Long ago it was a humble bean field. For more than half a century it was a military base. Now, 100 acres in Tustin have been transformed into the inevitable Orange County end use: a shopping center.
Make that a very big shopping center -- or, as it's being marketed, "a retail lifestyle and entertainment center."
With 1 million square feet of stores, restaurants, movie theaters and a hipster-inspired bowling alley, the District at Tustin Legacy is the most prominent project to emerge on the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station and the largest of its kind to open in Orange County in a decade.
Although its developer is promoting today as the $300-million project's grand opening, stores have been opening one by one for weeks amid construction and adjacent roadwork.
"This shopping center is going to become Tustin's downtown," said Jeffrey Axtell, project director for Phoenix-based Vestar Development Co.
With a looming, World War II-era blimp hangar as its backdrop, the District was designed with a split personality. Big-box stores such as Costco, Target and Lowe's ring a smaller "lifestyle center" of specialty shops and restaurants amid fountains, fireplaces, huge screens showing music videos and live entertainment. Vestar has built two similar districts in Arizona.
The Tustin project's core customer base will be people in the 4,600-home mini-city that is taking shape on the former base. In addition, thousands of condos and apartments have either been built or are planned for miles along an increasingly urbanized Jamboree Road.
But the District is also the newest player in a very competitive market.
It's a mere three miles from the sprawling Tustin-Irvine Marketplace. There are now twice as many Target stores within a five-mile radius of the District (four) than there are in Wyoming (two).
"Orange County has great disposable income, and the retailers feel there's enough density" for the District to compete, Axtell said.
Still, Gregory Stoffel, an Irvine-based retail strategist, questions whether there is enough different about the District to make it stand out among the area's multiple shopping centers, even with the expected population growth.
"It's largely the same set of tenants that you find almost everywhere," Stoffel said of the big-box stores that make up about 70% of the center's million square feet.
"Everything that's at the District, with the exception of the lifestyle center, is duplicated within three miles. Is there enough of a market to support that? Only time will tell."
Tustin planners built in such a "slippage factor" into its estimates of the District's tax revenue, said city Finance Director Ron Nault.
He said the project would eventually generate $4 million a year in sales taxes -- more than 8% of the city's general fund budget.
"It's huge for us," Nault said. "It's all going to be positive for the city."