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Dressing for Success : Northridge mall designers hope bright, sturdy look lures back patrons in July.


Barreled skylights run the length of the resurrected Northridge Fashion Center,opening the long hall to a hazy morning. Construction crews work by natural light, laying pipe for indoor fountains and digging holes where they will plant clusters of palm trees.

With the mall scheduled to reopen July 17, its owners know that they will need more than concrete and steel to rebuild what was lost in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

This mall remains an enduring symbol of the disaster. Newspapers ran photographs of the Bullock's store torn asunder. Television stations broadcast the ordeal of a worker buried in a crumpled parking structure.

"The earthquake is always going to be in the back of people's minds in that area," said Ron Goodstein, assistant marketing professor at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management. "They've been driving by there every day, being reminded that it crashed during the earthquake."

So the mall's make-over proceeds in two directions. First, fountains and palms are being added in hopes that a brighter, modernized ambience will supplant dark memories. Upscale stores such as Ann Taylor will spice up the retail mix.

Second, and equally important, designers have given the mall an explicitly sturdy look. Their efforts are readily apparent--the new parking structures, for instance, stand on thick conical columns that allow for plenty of light and open space.

"We knew the parking garages were going to be a touchy element," said Mark Lauterbach, of RTKL Associates, the Dallas firm that redesigned the mall. "How do we make people want to park in these garages? How do we make the mall open and inviting?"

Northridge Fashion Center was scheduled for renovation even before the temblor struck. Sales had topped $350 million in 1993, but its new owners--MEPC American Properties of Dallas--arrived in December of that year and saw that the 24-year-old mall could stand improvement.

"We said, 'Look, it's a great shopping center, but it's a 1970s design,' " said David S. Gruber, MEPC's president. "It was too dark."

The company had already remodeled its malls in Minneapolis and Las Vegas. Renovation of the 1.5-million-square-foot Northridge center was scheduled for 1996. The earthquake changed that schedule.

With the mall closed, designers could make more ambitious changes than would otherwise have been possible.

Nearly every inch of ceiling along the main corridors has been converted to skylights, be they arched, conical or peaked. Carpeting has been ripped up in favor of granite flooring. Fountains adorn each of the main courtyards.

"We've tried to get it out of that dark tunnel effect to almost a walk down an open street," Gruber said. "It begins to take on a European streetscape."

This design concept dates back to early shopping centers such as Milan's Galleria and the Palais Royal in Paris. In the United States, malls strayed from that vision during the 1970s, tending toward a climate-controlled environment that at times felt claustrophobic.

"The enclosed mall solved certain problems that malls have with weather," said John Kaliski, a former principal architect for Los Angeles' Community Redevelopment Agency. "Now it's kind of come full circle with the idea of being in the indoors and the outdoors simultaneously."

At Northridge Fashion Center, shadows and Muzak will be replaced by sunlight and the thrum of footsteps and burbling water. Stores will present livelier facades, with brighter and bigger signs.

"Twenty years ago, we had bands of storefronts and everything was the same," Lauterbach said. "Now we're looking to let the tenants express themselves."

It will take more than flash, though, to lure shoppers back.

Under ordinary circumstances, publicity for a renovated mall would delve only skin-deep. The owners would hesitate to raise safety issues, focusing instead on ambience.

But when a press release for Northridge Fashion Center extols the new skylights, it explains that those skylights will be made of shatterproof safety glass mounted in rubber gaskets. And accompanying an announcement of the palm trees is a description of the structure's moment-frame construction that makes use of concrete-reinforced columns designed to flex in an earthquake.

The designers call it an effort to change public perception.

"Safety was at the forefront of our discussions," said Tom Witt, of RTKL Associates. "It lends the project a character it would not have had."

So mall officials boast that concrete slabs for the new parking structures were poured in place, making them stronger than prefabricated sections. Inside the mall, cross members and supports--structural elements often hidden--are left visible if not accentuated.

"You might feel more secure because you see these sturdy beams," Goodstein said. "You may not actually think that, but somewhere in the back of your mind, you may be thinking, 'Oh, good.' "

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