West Valley welcomes upscale shopping village, but don't call it a mall

The Village at Westfield Topanga is being hailed as the new "downtown" of the San Fernando Valley.

Geographically, that's off. The shopping plaza in Woodland Hills is closer to Kardashian-esque Calabasas than to the Valley's civic center in working-class Van Nuys.

But culturally, it's on point. The new venue is loaded with trendy shops and upscale eateries, but the biggest draw will probably be its gleaming, giant Costco. That totem of suburban life drew 12,000 visitors — accompanied by a commensurate parking lot jam — during its grand opening last weekend.

The image of discount shoppers lined up for blocks to nosh at Costco sample carts might not mesh with the Valley campaign to climb from cliché to cool.

But it does reflect the evolution of suburban shopping malls.

Desperate to lure visitors in an era of online commerce and busy personal lives, they are becoming "lifestyle destinations": You can walk the dog, enjoy a meal, catch a movie, visit a doctor, let the kids play and — if you don't mind an audience — get your teeth whitened, hair cut, eyebrows groomed and shoulders massaged.

The 30-acre Village is in the upscale Warner Center area. It includes dozens of places to eat, a sprawling gym, outdoor lounge areas stocked with doggy treats, play areas, a community room, birthday celebration table and bocce ball court. Its developers predict the complex will draw more annual visitors to Warner Center than Disneyland attracts.

In its shadow sits a 42-year-old symbol of the way things used to be — the once-posh Promenade mall, now so decrepit and neglected that it's described as a "ghost town" in a lawsuit filed by one of the few remaining tenants against its developers.

The fading Promenade is owned by the same company that spent $350 million to build the ballyhooed Village next door.

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The Grove in Los Angeles' Fairfax district, now 13 years old, helped pioneer the so-called lifestyle concept. A park-like plaza, dancing fountain and outdoor dining options allow the shopping center to double as social venue. In fact developer Rick Caruso has built an empire of stylized retail centers that encourage shoppers to relax and loosen their wallets.

While commerce is the focus, shopping centers increasingly have become a way to identify with and fortify neighborhoods. The Warner Center project is expected to not only generate millions of dollars and create thousands of jobs, but also provide locals with a communal gathering spot.

"It's a source of pride for us," said L.A. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who lives near enough to bike with his children to the shopping center. "It's pedestrian friendly, dog friendly, family friendly. It's going to create a vitality in the region that we haven't seen before."

A similar but smaller project is on the drawing board in my neighborhood. Its working title, for now, is the Village at Porter Ranch; the label itself seems to be a selling point. Hanging out at the village has so much more cachet than schlepping around the mall.

"People today aren't looking to go shopping, they're looking for a life-enhancing experience," said Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents Porter Ranch. "They want a destination location … a place where you're experiencing community, not just picking up groceries."

I don't doubt him on that.

Just as social media is meant to mimic friendship, shopping villages are now supposed to simulate neighborhoods.

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Last spring, Englander and 40,000 other people attended the annual Las Vegas convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers, where retail re-imagining was the main agenda item. Los Angeles' size, affluence and perpetual gridlock make the city a popular target for makeovers.

"Traffic is so bad that people [in the Valley] don't want to have to drive over the hill" for an upscale shopping or dining experience, Englander said.

He's been polling residents and studying options for the designated 35-acre lot near a freeway exit on Rinaldi — across from a growing mega-church and a shopping center with a Wal-Mart.

"They want a community gathering spot where you can sit and read a book, bring the children to play. Some place that's safe, tranquil and family-friendly … with features like Wi-Fi, fire pits, patio seating, lots of open space."

They want boutiques instead of big-box stores. Movie theaters with oversized seats and push-button food service. And restaurants with cloth, not paper, napkins.

We moved to the suburbs for our big backyards, gourmet kitchens and plush family rooms with big-screen TVs. So I suppose it's only natural — if insufferably insular — to expect those private comforts in the public spaces that anchor our neighborhoods.

But the truth behind that window dressing of upscale amenities is that we're small pawns in a giant marketing scheme.

That cynicism won't keep me from visiting the new farmers market at Warner Center Village this weekend. But don't look for me in the yoga class or on the bocce ball court.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanks

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