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More Shopping Malls Going Alfresco

Developers hope to duplicate downtown experience in suburbs with open-air 'alls'

June 03, 2004|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

Malls, the bastions of merchandising that for decades relied on fashion and food courts to entice shoppers, are losing their lids -- and not just in sunny Southern California.

Drive by some of the nation's newest retail attractions and it's clear that the conventional mall is declining in status.

Developers are tearing down or reconfiguring covered malls from Raleigh, N.C., to Columbus, Ohio, making room for outdoor centers that mix traditional retailers with big-box stores, high-density housing, stadium-style theaters, grocery stores and restaurants.

Malls have made the transition to "alls," open-air centers in Pasadena, Sherman Oaks and Long Beach. The trend continues in Torrance, Whittier and Huntington Beach, where developers hope to mimic the downtown experience that is missing from many suburban communities.

"Many people live in communities where there's not a main street where they can walk, window shop and meet people," said Ellen Greenberg, director of research at the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that favors pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods with a mix of housing. "What we're learning is people value that and miss it, which is why it's being imitated in these lifestyle centers."

Competition from discount retailers and shopping centers is also contributing to the de-malling trend, according to experts, as is the appeal of the open-air center to exposure-hungry retailers seeking more spacious digs and harried shoppers who don't want to schlep through an entire mall to make a simple purchase.

"These days, you either go for the experience, like the Grove, or you go to Wal-Mart for the discount," said urban planner William Fulton, a senior scholar at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development. "The regional mall is boring without bargains."

Although enclosed malls are not on the verge of vanishing -- they continue to average higher sales per square foot than their outdoor counterparts -- in recent years, more enclosed malls have been shuttered than have opened, according to a study by the International Council of Shopping Centers. From 2001 to 2003, more than 30 shopping centers, most of them enclosed, ceased functioning as malls, with many replaced by outdoor developments.

The study cited competition from newer centers, loss of anchor stores and changing demographics as reasons for redevelopment. The council does not track the performance of newer, open-air developments compared to the enclosed malls they replaced.

Nationwide, only three large shopping centers -- two of them enclosed -- will open this year, compared with the 1990 peak of 19, most of them enclosed, according to council spokeswoman Patrice Duker.

Plans are also progressing this year for about two dozen so-called "lifestyle centers" that combine dining, entertainment and specialty stores in a smaller, outdoor setting. "Right now, they're the hot development trend," Duker said.

Other enclosed malls have morphed into open-air "power centers," which host discount retailers. In West Hills, the enclosed Fallbrook Mall gave way to the outdoor Fallbrook Center, where shoppers can pull up to a Wal-Mart, a Laemmle theater or a Starbucks coffeehouse.

"Parking is much easier here than Topanga Plaza," a nearby enclosed mall, said Sandy Bakelman, 65, of West Hills, as she sat in the shade sipping a Frappuccino. "It's so much more convenient."

Woodland Hills resident Lorri Bohn, 44, said she was drawn to the Fallbrook Center by its mix of retailers, including Old Navy, Trader Joe's and Michaels, not so much its outdoor setting.

More regional malls, which have traditionally combined anchor stores with national chains and mom-and-pop shops, are ripe for conversion, according to the Congress for the New Urbanism. Agency officials say declining shopping centers, which it calls "greyfields," should be transformed into developments mixing residential, retail, office and civic space in a pedestrian-friendly setting woven into the community, as was the case at Pasadena's Paseo Colorado.

A 2001 study by the group and PricewaterhouseCoopers identified about 140 greyfield malls nationwide, with as many as 250 more approaching greyfield status. A number of struggling Southern California malls have been targeted by developers:

* Los Angeles developers are remaking the enclosed Huntington Beach Mall as Bella Terra, an open-air collection of shops, restaurants, a small outdoor amphitheater and a 20-screen multiplex theater in an Italian village-like setting.

* In Whittier, developers hope to replace the Whittwood Mall with the open-air Whittwood Town Center, which would add a Target, community amphitheater and more than 100 townhomes to an existing JCPenney, Sears and Mervyn's. In a nod to mall-walkers, a mile-long outdoor course will weave its way around the center.

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