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Mall Makeover : Escondido Village, Vineyard Centers Struggle With Obsolescence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In its heyday, the Escondido Village Mall, the first enclosed mall in Southern California 27 years ago, offered shoppers relief from the inland heat.

Two decades later, the shopping center was driven to bankruptcy, in part by the newer, larger North County Fair which exploited on a much grander scale the indoor mall concept that the Village Mall had pioneered.

Now, owners of the struggling shopping center on East Valley Parkway plan to retreat--by turning their indoor mall into an outdoor one, a throwback to older strip centers.

“This mall has gone through its cycle. It was the first (enclosed mall). . . . But the new ones going in are much more attractive, with multilevels, with new, strong anchors, and this can’t compete,” said Norm La Caze, who bought the Village Mall in 1984. He hopes that, by turning it into a strip center, he can lure customers with stop-and-go convenience.

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And the Village Mall isn’t the only Escondido shopping center in need of a niche. A half block east, the Vineyard Mall, which opened in 1974, sits half empty, its gray wooden exterior in need of a paint job. It, too, has lost business--since North County Fair opened in 1986, the Vineyard has said goodby to half its 36 retail tenants and has also been through a bankruptcy proceeding.

The story of these two older Escondido malls has been repeated in cities across Southern California as growth patterns and new mall designs have forced the reshaping of these suburban gathering places to meet the changing demands.

In Escondido’s war of the shopping malls, North County Fair is the giant. But experts say that growth and the substantial traffic on Valley Parkway should be more than enough to keep the Vineyard and the Village Mall thriving. To survive in the 1990s, though, the aging malls must realize they can’t please everyone: they will have to specialize.

“Total failure of regular malls is very, very rare--what happens is they usually drastically change,” said Don Pendley of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based, nonprofit trade association representing 28,000 shopping center developers, financiers and retailers.

“Centers have tended to become more specialized and more niche-oriented in terms of the customers that they are reaching out to,” Pendley said.

La Caze’s solution is to take the “mall” out of the Village Mall by turning it into another of the many strip centers that line the parkway. “This will no longer be a mall, this will be a neighborhood strip center with a grocery store as an anchor,” said La Caze, who said he has already signed on an independent discount grocer as the main attraction.

“The way the mall was designed and with its tenants, we really couldn’t compete, and it became functionally obsolescent,” he said.

La Caze points to the Escondido Promenade, with its freeway access and bright colors, that opened a year and a half after North County Fair, as marking the death knell of the Village Mall.

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“They are the ones that really did us in as far as drawing tenants away,” La Caze said.

Although the Village Mall’s design makes it easy to convert from an indoor mall to a strip center, the Vineyard does not have that flexibility, La Caze said.

“The Vineyard is tough. It can’t be converted into something like what we are doing,” La Caze said.

The depleted Vineyard shows bleak signs of what has been four years of decline. What was once a first-run movie house at the Vineyard has become a discount theater with $1.50 double features, creaking chairs and poor air conditioning.

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“It’s a beautiful mall, it’s just empty,” said Phil Perrone, general manager of the Acapulco Mexican Restaurant, now the Vineyard’s main attraction.

Acapulco opened seven years ago, and “back then, the mall was flourishing, the mall was packed. Then North County Fair opened up, and the mall died,” Perrone said.

Tenants of both malls have mixed feelings about their futures.

“You’re always going to be bucking North County Fair,” said Ted Thomsen, co-owner of The Gentleman’s Choice prime rib and seafood restaurant. “They’ve got freeway access, high name recognition and six big tenants. How can you beat that?”

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Thomsen opened in the Vineyard six years ago, just one year before North County Fair opened.

“Now, everybody on the east side of town is suffering. In our lifetime, we have seen the birth of the large, sloppy malls, and now we’re seeing the death of them,” said Thomsen.

Salvatore Dinunzio, who bought the Village Barber Shop in the Village Mall five years ago, is cautious about Torrance-based La Caze Development Co.'s plans for renovation.

“They said they wanted to start renovating in September. In October, they came and said they didn’t want to interrupt the Christmas traffic. What traffic?” said the 33-year-old Penasquitos resident, whose shop has been a part of the mall since its inception.

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“I hope it’s true, but I won’t believe it until I see it.”

Dinunzio said he has to be optimistic, though. He spent $25,000 on the store when he bought it in 1986, and he’s not about to walk away from it.

