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Shoppers to Harvest Long-Awaited Goods at North County Mall

Times Staff Writer

It’s little wonder if North County shoppers are flexing their credit cards and licking their chops these days, their appetites whetted by seven years of anticipation.

Shopping center wizard Ernest W. Hahn, whose Horton Plaza opened to mostly rave reviews in downtown San Diego, turns his attention from the urban to the suburban this month when he opens his newest creation, North County Fair.

Although the $120-million mall has 1.3-million square feet and is three stories tall at its center, it will not be the largest in San Diego County. Both Mission Valley Center and Fashion Valley have more retail space, but North County Fair will be the largest enclosed mall in the region, and it is one of only 17 in the United States to be anchored by six major department stores.

The mall, which is designed to take on the flavor of a light, airy “California barn” and sits next to a largely undeveloped regional park, will formally open on Feb. 20, and the owners of the smaller mall stores will be fined $500 a day for each day they are late in opening. Mall officials estimate that 100 stores will be ready to open by Feb. 20.

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Of the six major department stores, The Broadway and May Co. will open a week early, on Feb. 13; Sears and Robinson’s will open on Feb. 20; Nordstrom will open Aug. 15, and J.C. Penney will open Nov. 5.

This will be no cookie-cutter suburban shopping center, says Hahn, who developed the fanciful, Disneyesque Horton Plaza as the cornerstone of downtown San Diego.

North County Fair was designed by Los Angeles architect Jon Jerde, who also designed Horton Plaza. But there is no comparing the two centers, Jerde and Hahn say, because the environments that dictated the design of each are totally dissimilar.

“For North County Fair we wanted to give a country feeling--as much as you can with something as big as this,” said Hahn. “The colors are light and gay, not heavy and ponderous. This will not be a sophisticated mall. It will be a comfortable mall.”

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The inland North County market area to be served by the mall, however, is the wealthiest per capita among the major trade areas in San Diego County, Hahn said.

The market area has a population of about 300,000, with no other regional malls now serving it.

For the Escondido project, the two men set out to develop a mall which, from the outside, would blend--as well as anything that large can--with the neighboring Kit Carson Park and the gentle hillsides just north of Lake Hodges.

To preserve the general topography of the 83-acre site, which is higher on its western border along Interstate 15 than on its eastern side along Bear Valley Parkway, the mall was constructed in a tiered or stepped configuration. That is, the western wing of the mall, anchored by Sears and The Broadway, is on the two higher levels. Near the center of the mall, the third and lowest level is introduced, allowing a huge, three-story atrium onto which open the three-floor Robinson’s and Nordstrom stores. Easterly from there, the third floor is discontinued and the lower two floors lead to the other two anchor stores, May Co. and J.C. Penney. The parking lot, likewise, is graded so that shoppers can enter on any of the three mall levels.

“We could have leveled the site, paved a parking lot and put the buildings in the middle,” Jerde said. “Instead, we wanted this project to be organic--to lock itself into the site.”

While some residents had expected the center to feature a Spanish or Mediterranean flavor with the use of tile roof, Hahn and Jerde opted for a gray, seam metal roof, similar to what is common, Jerde said, on many California barns, which after years tend to wash out and blend inconspicuously in the landscape.

Exterior pastel colors, using long, horizontal bands to enhance the length and reduce the vertical impact of the center, range from eucalyptus grays and greens to pale olive to straw to pale rust, and are intended to reflect the natural colors of the area, Jerde said.

“The landscaping is still new and immature, but in time, the center will appear as a colony of kindred buildings, much like a campus setting,” Jerde said.

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Inside the mall, shoppers will walk beneath a pitched, open-beamed ceiling with liberal use of skylights to flood the mall with natural lighting. The use of heavy beams, wood and landscaping is the most ever in a Hahn project of this size, he said. Colorful banners add splashes of color throughout the mall, and street lights line the walkways to help reduce the mall’s scale beneath the huge ceiling.

To conquer the sense of sameness and the gaping entrances into stores that are the signature of many indoor malls, each individual store in this mall was required to construct its own unique storefront, with emphasis on design rather than merchandising, Jerde said.

“Merchandising theories used to be driven by making consumption more expedient--to get in, get your goodies and get out. Today, though, shopping is considered more of a recreational activity, and you don’t want to push customers around or hurry them. You want to offer a captivating environment with options and choices, so they will want to stay longer. We look for eccentricity in design, not sameness,” Jerde said.

Hahn and Jerde tied the shopping mall into the adjoining park with the use of a courtyard on the back side of the mall with a cluster of five small, free-standing buildings: two savings and loans, two restaurants and a room available for community events. The buildings encircle a pond to unify the courtyard with the ponds situated inside the park itself.

While there was no possible way of hiding the mall from the view of park visitors, an earthen berm does hide the mall’s parking lot. A bike path connects the mall to the park.

