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STRUCTURES : Oxnard Outlet Design Sends Mixed Messages : It's hard to tell if the discount complex is a nod to simpler times or a case of theme park meets shopping mall.

July 28, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time when a looming water tower stood tall as a proud emblem of Everytown, U.S.A. These towers, at once useful and metaphorical, are visible for miles and function as containers of precious, life-giving fluid.

But when Southern Californians see a water tower go up, such as the one prominently erected alongside the Ventura Freeway near Rice Avenue in Oxnard, eyebrows arch and suspicions are aroused. Is a big budget film project under way, or has a theme park perhaps come to roost in our back yard?

In this case, the answer is none of the above. Welcome to the surreal shopping experience known as Oxnard Factory Outlet, a.k.a. Outletville, U.S.A.

Agricultural motifs are writ large on this property, teeming with huge, simple barn-like structures, a working windmill, corrugated metal roofs and awnings, and other touches of almost too-basic rural Americana.

For some, questions nag about this new development, which so vies for our attention. Is this shopping mall as theme park? Is it an insultingly cheeky eyesore or a welcome departure from the bland aesthetics of the strip mall in California? It may be a bit of them all.

The development has landed right here in the town that the Oxnard brothers founded almost a century ago as a sugar beet center. Since then, Oxnard's agricultural heritage has gradually been threatened with the inevitable encroachment of developers.

Notably, in recent years, remaining Oxnard farmlands--especially those which are near the freeway--have been sold off to housing and commercial developments at an alarming rate. Adjacent to the very property here are lonely produce-yielding fields. But, no doubt, they'll fall prey to the bulldozer in our lifetime.

The trend can be mighty discouraging for sentimentalists who like to think of Ventura County as a last bastion of ex-urban culture, where farming is still a viable enterprise.

Enterprise of another sort is the only produce to come out of the factory outlet mall, of course. There is something vaguely eerie about the place, which seems to seek atonement for its sin of supplanting the genuine article by mimicking it.

Everywhere you look at Oxnard Factory Outlet, there are paradoxes to consider. In a sense, it is comforting that we wander through a farmers' market--but it's also a disturbingly phony artifice, a cheap date.

The development makes the most of simplicity, either out of a sense of heartland minimalism, or cost-cutting, or both. These bargain barns, in pale yellow or rust color, come in slightly erratic shapes, like a barn built from a Sears catalogue blueprint read by someone who's been into the moonshine.

A central open-air courtyard is covered by a labyrinth of vivid yellow I-beams, topped with a corrugated metal roof. Interiors proudly boast their exposed, un-gentrified beams and ducts.

An architectural curiosity, the Oxnard Factory Outlet goes out of its way to try to accommodate--or even apologize to--its site, right down to the fruit crate labels plastered on the walls. We find labels from Ventura County-based companies such as the 100-year-old Limoneira, Pacific Maid and Ventura Maid--the latter two featuring bedroom-eyed women with an unnatural fondness for fruit.

But the reproductions of these labels are grainy and look much better from a distance. Ditto the entire operation.

On the bright side, Outletville has a certain built-in enchantment based on kitsch. Compared to the lifeless edifices--the discount palaces--across the freeway, for example, there is something to look at, to think about here.

But, really, does this agri-kitsch playground pay homage to the former use of the land, or is it paying last respects? That's the darker and potentially disturbing side of the style equation.

However clever the illusion of an agrarian setting, while shopping at Oxnard Factory Outlet you always know you're not in Kansas. The fledgling palm trees and the incessant din of 101 traffic assure us that we're freeway close to the peculiar place we call home.

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