“If I sell the business the way it is now, I’d have to pay someone to take it,” Dinunzio said. “I still have a little hope that a big, major store is coming in.”

His clientele are mostly elderly customers who have shopped at the mall since before its decline, but those are down to about half of what they were just two years ago.

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“Every day I hear about one guy who used to be a customer who died, and another guy who died,” Dinunzio said.

Stray visitors still trickle into the mall, but at a fraction of the rate that once flooded through in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Pretty much anything you wanted was here. There were little restaurants and clothing stores and Walker Scott and a Sears Roebuck was up on this end,” said Douglas McIntosh, 74, who, with his wife, Ruth, still patronizes a craft store.

“This was really the going place because it was so centrally located and there was parking . . . and I don’t know what happened to it. All of a sudden, everyone started dropping out,” said the Ramona resident.

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The few remaining stores are still dropping out.

“Good gravy, have they gone out of business? Darn, I didn’t know they left,” said one shopper standing in front of a now-closed greeting card store that he had visited just a month ago.

“It’s like a ghost town here, it’s so depressing,” he said.

McIntosh grimaces at the mention of North County Fair.

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“I’m not so crazy about it. It requires a lot of walking, and I don’t think you can cover that place in a day, even if you started walking in the morning,” he said.

McIntosh said he visited the new mall when it first opened, but he didn’t like the crowds. Some Village Mall store operators, too, thought that interest in the new neighbor would be only passing.

“Our customers have been coming here for 20 years. Curiousity will take them to North County (Fair), but they’ll be back. Escondido has been good to us, and we’ll be here when they come back,” said Bill Collier, then-general manager of Walker Scott, when North County Fair opened. “We expect to have a quiet period for 10 days or so, but we should be back to normal in six weeks.”

Just 10 months later, the department store chain closed its six San Diego county stores, including the sole remaining anchor to the Village Mall.

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Eight shops are still operating in the enclosed part of the Village Mall, and the vacancy left by the Walter Scott department store remains. The space once occupied by the TG&Y; variety store was taken over by the Escondido Elementary School District for office space last month.

After Sears moved to North County Fair, Fedco took its place, but the membership discount store has not drawn customers to other stores in the mall.

Part of the Village Mall has already been converted to an outdoor area, and La Caze said tenant occupancy rates there have been high and offer hope that conversion of the rest of the mall will revive the center.

Interest in the Vineyard Mall has risen dramatically since having emerged from bankruptcy proceedings, said Susan Mattern, marketing director for the mall. Mattern blames poor management, not rising competition, for the Vineyard’s troubles.

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“If it had been addressed properly, North County Fair could have been a very positive thing. It wasn’t, and so they had a very negative impact,” Mattern said.

Shopping center experts say it is common for malls to go through 10- to 12-year renovation cycles in the absence of competition, but with the tremendous competition that the Vineyard and the Village Mall face, dramatic changes in marketing strategy were needed.

The growth in Escondido and the amount of traffic on Valley Parkway give the Village Mall and the Vineyard tremendous opportunities, experts said.

“It depends on what they do with the renovations and the positioning,” said Nancy Walters, president of San Diego-based Very Special Events, a promotions agency specializing in shopping malls.

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“I’ve seen throughout the country that there have been centers that come back, but it’s positioning. You’re not going to be able to go after the same type of business that North County Fair has,” Walters said.

Bob Sorensen, vice president of Ernest W. Hahn Inc., which developed Horton Plaza, University Towne Centre and North County Fair, said the proliferation of malls makes it important for a shopping center to develop a unique identity.

“It’s pretty difficult to be all things to all people. You could do that back when there were very few malls,” Sorensen said. He noted that the Marketplace at The Grove in East San Diego developed an identity as an entertainment mall by adding a large cinema complex and a bowling center after facing stiff competition from two malls nearby.

Mattern said the city of Escondido is in part to blame for the malls’ demise by allowing unbridled “retail development without any perception about how harmful over-development of retail can be.”

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A city study conducted in 1989 revealed “that there was some excess retail space,” said Rolf Gunnarson of the city’s community development commission.

“It’s a reflection of the council that was in at the time and the many councils that were making decisions in the late 70s, early 80s. I think they had certainly a different viewpoint than the current council has over the controls over certain types of development,” Gunnarson said.

The city plans to develop a land-use plan for the East Valley Parkway area, but that will not begin until early next year.


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