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No Shopper’s Paradise in Mall-Hungry Irvine : Retail: The original idea of small neighborhood shopping centers is not enough for growing, affluent population.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Libby Carlsson finds Irvine a nice place to live. The schools are good, the parks are clean and the neighborhoods are quiet.

But all things considered, she’d rather shop in Costa Mesa.

“There’s nothing here in the way of clothes for my husband and my teen-aged sons,” Carlsson said. “We head for the South Coast Plaza.”

A homemaker and mother of three, Carlsson estimates that she puts 150 miles a week on her Chevy van simply running errands around town. “I go to a grocery store in one shopping center, a cleaners in another and a pharmacy in another,” she sighed. “And there are 40 million red lights along the way.” She has to go outside Irvine to forage for items like sewing supplies or stereo gear. The city lacks small fabric shops and large electronics stores.

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Carlsson’s complaints are common among Irvine residents, who cite several obstacles to shopping convenience: The city still has no major mall and only one department store; its meticulously plotted, high-rent shopping centers often neglect specialty stores and mom-and-pop ethnic eateries; and only recently has its population grown large enough to attract discount chain stores.

Some statistics tell the story: Irvine has one food store per 3,559 residents, contrasted with one per 1,591 residents countywide; one apparel shop per 2,043 residents, contrasted with 1,042 countywide; one drugstore per 8,487 residents, contrasted with one per 6,103 countywide.

But when they they go to the store, Irvine shoppers spend. Last year, shoppers countywide paid a per capita average of $113 in taxable sales; the Irvine per capita spending was $175.

Then again, Irvine residents have money to spend: the city’s median household income last year of $64,400 was $13,400 more than the countywide median. Still, Irvine officials complain that a lot of that disposable income is escaping to the nearby cities blessed with malls--Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Tustin and Mission Viejo.

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“We have a number of (retail) voids that need to filled,” admitted Rick Evans, president of the Irvine Co.'s retail division.

The most obvious void in Irvine’s retail lineup is a mall anchored by major department stores that would lure people from outside the city.

It’s not for lack of talk about a mall. Since the mid-1960s--even before Irvine became a city 20 years ago this month--the Irvine Co. has been discussing a mall so grandiose that it would put most other malls to shame.

Ninety acres of exceptionally well-situated property--inside the triangle formed by the San Diego, Santa Ana and Laguna freeways--sits vacant awaiting the birth of Irvine Center. The Irvine Co. project, estimated to cost roughly $500 million, has hit one obstacle after another since it was first proposed.

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In the 1960s and early ‘70s, the Irvine Co. focused most of its energies on building residential neighborhoods rather than retail centers in the planned community of Irvine.

Meanwhile, the giant developer opened Newport Beach’s Fashion Island in 1967. That same year, Segerstrom & Sons introduced the imposing South Coast Plaza. The following decade, malls opened in Mission Viejo and Laguna Hills.

For the time being, South Orange County seemed to have all the malls its population could support, and prospective merchants lost interest in Irvine.

The Irvine Center may not get built any time soon. Its developer faces a major obstacle: department stores typically sign leases with mall owners restricting them from opening other sites within a certain distance--and South Coast Plaza is not that far away. Moreover, the economic slowdown has left many existing malls hungry for customers.

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“Even Southern California can become over-saturated with malls,” noted Irvine City Manager Paul O. Brady Jr. “But I’m still optimistic that we’ll see a mall in Irvine before the turn of the century.”

Likewise, the Irvine Co. remains hopeful that something will happen after the economy recovers. “The Irvine Center continues to be an important part of our plans,” said Richard Sim, president of the company’s investment properties group.

Since 1983, the Irvine Co. has paid the city $1.4 million annually to maintain building permits for a retail hub in the Irvine Spectrum, a 2,600-acre business park. The payments are intended to compensate the city for sales taxes it doesn’t receive in the mall’s absence.

One thing is certain, said Newport Beach retail broker Greg Michelson: “When they do build a mall, it will be as super as any mall in this country.”

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There are 28 shopping centers sprinkled throughout Irvine’s 42 carefully molded boroughs.

Originally, Irvine’s architects envisioned a mesh of self-sustaining villages--each with a shopping center to serve most of the needs of the village.

“But what actually happened is that people ended up shopping at three or four centers,” said Greg Stoffel, a former consultant for the Irvine Co.'s retail division. “We all have our own personal preferences with respect to grocery stores and pharmacies.” About 1985, Irvine Co. planners began to recognize that the city’s retail development had not kept pace with the burgeoning population. The company began drawing up plans for seven new shopping centers and renovations of some existing ones. In that process, Irvine finally got its only department store, Mervyn’s, and only discount emporium, Target. Negotiations with several other discount chains are under way.

Even in the anemic economy, Irvine shopping centers average a healthy occupancy rate of about 95%. Taxable sales per store and restaurant in 1990 were $939,000, well above the countywide average of $704,000.

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Much of that success stems from the city’s blend of affluent residents combined with limited shopping venues. Especially scarce are the kind of offbeat stores that sprout in organically grown cities like Laguna Beach.

“I’m a book person, and there are no used bookstores to be found here,” complains David Baab, an Irvine urban planning consultant.

The type of funky stores that revitalized popular Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles tend not to blossom in a pre-planned community, observes Bill Fulton, an urban planner in Ventura.

“In a shopping center, there are no experiments,” Fulton said. “Capitalism is a dynamic process--some things work, some fail. But the idea is to innovate and experiment. Planned communities are almost designed to resist innovation.”

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The Irvine Co. owns half of all retail properties in the city. And, not surprisingly, the giant landlord often favors high-volume tenants with proven track records instead of small-business owners without much history. “Every developer in today’s economy tries to go with retailers who can pay the freight,” said Stoffel, the marketing consultant.

