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The Region

Posh 'Lifestyle Center' or 'That Thing'?

Retail: Oceanfront mall above Crystal Cove State Park is bemoaned by preservationists but seen as a celebration of the outdoors by an Irvine Co. official.

April 14, 2002|EVAN HALPER and CHRISTINE HANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County's latest upscale retail plaza promises to trump the competition when it opens this fall, offering shoppers unobstructed panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island as they sip their lattes and peruse the racks of the trendiest boutiques and chain clothiers.

The only interruption between the Spanish colonial-style buildings along the bluffs and the ocean will be a few lanes of Coast Highway and the pristine, sandy beaches of Crystal Cove State Park. The water's edge is just a long Frisbee throw away.

Many locals a few miles to the south in Laguna Beach, not to mention preservationists elsewhere, are aghast.

They have known for years that this was coming. It's part of a deal worked out with the Irvine Co. long ago that saved the ecologically sensitive coastal park from development. But they have been jolted anew by buildings rising from the sandy soil, with haberdasheries and swanky bistros negotiating deals to move in.

Irvine Co. officials call their project the Crystal Cove Promenade.

Fred Droz calls it "that thing."

The chairman of the steering committee for Vision Laguna, a group aimed at preserving the village charm of the small coastal city, complains that the shopping center has taken "a big bite out of the Coast Highway," a stretch long known for its scenery, with unspoiled canyons on one side and ocean views on the other.

"It's sad," he said. "That used to be such a great decompression zone into Laguna."

Droz brands the shopping center a "Newport-style operation" on Laguna's border.

Laguna officials had little influence over the development plans because the land is outside its borders and under county jurisdiction.

The Santa Barbara Mission-themed promenade, with its terra cotta tile roofs, is meant to complement the million-dollar mini-mansions in the Newport Coast community, which covers the hills above the park. Residents have been rooting for the Promenade project on their community Web site.

The development will ultimately have 125,000 square feet of leasable space for several stores, two restaurants and possibly a gas station, according to a report from the county Planning and Development Services Department.

Just don't call it a mall.

Company officials prefer "lifestyle center." This will be the Irvine Co.'s third such center with a coastal theme. The others are Fashion Island, with its outdoor gathering areas, and Corona del Mar Plaza, where seashells are embedded in the walkways. The views and breezes offered by those centers, however, don't come close to what the Crystal Cove Promenade will provide.

"This is a place designed to celebrate the outdoor coastal experience," said Francine Pares, a spokeswoman for the Irvine Co.

The Gap and Gap Kids have announced they will be tenants, joining such shops as UhOh Clothing Boutique, which an Irvine Co. release promises is one of the "premier fashion boutiques of the West Coast."

Richard Gollis, a principal of the Concord Group, a land-use consultancy in Newport Beach, said the promenade will be a "prestige location" for the larger retailers. Although customer traffic will be much lower than at a typical mall--there is no freeway access and the place is boxed in by the coast--the views, breezes and high-end clientele will lend the stores the kind of cachet that being on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue does. Companies will open stores even if they offer marginal profits, Gollis said, because the locations provide a marketing boost.

Although Laguna Beach officials said that's exactly the type of place they don't want in, or even near, their village, some are staying optimistic.

Laguna Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman said the new retail center could bring into sharper focus the small-town qualities that set Laguna apart from other coastal cities.

"I think what it will truly do is show the contrast," she said.

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