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Simi Valley Is Ready for Its Mall Debut

Demographic changes in the city drew developers of the Town Center, which opens Thursday.

October 24, 2005|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

It's ranked as one of the safest cities in the nation. It's clean, has plenty of parks, decent public transportation and home prices that for years were lower than in neighboring cities. Simi Valley has had everything that fits the definition of suburbia ... except a big mall.

That's why this week's opening of Simi Valley Town Center is stirring up an abundance of hoopla.

Motorists are honking their horns and giving a thumbs-up at the very sight of the center's sign along the freeway. One store is selling a limited number of $5 "preview tickets," to benefit charity, for those who can't wait for the doors to officially open. Town merchants sided 3 to 1 in favor of the competition, eager to keep Simi Valley shoppers spending within Simi Valley.

"That's the level of excitement in the community," City Manager Mike Sedell said.

Simi Valley was never big enough or far enough away to warrant a sprawling regional mall. It's only a short freeway drive to the retail-rich west San Fernando Valley. But population and income finally caught up with Simi Valley -- and the top-tier developers moved in.

As home values soared and median family incomes climbed to $81,000, this eastern Ventura County community of 121,000 is now considered an ideal location for the quarter-million potential consumers in the mall's primary market area to shop.

Designed to evoke a hillside Italian village on 129 acres, the $300-million open-air mall -- constructed below a site for 500 luxury apartments -- is set for its grand opening Thursday, 34 years after the city formed an industrial-commercial development commission to attract a mall and major employers.

The center is designed to be not only a place to sell merchandise, but also a focal point for Simi Valley, a manufactured downtown of sorts.

"In most Sun Belt cities, which are [relatively] so new, there is a lack of great public spaces," said Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow for retail and entertainment at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. "The malls have the opportunity, because they have large sites and typically are located in areas that have no downtown, to become the de facto town centers of their community."

The single-level complex includes department store anchors Robinsons-May and Macy's, along with six sit-down restaurants and a food court to act as a magnet to attract customers to more than 120 clothing, accessory and other retail stores lining a trellised walkway dotted with fountains, a fireplace and a center courtyard. At the western end of the mall is a 300,000-square-foot so-called power center, with big-box retailers Lowe's hardware, Best Buy and Babies R Us.

Behind the mall, on a higher plateau farther north of the 118 Freeway, Dallas-based JPI is constructing the first phase of Jefferson at Simi Valley, 500 luxury apartments with 9-foot ceilings. Leasing is to begin in the spring, and the final units are to be completed in 2007.

The factors developers consider when deciding to build a mall came together in Simi Valley about six years ago, after decades of false starts, said John M. Gilchrist Jr. of Corti Gilchrist Partnership. The San Diego firm arranged the deal and is helping coordinate construction along with the Finley Group. Forest City Enterprises is the major partner of the deal and will be overseeing the center's ongoing operation and management.

"The market continued to grow -- not only in bodies but, probably more importantly, in income levels," Gilchrist said of Simi Valley. "It was also good timing from a department store aspect. They recognized they can build smaller stores, have smaller square footage, but still have the same volumes they used to have in the bigger stores."

Gilchrist is familiar with the local market. He was in charge of opening the nearest competitor in 1978. The Oaks has become the most profitable retail center in Ventura County.

Simi Valley's population nearly doubled between 1970 and 2000, and though the city maintains its semi-rural roots with several neighborhoods allowing horses, it is also home to major offices for Countrywide Financial Corp., Boeing Co., Farmers Insurance Group and Ricoh Corp. copiers. The city also regularly vies with Thousand Oaks for the top spot on the FBI's list of safest U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more.

Along with the upscale planned community of Wood Ranch, the 39.2-square-mile city also has 35 public parks, Lost Canyons and Simi Hills golf courses, stops for Amtrak and Metrolink trains, a performing arts center, a historical museum, modern YMCA facilities and the 834-employee Simi Valley Hospital, which is undergoing a $40-million expansion to create a 170-bed patient wing.

Although outside its boundaries, Simi Valley claims the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, which today opens its $20-million Air Force One Pavilion, housing a Boeing 707 used by seven former presidents.

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