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Store Wars : Renovation Is the Battle Cry Among the County’s Shopping Malls as They Fight for Consumer Dollars

Times Staff Writer

There have been some clear-cut winners in the intense competition among Orange County’s shopping malls: architects and builders.

Of the county’s 13 regional malls, five are undergoing multimillion-dollar renovations. A sixth, Anaheim Plaza, is awaiting approval of its plans for a major face-lift.

It is store wars in Orange County, and the theme in this year’s battle is construction and remodeling.

With its affluent and growing population, Orange County has long been a retailer’s haven.

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In the last 2 years alone, more than 2 million square feet of new retail space has opened at South Coast Plaza and MainPlace/Santa Ana. That kind of tough competition has done more than just keep other malls on their toes. It has them running to keep up.

South Coast Plaza itself has been sprucing up its older sections for months. In fact, by the end of the year, the 21-year-old mega-mall will have upgraded 92,000 square feet, adding new stores as well as renovating older ones.

Major remodeling is also under way or should begin soon at Newport Center/Fashion Island, Brea Mall, Huntington Center, Mall of Orange, Westminster Mall and Anaheim Plaza. While the centers will take down the scaffolding for the holiday season, most of the construction is scheduled to start again soon after New Year’s Day.

“It’s a national trend,” said one industry observer. With new centers such as MainPlace competing for shoppers’ dollars, “it’s survival. Remodel or die.”

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That’s because shopping centers go in and out of style as quickly as the length of hemlines. What seemed trendy a decade ago--like the orange and brown earth tones popular in the ‘70s--can give today’s bargain-hunters the feeling that they’re browsing in a tired, worn-out center. When a flashier competitor opens down the road, yesterday’s look can mean empty corridors.

The same holds true for retailers. A store that’s hot one year may not be the next. And that, too, can mean basement-level sales down the road.

So malls and merchants must constantly update their look to keep customers coming back.

“Customers are used to seeing the latest retail offering. They want to feel like they’re getting fresh goods,” said John A. Fransen, president of Fransen & Co., a Santa Monica consultant to developers and retailers.

That is why, he said, Orange County’s “most successful mall is the one that has done more remodeling and made more changes than any of them--South Coast Plaza.”

To help persuade store owners to match overall mall remodeling efforts, mall management typically requires renovations as a condition of renewing retailers’ leases.

“We’ll tell them, ‘If you would like to have a new lease with us at South Coast Plaza, we’d like to see you upgrade your store,’ ” said Jim Henwood, general manager.

“In all cases, when we have a new lease, the premises have to be remodeled,” agreed Jim Charter, general manager at Brea Mall. “You have to keep updating your merchandising and your stores . . . to keep up with today’s market.”

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Of course, keeping up doesn’t come cheap. So retailers can--and sometimes do--resent mall mandates that they shape up or ship out.

At least one merchant no longer at South Coast believes the mall’s ousting of longtime but low-performing tenants was “a dirty deal.”

But for those who can afford it, the sprucing-up brings results for the merchants as well as the mall.

According to retail executives, remodeling can bring sales increases of 10% to 30%.

Orange County’s major malls, by and large, are striving to achieve the same image: an affluent, up-to-date look with a wide range of merchandise and prices.

One way malls can update their appeal is by replacing stores that are not meeting sales expectations.

South Coast is a prime example. The mall opened 2 decades ago, when long leases--20 years in some cases--were common.

“It’s only been through the natural expiring of leases that were (signed) in 1967 when we opened South Coast Plaza” that the mall has had more space available, Henwood said.

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Hickory Farms, for instance, has left its permanent location and this year will be a temporary, holiday store at South Coast. Another retailer, Koven’s Jewelers, has vacated the Costa Mesa mall and been replaced by Ben Bridge Jeweler, a store that mall executives say is “more contemporary and more responsive to the market.”

Replacing retailers is just one way that South Coast Plaza has been sprucing up. The mall has also focused on renovating and adding stores in its oldest section: Carousel Court, between Sears and the May Co.

A total of 92,000 square feet has or will be remodeled by the end of the year, with roughly half occupied by 19 new tenants and half by 13 remodeled stores. Of that, 39,321 square feet is in Carousel Court.

Altogether, Henwood said, the upgrading represents the most change at South Coast since Woolworth’s 30,000 square feet became available roughly 5 years ago and was transformed into Birraporetti’s restaurant.

To update the mall itself, South Coast started with halls and walkways, adding upscale, modernizing touches such as brass hand railings, Italian granite flooring and landscaping to create a patio look. Flat storefronts have given way to doorways and entrances designed to draw shoppers inside.

The new retailers are also sparing no expense with catchy interiors to help bring business their way.

Beach Access, for example, South Coast’s new surf-wear store--has planted rows of surfboards in sand in front of its mural of towering waves. To get to the back of the 3,000-square-foot store, shoppers walk across flooring of slate and bits of broken, mismatched tiles--giving the appearance of a beachy sidewalk.

The comparatively small store lures customers inside with the help of a mural of 15-foot waves crashing on its back wall. The effect is to draw shoppers entirely through the store to its rear wall--passing racks upon racks of merchandise along the way.

Nearby, in the former location of Kaplan’s Delicatessen, Bernans, a 14,000-square-foot department store for toddlers through teens, officially opened its doors Saturday.

Once inside, customers will find the store divided into sections relating to the age groups of its youthful clientele. Its departments feature everything from a flying saucer to a gigantic mobile with suspended stars and fish chasing each other. Nearby, a 12-foot, overhead spaceship is ready for takeoff. In another section, older youngsters can watch three giant ballerinas dancing overhead in the glare of stage lights, or sit on bleachers and watch Disney movies on a giant TV monitor in an in-store mini-theater.

