Center in Palm Desert, Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, The Oaks in Thousand Oaks, Los Cerritos Center in Cerritos and Horton Plaza in San Diego.
"There will be several people who will vie for the title of greatest shopping center developer of the last 30 years. Ernie Hahn will be one of those people," said Robert H. Edelstein, co-chairman of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at UC Berkeley.
In 1980, Hahn's company was sold to the Canadian real estate firm Trizec Ltd. for $267 million. His personal share of the proceeds was about $175 million, enough to place him on Forbes magazine's list of wealthiest Americans for several years. Hahn relinquished the Hahn Co. chief executive position to John Gilchrist in 1982 but remained chairman until his death.
In recent years, Hahn focused mainly on civic and charitable activities. He donated "at least $25 million" to large and small charities, a staff assistant said Monday. Although he never attended college, Hahn sat on the boards of trustees of the University of San Diego and USC.
Attesting to Hahn's legendary charm was James F. Nordstrom, chairman of the Seattle-based Nordstrom department store chain, who said Monday that no one "was better at getting a project going than Ernie. Put him in front of a group trying to sell a project--and consider it sold."
Hahn was sometimes criticized for his role in aiding retailers' flight to the suburbs. Perhaps for that reason, Hahn viewed Horton Plaza in San Diego as his most important contribution to retailing. Against considerable odds and nay-saying, Hahn built the splashy mall in a redevelopment zone, financing it partly by personally underwriting payment of $5 million in municipal bonds.
Completed in 1985, Horton Plaza wooed merchants back to the inner city. With a flashy design that Hahn himself once described as "half Disneyland, half Italian hill town," Horton Plaza has become a model of successful U.S. urban redevelopment, Edelstein said.
Hahn was also a member of San Diego's Center City Planning Committee, a downtown civic organization. For that role and for Horton Plaza, former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor presented Hahn earlier this month with an award for contributions to the city. It was Hahn's last public appearance.
Hahn is survived by his wife, Jean; a son, Ronald E. Hahn of Rancho Santa Fe; two daughters, Christine Lentz and Charlene Hoekstra of Olivenhain; nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A rosary for Hahn will be said tonight at 7 p.m. at the Immaculata Church on the University of San Diego campus. Services will be Wednesday at 11 a.m., also at the Immaculata. Burial will be private.
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