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Goodbye, Laguna Hills Mall; hello, urban village

For decades, the Laguna Hills Mall served as a south Orange County regional shopping and entertainment destination, with its four department stores, food court and movie theater.

But over its 40 years, empty storefronts came to outnumber tenants. Dark stores now house abandoned display cases, and a corridor of the mall is blocked off with floor-to-ceiling plywood.

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Soon this mall, one of the oldest in Orange County, will be no more. Already the wreckers, perhaps symbolically, have removed large outdoor signs. By spring of 2018, a new development will have risen in its place — not quite a mall but more of a community, with restaurants and shops but also apartments and an acre park where live music and events will be held.

Ground was broken in a ceremony on Aug. 5.

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On Tuesday, the mall remained open — it will be torn down in phases, though some sections will remain — but it was eerily quiet. Missing were the sounds of footsteps and chatter among shoppers. A few customers popped in and out of Bath & Body Works, Dollar Book Fair and the Paul's Products wig shop, while others lounged in vending massage chairs or purchased sandwiches from a Subway shop.

If that scene represented the mall's past, at the The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Stephen Logan, director of development with private real estate investment company Merlone Geier Partners, was preparing for the site's future.

"We're sitting right here," Logan said as he pointed to a spot on architectural plans spread out on a table. "This will be a park with a fountain, big screen and lawn."

San Diego-based Merlone Geier Partners will be converting the 68-acre property into an indoor-outdoor shopping center and housing development called Five Lagunas, a title chosen to reflect its nearness to Laguna Canyon as well as the cities of Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Beach and Laguna Woods.

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The public may continue shopping at the mall during its redevelopment, but the Sears wing is partitioned off and will be demolished for luxury apartments. Plans call for the western facade of the mall to be turned "inside out," having the retail stores opening to the ocean-side parking area and offering direct access to most of them.

Logan said this will give the feel of a Main Street in a central business district.

Hopes are high for the new urban village, where consumers can shop, dine and play and residents can live in a master-planned community.

The plans call for about 60 retailers, including a mix of local, national and fashion brands, as well as the mall's current department stores, J.C. Penney, Macy's and Nordstrom Rack. (It's hard to know what the Macy's announcement Thursday that the company will be closing 100 stores nationwide might mean locally.)

Orange County's first 14-screen luxury ICON movie theater will be installed, more restaurants will be built and an acre park where live music and events will be held will also include a big screen so visitors can gather and watch everything from a film on special movie night to a variety of nationally and internationally televised sports competitions.

A six-story parking garage will be added and a farmers market will continue at the site.

Because the demographics of the area range from young professionals and families to the retirees of Laguna Woods village, the development firm conceptualized a mixed-use center that would appeal to all ages, said Logan.

That means a fitness center in a walkable area with service shops and dining and entertainment options. Even movie nights will be targeted to different age groups.

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"It's a great piece of real estate in Orange County with a lot of potential," Logan said. "Our goal is to drive people to this property and make it a destination for a cool atmosphere."

The design comes at a time when consumer trends in retail and housing have shifted to promenade-style shopping, where families, perhaps living on the same site, can spend the day enjoying a mix of retail and entertainment, or professionals can schedule a business lunch, Logan said.

One example is the Pacific City in Huntington Beach. The Residences, a collection of apartments scheduled to open in 2017 as part of the development, is set among boutiques, restaurants and amenities.

This tends to make the indoor Laguna Hills Mall, built in 1973, feel outdated.

Laguna Hills City Manager Bruce Channing said the renovation will be a significant improvement to the community, describing it as a lifestyle center targeted to appeal to all age groups.

No one spoke against the plans at a recent public hearing, he said.

"I think the community has recognized that the mall needed to change with the times and they are supportive of it," Channing said. "We're very excited about it and we think it will be a terrific space for people."

In the 1990s, under the ownership of the O'Connor Group of New York, the mall added movie theaters, a food court and a second level of specialty stores. The idea was to give South County its first so-called super-mall.

The renovation and expansion were also aimed at getting a leg up on the rival Mission Viejo Mall and the Irvine Co., which was planning a new mall in the Irvine Spectrum development.

Shopping center giant Simon Property Group, owner of the Mission Viejo Mall, acquired the Laguna Hills Mall in 1997.

Over the years, the shopping center that catered to the nearby cities of Mission Viejo, Foothill Ranch and Aliso Viejo limped along but remained open.

In 2013, Merlone Geier Partners bought the mall from Simon Property Group for undisclosed terms. The following years, the new owner worked with the city of Laguna Hills and nearby residents and businesses as it discussed creating a different kind of retail property that could satisfy different community needs.

Tenants say they think the redesign will benefit customers and they are looking forward to the update, even though many don't know whether they will be allowed to stay.

At one kiosk, One Time Watch and Jewelry Repair employee Omar Hassanein handled a customer's watch battery. The family-owned business operated out of the mall's Sears department store for 15 years. Sears closed in 2014.

"We think it's for the better," Hassanein said of the renovation.

Dana Point resident John O'Dwyer was visiting Tuesday afternoon with his two children.

He wanted to take his daughter and son to see inflatable dinosaurs in the mall's upstairs food court but was disappointed to learn that the section was closed off.

"This is kind of a dying mall," O'Dwyer said. "But I'll definitely check back to see it when it's finished."

For more information, visit fivelagunas.com.

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Kathleen Luppi, kathleen.luppi@latimes.com

Twitter: @KathleenLuppi

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