Construction has begun on an upscale open-air mall at Warner Center, a key step in a roughly 50-year quest to build a downtown for the sprawling San Fernando Valley.
Australian shopping giant Westfield Group unveiled design details for the 550,000-square-foot mall last week, and workers finished the first concrete pour Tuesday. The Village at Westfield Topanga will include boutique stores, restaurants, a gym and a luxury spa. The $350-million development is slated to open in fall 2015.
"It's going to be a first-class destination," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents the area. "It's open-aired, it's pedestrian-friendly and it's part of the new vision of what this area is going to look like."
Westfield says it wants to evoke a feeling of the Valley's past — before agriculture gave way to suburban development. Shoppers will stroll past 100-year-old California sycamores, olive trees and Mexican fan palms. Native California grass and agave will line courtyards. And visitors can walk past water features on their way to outdoor cafes and a yoga studio.
There will also be patios with fire pits, shaded overhangs, a bocce ball court, and courtyards for concerts and performances.
The open-air mall is being built on land that was once a part of an expansive horse ranch owned by Harry Warner, co-founder of Warner Bros. studios. Largely developed in the 1980s, Warner Center was seen as the Valley's attempt at a downtown. Designed for the automobile, office buildings are set far back from wide streets and pedestrians must traverse long blocks to reach their destinations.
"It was not designed for people to be biking and walking around," Blumenfield said.
But in keeping with the latest in urban planning, the Los Angeles City Council last fall approved a new master plan for the area, which divides Warner Center into eight districts, including an uptown and a downtown. The plan seeks to make the area more pedestrian-friendly, add entertainment venues and thousands of new residences. Some residential complexes will have retail space on the ground floor.
"We want it to be a full-service urban center out here in the suburban areas of Woodland Hills and the West Valley," said Scott Silverstein, chair of the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council.
Upcoming projects will probably help the area achieve that goal.
Construction is underway on a 395-unit apartment project at De Soto Avenue and Erwin Street that the Dinerstein Cos. plans to open by the end of this year. And there are plans to transform the closed 47-acre Rocketdyne site on Canoga Avenue into a 6-million-square-foot mixed-use urban center with thousands of residences and a central park. That project would take at least a decade to build, according to a land-use consultant for the redevelopment.
The Village open-air mall — at Victory and Topanga Canyon boulevards — received a boost in March when the City Council approved a controversial tax break that Westfield argued was needed to speed development.
There will be roughly 100 tenants, including Costco, Larsen's Steakhouse, YogaWorks and the boutique M Fredric. Negotiations are underway to add a gourmet grocery store as well, said Larry Green, senior vice president of U.S. development at Westfield.
The project's open design contrasts sharply with the company's adjacent indoor malls — Promenade and Topanga. Those malls opened in the 1960s and 1970s — a time when planners sought to enclose the shopping experience as suburbanization swept the country. Mall owners sought to create a "captive experience" for shoppers — one off the street in a seemingly safer environment, said Maureen McAvey, senior fellow for retail at the Urban Land Institute.
"Cities, at the time, were seen as sort of old and decaying," she said.
Such thinking is no longer in vogue.
Cities nationwide have undergone dramatic revitalization, especially in their downtowns. Now planners crave the hustle and bustle of urban life, placing an emphasis on outdoor dining and landscaping. In today's age of online shopping, mall owners also seek to lure shoppers by signing leases with gyms or spas, McAvey said. In downtown Los Angeles, a developer is even busting open the enclosed Macy's Plaza, opening the aging mall, now known as the Bloc, to the street.
"I am not sure there's any major regional enclosed shopping mall being built in this country," McAvey said.
Westfield, however, isn't about to shun its nearby malls, which are on opposite ends of the Village construction site. Instead, the Village will connect the Topanga and Promenade malls and complement the overall shopping experience, Green said.
"The enclosed mall is still one of the best product types out there," he said. But with the Village, "you have the ability to have both experiences."
Shuttles will ferry shoppers in a loop from an Orange Line rapid bus station to each of the three Westfield malls. Landscaped sidewalks will connect the massive mall complex. And there will be more than 100 parking spaces for bikes at the Village. Cyclists can use on-site showers and lockers as well.
"It moves us away from an automobile-centric environment," Green said. "It will add an element of connectivity not there today."