Century City mall goes deluxe with $1-billion makeover to entice online shoppers

Secret A-list elevators, parking optimized for luxury cars, hotel-caliber furniture and restrooms.

Sounds like Los Angeles’ latest hot spot, and it just might be — after a $1-billion makeover of the Westfield Century City mall.

The extravagant two-year upgrade, which will be officially unveiled next week, is intended to charm people into shopping on foot rather than online.

After years of seeing Amazon.com and other internet outlets encroach on their traffic and sales, mall operators are fighting back. And Westfield Corp.’s flagship Los Angeles mall is the latest example of that trend as landlords shut down marginally performing centers and elevate the best-located survivors.

Along with more than 200 mostly new shops and restaurants — including Mario Batali’s Eataly — the Century City mall will feature a VIP service offering private lounges and elevators to stores, plus special shopping hours so celebrities can browse in peace.

There are five valet stations, but shoppers who don’t want to hand a stranger the keys to their cherished car can sign up online for a reserved parking place near the main entrance on Santa Monica Boulevard.

When you arrive, the gate lifts after scanning your license plate number and directs you to a reserved space under a television monitor — with your name on it. The minimum charge is $20 for a four-hour visit.

Ticketless parking to unassigned spots is also available to anyone who downloads the mall’s parking app to their phone.

Now, “your parking is frictionless,” said Peter Lowy, co-chief executive of Westfield, an international mall operator with U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles. “The mall design is meant to be a sanctuary. A place you will go that is soft, relaxing and you do what you want at your own pace.”

Indeed, “frictionless” has become the new watchword for high-end mall operators like Lowy, who strive to eliminate what they call “consumer pain points” such as circling for a parking spot. The goal: to make in-person shopping appealing to customers accustomed to getting what they want with a few mouse clicks.

Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso upped the ante years ago with his lavish Grove and Americana at Brand outdoor malls. Landlord Taubman Centers Inc. is spending $500 million to enhance the appeal of its Beverly Center near Beverly Hills, including streamlining the parking.

Upscale mall operators “are trying to remove the barriers that say it’s too much of a hassle to go over there,” said retail consultant Greg Gotthardt.

Historically, the average mall “was boring, wide and non-inviting,” Lowy said, but worked as an efficient transaction center. Today, malls need to be more seductive to get people to show up.

So only about half of the three-level Century City mall is dedicated to fashion, with the other half split between eating and drinking and a range of other uses that have little to do with shopping.

There is a sprawling Equinox gym with high ceilings and hardwood floors. There is Next Health cryotherapy clinic, where patients can stand in freezing chambers, and a more conventional UCLA Health Clinic offering medical care. Amateur pugilists can work out in Gloveworx boxing studio.

Early next year the mall is expected to get the flagship location of Dreamscape Immersive, a virtual-reality entertainment center financed in part by director Steven Spielberg and AMC Entertainment, which operates the center’s theater complex.

In a turnabout on the digital competition, Westfield Century City will have stores that started online, including Amazon Books, men’s clothing purveyor Bonobos and eyeglasses maker Warby Parker.

But much of the thought and investment went into making the mall less, well, mall-like. Shopping center operators in the last century often didn’t supply much seating because they figured that people who were sitting weren’t spending.

In keeping with the more modern notion of encouraging visitors to linger, the corridors and open spaces of Westfield Century City are stocked with nearly 100 types of specially made furniture conceived by Los Angeles designer Kelly Wearstler. Much of it is made of wood, including hanging beds with fabric-covered cushions.

There is an outdoor event space called the Atrium that can hold 1,000 people. Westfield’s production company will put on concerts, Broadway performances, children’s shows and other events. The Atrium also has gnarled olive trees saved from 1801 Avenue of the Stars, one of two aging office buildings Westfield knocked down to expand the mall.

The mall dates from the 1960s, when Century City was created out of 20th Century Fox studio’s backlot. Westfield acquired it in 2002 and made a series of changes. In 2006, Westfield proposed adding residential towers and new office space, but by 2014 market conditions were more conducive to expanded retail, Lowy said.

The redevelopment, which Westfield valued at $1 billion, reconfigured the mall and expanded it by about a third to 1.3 million square feet. About 90% of the stores, including Nordstrom, are new. Many are operating now while others won’t open their doors until next year.

One of the mall’s biggest strokes was landing the West Coast outpost of Eataly, a wildly successful Italian food emporium that was founded in Italy a decade ago and now has locations worldwide.

Landing Eataly was a coup for Westfield “because it’s truly experiential,” said Pasadena retail expert Peter Lynch of A&G Realty Partners. The fashionable food bazaar, co-owned in the U.S. by celebrity chef Batali, will be an open hall filled with the scent of Italian food prepared by a host of small restaurateurs where patrons can graze while sipping wine.

In addition to the Eataly set to open in late October, there will be upscale restaurants such as Din Tai Fung, which originated in Taiwan, and Mexican food seller Javier’s. The mall also has a Gelson’s supermarket.

Lowy predicts that annual sales at the upgraded mall will rise to $1.25 billion from about $600 million as the number of visitors roughly doubles to 20 million to 25 million per year.

If that happens, it will reward Westfield’s strategy of concentrating on fewer, better malls. The company plans to cut the number of malls it owns to 25 from 35 by 2019.

Primarily they will be what Westfield calls flagship malls in leading markets such as Los Angeles, New York, Silicon Valley San Diego, London and Milan, Italy. Locations that can support them are rare, however.

“There are relatively few coastal and urban locations where you have the level of affluence to pull that off,” said Gotthardt of FTI Consulting.

Westfield is also working on a massive $1.5-billion project in L.A.’s Warner Center neighborhood to demolish its obsolete Promenade shopping mall. Dating from 1972, it will be replaced with an expansive mixed-use complex with about 1,400 residences, two hotels, shopping, dining and an outdoor sports and entertainment venue.

But perhaps only a handful of malls can accommodate the celebrity-centric VIP service set to begin in Century City in coming months.

It will be run by Los Angeles security firm Gavin de Becker & Associates, which also operates a VIP program at Los Angeles International Airport.

The shopping center version is to be a collection of private luxury lounges reached by a special vehicle ramp and secured gate. There, VIPs can get private fittings, apparel and accessory samplings and other personalized services from restaurants and retailers.

A concierge staff can lead guests to private elevators to every shop, restaurant and amenity in the mall and secure off-hours visits to stores.

“We are excited to offer our members a service at Westfield that doesn’t exist at any other retail destination in the world,” founder Gavin de Becker said in a statement.

Prices for the service will be announced soon, a representative said, but admission to the company’s facility at LAX costs $7,500 for an annual membership plus as much as $3,000 per flight for four people.

Celebrities can be a golden goose for retailers, said real estate broker Jay Luchs, who arranges store leases on Rodeo Drive and other haute locations.

Retailers “like to cater to celebrities because if they wear a product it can become known worldwide” among the millions of people who follow celebrities on social media, said Luchs of Newmark Knight Frank. “It’s all about influencers now.”

roger.vincent@latimes.com

Twitter: @rogervincent

ALSO

In L.A.’s Broadway Theater District, Chinese developer builds condos priced for first-time buyers

It's years away, but 70-story downtown tower could change L.A. skyline and 'relationship with vertical living'

USC's massive campus addition features student housing — and Trader Joe's and Target open to the community

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°