Of course, such effects don’t come cheap. At South Coast, Henwood estimates that store renovations cost more than $100 per square foot. “Stores easily can spend $50,000 to $200,000" for make-overs, said one retailer who asked not to be named.

It all fits with South Coast’s goal of being home for some of the most chic stores in the world. The strategy, explained spokeswoman Maura Eggan, is to have quality stores that are not available anywhere else in Orange County and in some instances, not anywhere else in the state.

“Whatever category our retailers are in, we want them to represent the top of that category,” Henwood said. To do that, the mall has set a goal of spending enough money so that the entire mall will be, or appear to be, new by 1995.

Throughout Orange County, meanwhile, the competition is working hard to keep pace with the No. 1 rival.

Across town in Newport Beach is Orange County’s other exclusive retail center, Fashion Island.

The open-air mall with a plaza atmosphere is owned by the Irvine Co. It is now in the midst of a $30-million, long-term plan to build sales and overtake rival South Coast Plaza.

The aggressive renovation started in mid-1985 with the addition of the fancy Atrium Court, which has since become one of the area’s busiest lunch spots.

Major Renovation

The latest phase is scheduled to be completed by August. When the last nail has been hammered, Fashion Island will have renovated or added about 70,000 square feet. That means about 70 new or remodeled stores at the 21-year-old mall, according to Eileen Bohen, a spokeswoman.

The newcomers include a seven-plex movie theater, an outdoor food court and an outdoor performance plaza. Ficus trees and tiling are being added throughout the outdoor center. Central walkways leading to a central fountain are being built, while smaller paths lead to attractions such as a smaller corridor for displaying local art.

The stress on the outdoors and recreation is no coincidence. Fashion Island is trying to create the impression of a European or community marketplace, general manager Bob Dornin said. “We’re trying to make the center a pleasing experience for the family, where they’ll be entertained or where they can picnic on the lawn and spend the day.”

One obvious reason might be that Fashion Island is an outdoor mall--not exactly the choice of many shoppers--and must make itself stand out from neighbors like South Coast Plaza.

Will the new image work?

The center “is doing the right thing in defining itself as being different from South Coast,” Fransen said. “They’ve got to focus on supporting the nighttime business--which is where the chill factor (from cooler weather) comes in,” a factor that could keep shoppers away.

Brea Mall Changing

Extensive renovation isn’t confined to the Costa Mesa-Newport Beach area.

Brea Mall, an 11-year-old regional center, aims to give South Coast Plaza a run for shoppers’ money with an $80-million renovation that should be finished in about 1992.

The mall is transforming Brea by bringing a bright, new mission look with Italian marble and fountains, and by changing the interior from a dated red-and-brown color scheme into muted grays and pastels.

The strategy, Charter says, is to give shoppers “a nice place to shop. . . . We’ve hired a good architectural firm that’s very aware of what’s going on today. It will be a place shoppers will enjoy going to and spending some time.”

The remodeling includes updating the interior food court and adding about 50 specialty stores to the current roster of about 100 retailers. They include a new Silverwoods men’s store; a new Jay Jacob’s for Men, and Units, a very trendy women’s sportswear store.

In addition, Nordstrom is building a new Brea store and the mall plans to add two more anchors over the next few years, Charter said.

“You try to have a mix that appeals to all segments,” he explained. For merchants, the mall hopes Brea’s new look will mean 10% sales increases per year.

The 12-year-old Huntington Center Mall is about to complete a $1-million redesign of what a company executive called its “very plain Jane” food court. But eventually, mall shoppers should see a lot more than fancier hot dog stands.

2 Stories in the Future

Plans now on the drawing boards call for changing the center to a two-story retail center that will attract “more upscale customers,” said Mike Siegel, vice president of the mall’s owner, the MaceRich Real Estate Co. in Santa Monica.

The 3- to 5-year program will “change the nature of the center,” Siegel predicted. The program, which will cost more than $25 million, will add at least one more anchor and about double the number of smaller retailers to 200, he said.

Mall of Orange, meanwhile, is doing some addition of its own.

The 17-year-old center was Orange County’s first enclosed mall. But these days, the orange tile interior has begun to look dated and dowdy.

To update its lackluster image, the mall several months ago began the first phase of a 2-year overhaul that will cost more than $5 million. Eventually, it will add a black, rose and burgundy interior, new furniture and landscaping, skylights and palm trees.

“We’ll also be looking at the tenant mix--at upgrading and adding new tenants,” general manager Martin Derfler said. “We feel this renovation will allow the mall to continue to hold its . . . strong position in the marketplace.”

Westminster Mall is trying to fight off competition with its $5-million to $10-million renovation. A food court refurbishing is largely complete, and sprucing up of the center court area is scheduled to start in January.

After 33 years, Anaheim Plaza Shopping Center is sorely in need of a face-lift. And that is exactly what mall management hopes to do.

Retirement System Owns It

Anaheim Plaza is waiting for the mall’s owner, the California State Teachers Retirement System, to confirm extensive renovation plans that would take roughly 3 years, Edward Kelso, the mall’s general manager, said.

“It would be a full-scale renovation of the interior and exterior,” including putting a new department store in the former space of J.W. Robinson’s, Kelso said. And, like its competitors, Anaheim Plaza hopes to appeal to its current shoppers “as well as capturing some of the upscale shoppers too.”

All this activity should leave no shortage of places for Orange County shoppers to spend their money.


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