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What's in store with bigger malls?

A building boom is in full swing as developers reinvent the shopping experience. But some residents fear traffic gridlock, other woes.

April 22, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Southern California's shopping centers are in the midst of a major building boom that promises to change the mall experience but also raises new concerns about how the retail behemoths fit into their surrounding communities.

The latest addition is likely to be developer Rick Caruso's 830,000-square-foot Shops at Santa Anita, which won unanimous approval from the Arcadia City Council last week. Caruso, considered Southern California's mall innovator, built the faux village-style Grove mall in the Fairfax district -- which gets more visitors a year than Disneyland -- and is building a similar "lifestyle center" in downtown Glendale.

Equally important, Caruso has helped spur competing malls across Southern California to rethink what they do.

The region's largest mall owner -- Westfield -- is spending $1 billion to expand and remake nearly a dozen retail centers, in some cases knocking down fortress-style buildings to replace them with more open shops, restaurants and theaters.

Westfield just finished a major expansion of its Topanga Canyon mall, has proposed a similar build-out of Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks, and plans to build hundreds of condos in its Century City mall. The company even plans to expand its shopping center next to Caruso's Arcadia development.

Others are following suit. Developers took the roof off the Huntington Beach Mall and turned it into a Grove-style village, naming it Bella Terra. Owners of Santa Monica Place recently proposed a similar transformation.

Malls have struggled in recent years as anchor department stores have closed, but owners are looking for ways to maximize their sprawling grounds by adding stores not traditionally found at malls, as well as housing.

The new versions of the mall usually are less monolithic, more stylized outdoor centers that resemble self-contained villages and often face inward. Stuccoed buildings open onto central courtyards or walkways that are designed to take advantage of the mild Southern California climate and allow patrons to linger a little longer and spend a little more.

Critics roll their eyes at what they consider glorified Hollywood sets. But land-use planners say the village look speaks to shifting consumer tastes -- away from the sprawling, sterile suburban mall and into something with a more intimate, urban feel.

"The era of the cookie-cutter shopping center is ending," said Michael Beyard, a senior resident fellow for retail and entertainment at the Urban Land Institute. "What were suburbs are really now urban."

In many communities, however, the added development is raising alarms. Residents and local businesses spent years fighting Caruso's plans in Glendale and Arcadia, worrying that the new shopping centers would cause more traffic gridlock and drive out mom-and-pop businesses.

Other mall expansions have faced similar opposition.

In downtown Glendale, Caruso's Americana project -- a mix of housing and retail built around a "town square" -- is rising on Brand Boulevard amid smaller eateries and shops but also right next to the Glendale Galleria mall.

Glendale officials strongly backed Caruso's project, eagerly anticipating the sales taxes it would generate. But there remains debate in the city over how huge shopping centers located back-to-back will affect already bad traffic as well as the scores of small businesses in downtown Glendale.

Anne Maria Tafoya, who lives in a downtown Los Angeles loft but comes to Glendale to shop, likes the concept of an outdoor mall but wonders whether Brand Boulevard can handle another huge development.

"I don't know if the community can support much more shopping, especially if more traffic comes to the neighborhood," said Tafoya, 39.

Community opposition has already derailed mall developer Macerich's ambitious plans for the Santa Monica Place mall. Macerich wanted to tear down the aging indoor center and replace it with a sprawling complex of shops and eateries as well as high-rise condos, shops and offices.

But residents rose in protest, saying the development would be too dense and would ruin the low-rise ambience of the area.

Now the developer is back with a scaled-down plan that calls for stripping away the mall's roof, creating public walkways, large gathering places and a third-floor dining deck with ocean views as well as play areas for children and public art space.

In Arcadia, residents backed by businesses that feared the competition of another mall fought Caruso, saying the city was placing sales tax revenue ahead of what was best for residents.

"This is the last large parcel of developable land in the San Gabriel Valley," said Sung Tse, a spokesperson for Arcadia First, the group opposing the Shops at Santa Anita. "Why not look at an alternative? Why are there no other options than another mall?"

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