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Mission Viejo Mall Owners Say It's Finally Getting a Make-Over

Retail: The renovations of the lagging South County center will add a Saks Fifth Avenue to join Nordstrom as an anchor store.


Joining a growing list of aging Orange County malls lined up for a face-lift, the owners of the weary Mission Viejo Mall said Thursday they are launching the long-awaited renovation of their center.

And in news that's likely to cheer upscale South County shoppers, they announced that tony Saks Fifth Avenue will join Nordstrom as an anchor store at the mall.

"That's quite a coup for us," said Art Spellmeyer, senior vice president of development for the Simon DeBartolo Group, which owns the mall. The only other Saks Fifth Avenue in Orange County is at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

More than 50 people, many of them city officials, joined the developer and architect at one end of the wilting mall Thursday morning to toast the renovation, which should be complete by the fall of 1999.

In the meantime, architect Ron Altoon conceded, "there will be a fair amount of chaos."

Spellmeyer said the developer will spend more than $100 million on the project, and Mission Viejo Mayor Susan Withrow said the city's Community Redevelopment Agency is considering kicking in another $25 million for parking and other improvements.

When the project is complete, sales revenue per square foot should double, Spellmeyer predicted. That would please city officials, who have watched with frustration as sales tax revenue from the mall dropped 20% over the past four years.

The expanded center will stretch about 20,000 square feet beyond its current size.

"We can never be South Coast Plaza. That is a fabulous property," Spellmeyer said. "But there clearly is room for a higher-end property in south Orange County."

Shoppers who roamed the mall's quiet, dimly lit corridors Thursday morning couldn't agree more.

"It's so dead," said Jodi DePillo, 33, from Aliso Viejo. "We need a Nordstrom down here. Saks would be nice too."

"Oh, please get started on it," said Gloria Stich, 74, a Mission Viejo resident. "I can't wait for them to do something."

The mall renovation, along with others across the county, reflect a nationwide trend.

Of the 1,434 shopping centers under construction across the country last year, 568 were new developments and 866 were renovations or expansions, said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for International Council of Shopping Centers in New York.

"There's a great deal more competition, so centers are trying to distinguish themselves from one another," he said.

While many shopping centers have called attention to themselves by beefing up the entertainment options in their centers, the Mission Viejo Mall has opted for a different strategy. Indeed, its three-screen theater will close as part of the mall's transformation, the mall manager said.

But a 10-screen theater at the Kaleidoscope center across the street from the Mission Viejo Mall should be open this summer, said Rich Shapiro, development coordinator for that project.

Shapiro said he was "thrilled" to hear of the plans for Mission Viejo Mall. Rather than competing, the neighboring centers will complement one another, he said.

"The two of them together are very, very potent," he said. "We feel that this will cause the Crown Valley [Parkway] corridor to become absolutely the hub of shopping and entertainment in south Orange County."

During the presentation at the Mission Viejo Mall on Thursday morning, architect Altoon tossed out phrases such as "casual elegance" and "resort retail" as he described his goals for the center, which has not had a make-over since it was built in 1979.

The refurbished mall will be modern and bright, he said, with 61 new skylights as well as balconies where shoppers can rest and watch when they tire of shopping. The dated brick and parquet flooring will be replaced by natural stone.

The spruced-up shopping place will have both family and "white table cloth" restaurants and fast food outlets.

Major changes also are in store at the mall's two existing anchor stores--Macy's and Robinsons-May. Macy's will expand by about 50%, while Robinsons-May, which has two stores in the mall, will operate out of one larger building.

Although they did not announce the names of smaller tenants they may be wooing, the developer said the mall will eventually have about 175 retail stores. With carrots such as Nordstrom and Saks to lure other upscale retailers, developers are optimistic that other highbrow tenants will gravitate to the mall.

Many merchants now leasing stores at the mall have felt uncertain about their futures, not knowing if there will be space for them the final leases are signed. Some stores have already moved out to make way for construction.

Indeed, only about 30% of the stores currently in the mall will remain, Spellmeyer said.

"We're hoping we can stay," said Nicole Orth, assistant manager of the B. Dalton bookstore, a longtime tenant.

The manager of Miller's Outpost said his store will close at the end of the month and he doesn't know if it will reopen there. Still, he thinks the renovation is a positive move.

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