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ORANGE

New Mall to Add Crunch to Orange Crush

November 19, 1998|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The opening today of The Block at Orange, an 811,000-square-foot entertainment center, promises to be a boon to retailers, shoppers and amusement-seekers, but may prove to be a traffic nightmare in an already congested area.

The Block--a collection of nightclubs, restaurants, fashion boutiques, skateboard parks and movie theaters--is expected to attract an estimated 12 million visitors next year, most arriving from major freeways still being expanded.

With several massive sports and entertainment projects expected to rise up over the next few years, developers and city planners will be anxiously watching to see how successfully traffic is handled at the expansive retail complex.

For today's opening, police in Orange admit they expect "a zoo." But the long-term effects on traffic in the area are harder to predict. More than 207 million vehicles pass near the complex every year, a potential bonanza for business but a headache for already weary commuters.

The Block, which cost $165 million, is the latest in a series of projects to be built in the shadow of the Orange Crush--where the Santa Ana, Orange and Garden Grove freeways converge and carry 450,000 cars a day. Millions of additional cars could be drawn to the area.

Ten minutes to the west of The Block will be Disney's California Adventure, a new $1.4-billion theme park. A mile to the north, the $100-million Sportstown complex will bring an indoor snowboard park, restaurants, hotels and office within three years. Garden Grove wants to build its own Riverwalk entertainment center nearby on Harbor Boulevard about a mile west.

While some transportation improvements are in the works--such as the $1-billion widening of the Santa Ana Freeway--experts and city officials agree that traffic in the area will only grow worse.

Of more immediate concern is the impact The Block will have on already-snarled traffic, including the Garden Grove Freeway. The road is not scheduled to be widened for several years and while improvements have been made to some streets surrounding The Block, other fixes are still underway.

For example, the new State College Boulevard underpass will not be open until late Friday afternoon. A traffic disaster may result, especially in light of today's free movie promotion at the 30-screen AMC "Film City"--expected to draw at least 10,000.

Some Orange homeowners say the complex is likely to make a bad situation worse.

Even without The Block, getting through the area is a grind. Within a few blocks sits the UCI Medical Center, Orange County's juvenile court, Theo Lacy Branch Jail and Edison International Field.

"They've sort of put the cart before the horse," said Shannon Tucker, a 13-year resident of Orange. "That area is already terrible."

Still, Terry Austin, whose Orange-based firm did some of the traffic consulting for the project, said The Block may benefit from past mistakes.

"These big complexes have only been around for five years or so," he said. "So we're getting better at managing traffic in and around them."

In any case, Austin said, the busiest times for visiting such entertainment centers fall in the evening and on the weekend, not during rush hours.

Jerry Engen, vice president and development director for Mills Corp., which owns The Block, said his company sees traffic as a positive.

"For us it's a great thing to have a busy freeway," he said. "The important thing is that the circulation around the complex works well. Obviously we can't solve the freeway problems."

To that end, Mills Corp. worked closely with Orange on the recently completed widening of The City Drive and has kept an eye on other scheduled improvements.

Engen said the most important step his company has taken is to provide plentiful parking. Lack of parking has caused serious problems at other much-anticipated entertainment and museum centers in the Southland.

Overflow traffic from the Getty Center in Brentwood has spilled onto posh residential streets, angering neighbors. Opening week, the Getty had 47,000 visitors--many of whom did not find spaces among the 1,500 parking spots.

When the Irvine Spectrum entertainment complex opened two years ago, the crowds of visitors to the movie theaters, shops and restaurants far exceeded estimates, causing traffic gridlock and parking shortages during peak hours.

The $27-million Edwards 21 theater complex at the Irvine Spectrum, for example, offered 6,400 seats but only 1,292 parking spaces.

Officials eventually eased the crunch by adding thousands of parking spaces.

The Block hopes to avoid those problems from the onset by offering 5,000 parking spaces and contracting with area businesses to make an additional 3,000 spots available after hours.

Even so, officials say commuters should expect congestion in the area, and more problems down the road.

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