That tendency has resulted in an abundance of fast-food outlets and chain restaurants--and a shortage of independent Mexican, Indian and other ethnic eateries. Additionally, the city lags behind in some of the less-lucrative service businesses--it has one gas station for every 5,807 residents, contrasted with one for every 2,849 countywide.

Auto repair shops, self-service laundries, dry cleaners and barbershops are also scarce. For years, Jim Anderson had the only barbershop in town--and he barely survived a close shave with the Irvine Co.

Eleven years ago, Anderson became a cause celebre after the Irvine Co. notified him that his lease would not be renewed. “They said they wanted a different ‘tenant mix,’ ” he recalled.

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The company soon discovered that it was messing with the wrong guy. Anderson, one of University Park’s original tenants when the shopping center opened in 1968, had a devoted following that rushed to his defense--pelting the Irvine Co. with protest letters and calls.

“People took offense,” Anderson said. “They wondered what service would be taken away next?” If his customers lost him, after all, they would lose the only old-fashioned barbershop inside city limits.

Eventually, the Irvine Co. backed down.

It not just money matters that influence the city’s retail mix. The Irvine Co. and the city seem determined to maintain a squeaky-clean image--virtually excluding bars and adult-oriented stores. There are only six liquor stores in the city of 110,000.

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“Irvine is a family town,” said the Irvine Co.'s Sim. “If something isn’t in good taste, we don’t do it.”

Up until three years ago, the city didn’t have a watering hole. The Trocadero, which opened across from UC Irvine in 1988, hails itself as the city’s only bar. But purists might question whether it really qualifies as a neighborhood watering hole, since it serves almost as much food as it does alcohol.

Two adult curio stores have managed to sneak into the city, circumventing the Irvine Co. by leasing space from other property owners. The Pleasure Co., discreetly tucked away in an industrial park near John Wayne Airport, has sold sexy lingerie and risque gag gifts for the past decade.

“We made $2 million last year,” said owner Tom Moss. “Irvine isn’t as strait-laced as some people would have you believe.”

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Stringent city zoning laws and village association rules exist not only to discourage undesirable tenants, but also to keep Irvine free of the tacky storefronts and strip malls that plague lesser-regulated cities. Village associations monitor shopping center signs to make sure that they meet size and color specifications.

“You have to get a permit to put up a banner promoting a pre-Christmas sale,” said a local clothing store owner who requested anonymity. “The city is so difficult to deal with--you have to go through so much red tape for everything.”

Grady Clay, a leading urban affairs specialist, bemoaned the fact that micromanaged business communities like Irvine’s can lose their “flexibility to change with the times.”

“Every city needs a place where things are not planned,” said Clay, an author and retired journalist in Louisville, Ky., who has studied Irvine’s development. “The trick is in keeping it from becoming one big junkyard.”

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No one could accuse Irvine of being a junkyard--with its neatly filed, earth-tone houses and shopping centers blending into the landscape like pueblos along a dusty terrace.

Surprise, surprise, Clay said: 20-year-old Irvine doesn’t brim with the character provided by quaint cafes and shops that often mark older cities going through a revival. Perhaps its determined youth is Irvine’s own brand of charm, he suggested, saying:

“It’s foolish to criticize a new city for not being old.”

Retail Frontier

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Irvine retailers tally higher sales revenues per store and restaurant than Orange County’s average. Much of that success stems from the city’s blend of high-income residents with limited shopping opportunities. However, the number of stores in the city is growing rapidly.

More Shoppers per Shop

Despite a rapidly growing retail base, Irvine’s concentration of retail stores is considerably lower than Orange County’s as a whole. For example, Irvine has one liquor store for every 18,388 people, contrasted with one per 5,140 people countywide.

More Shoppers per Shop

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Despite rapidly growing retial base, Irvine’s concentration of retail stores is considerably lower than Orange County’s as a whole. For example, Irvine has one liquor store for every 18,388 people, contrasted with one per 5,140 people countywide.

Number Number Taxable of of sales stores stores Population Population per capita in in per store per store per store Irvine O.C. in Irvine in O.C. in Irvine Apparel 54 2,314 2,043 1,042 $271 Drugstores 13 395 8,487 6,103 $1,010 Food Stores 31 1,515 3,559 1,591 $1,605 Liquor Stores 6 469 18,388 5,140 $597 Eating & Drinking 229 5,541 482 435 $583 Home Furnishings/ 88 2,126 1,254 1,134 $345 Appliances Building Materials 23 775 4,797 3,110 $2,024 Auto Dealers/ 42 1,192 2,627 2,022 $7,345 Supplies Service Stations 19 868 5,807 2,777 $2,333 Total 1,019 24,853 108 97 $939 Taxable sales per capita per store in O.C. Apparel $494 Drugstores $872 Food Stores $817 Liquor Stores $356 Eating & Drinking $414 Home Furnishings/ $476 Appliances Building Materials $1,762 Auto Dealers/ $2,552 Supplies Service Stations $1,541 Total $704

Note: Based on 1990 Census. Irvine: 110,000; Orange County: 2,410,556. Source: State Board of Equalization, 1990 U.S. Census, Gregory Stoffel & Associates, November, 1991.

IRVINE AT 20: A four-day report.

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* Sunday: Residents and critics debate the city’s livability.

* Monday in View: Inside the city, neighborhoods confer status. You are where you live--Turtle Rock, Woodbridge, Northwood. . . . Neighborhoods confer status.

* Today in Business: Because the city lacks department stores and specialty shops, shopping can be inconvenient.

* Wednesday in Calendar: The new Barclay Theater is struggling at the box office as it searches for an identity.

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