Inside the mall, no less than 13 fast-food outlets will share the same third-level courtyard/seating area, with customers given the option of eating indoors and looking out through huge picture windows onto the park, or sitting outdoors on a terrace.

There are no movie theaters, ice skating rinks or other pure entertainment outlets in North County Fair. “Our theme is the neighboring park, and that’s why we’ve tried so hard to tie the two together,” said John Gilchrist, president of Ernest W. Hahn Inc.

The marriage is more than just one of aesthetics. In 1982, the center began paying the city of Escondido $890,000 a year as lease payments for the property for the first 10 years, and $1,090,000 a year for the subsequent 40 years of the lease contract with the city, which owns the property. About $5 million of that revenue over the first 10 years is specifically earmarked to improve parks and recreation in the city, primarily Kit Carson Park.

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Furthermore, the mall will generate about $1.3 million annually in property-tax revenue for the city and between $2 million and $3 million annually in sales tax for the city, thereby becoming the city government’s largest source of money.

Hahn spent nearly $6 million on off-site improvements, including a new access road and bridge across Interstate 15 onto the property to reduce the traffic impact on Bear Valley Parkway.

More than 2,000 people were employed in the construction of the center, and more than 2,500 people are being hired to work at the mall once it opens.

“The economic value is that North County Fair will re-establish Escondido as a destination point,” said Assistant City Manager Rod Wood. “People will now deliberately come to Escondido for service, and if they can’t find what they want at the mall, they can go up the street a mile or two to the Escondido Village Mall, the Vineyard or somewhere else to get what they want.”

Indeed, the new mall is expected to generate between 16 million and 19 million visits a year, most from outside the city of Escondido.

Hahn has developed 40 shopping centers around the United States and his partner in this venture, May Centers Development Co., has developed another 23 centers.

In San Diego County, Hahn built Fashion Valley (with six major department stores and 147 mall stores) in 1969, the enclosed Parkway Plaza in 1972 and University Towne Centre in 1977. May Centers built Mission Valley Center (the county’s largest, with 1.5 million square feet, but with only four major stores and 150 mall stores) and the enclosed Plaza Camino Real in Carlsbad (until now the largest enclosed mall in the county, with 1.16 million square feet, five major stores and 135 mall stores).

The partnership at North County Fair calls for Hahn to build and lease the center and for May Centers to manage and operate it.

Hahn’s leasing agents say the mall is nearly 90% leased and that no Hahn center, including Horton Plaza, has ever leased faster than this one. Between 70% and 75% of the tenants are national chains versus regional or locally owned stores.

Each of the major department stores are billing themselves as the state-of-the-art merchandisers, with larger aisles, better product display, more emphasis on decor and ambiance and, in some clothing departments, space-age style mannequins with single, wide slits for eyes.

These stores are smaller than earlier generation department stores, thanks to computer-assisted inventory control reducing the need for large stockrooms and the move by some stores to drop entire lines of products, such as major appliances, furniture and electronics. Each of the department stores will be about 150,000 square feet; in contrast, the May Co. store in Lakewood, near Los Angeles, was built in the post-war years at a size of 350,000-square-feet.

Of the mall stores, women’s apparel accounts for the greatest number of stores--23, so far. There also will be at least 18 shoe stores and 13 jewelry stores. In addition to the 13 fast-food outlets there will be no less than two cookie stores, two chocolate stores and five sit-down restaurants, including the first ever Marie Callender’s in a shopping mall.

Among the new, locally based tenants are Mary Garman, Mary Russell and Jerri Woods, who banded together to form “Basket Express,” a small, 500-square-foot store specializing in personalized gift baskets featuring international beers, wines, gourmet foods, soaps and the like.

Garman said she was so anxious to get a store in Hahn’s mall that she began writing letters to him in 1979--as soon as voters in Escondido agreed to a trade of park land so Hahn could build the center. She even changed the idea of her store four times before settling on her current concept.

“I figured this was the center to get into, because of its size and location,” said Garman, who previously operated a wicker and rattan store in Escondido’s Vineyard shopping center. “I’m paying about three times as much per square foot for my lease, but I figure I’ll get more than three times the foot traffic.

“And since I’m looking to expand into other centers, it gives me credibility to be in here, with Hahn. If I make it here, other centers will want me, too,” she said.

Among those on whom the center will have a tremendous visual affect is Bob Joyce, a Navy operations captain who lives in the Lomas Serenas subdivision overlooking the mall from the west side of I-15.

Joyce bought his home on Avenida Amorosa 2 1/2 years ago--before the mall construction began but with full knowledge that it would be built. Today the mall serves as a distant backdrop to his backyard swimming pool.

“I was worried about all the parking lot lights but because of Mt. Palomar (observatory), all the lights will be directed downward. So now I’m concerned instead about the noise.

“But, if I had to do it over again, I’d still buy this place,” he said. “I’m sure it could have been a lot worse. At least I don’t have to travel far for my Christmas shopping.”


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