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Landmark’s Upscale Neighbor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles landmark since 1934, the homespun and quirky Farmers Market is poised to become even more of a destination with the opening today of an elegant, if glitzy, retail and restaurant complex called the Grove.

That is, if the clientele can stomach the traffic.

The $160-million open-air center--loaded with Venetian glass chandeliers and hand-laid granite and limestone--will feature a double-decker trolley, a Nordstrom, a Nikegoddess store, a revival of Madame Wu’s famed restaurant and a “dancing waters” display straight out of Las Vegas.

Developer Rick Caruso’s extravagant projects in Encino, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village have proved to be big draws for the suburban set.

But with the Grove, Caruso is bringing his bells-and-whistles shopping center concept to an urban environment for the first time. The gamble here is that the center, located far from any freeway, counts on Angelenos to navigate already clogged surface streets.

The Grove, just east of the venerable Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, is all new, but it has the look--ersatz though it might be--of a sophisticated small-town main street. Completing the atmosphere are a park-like “village square,” meandering walks, outdoor cafes and street lamps with painstakingly positioned lightbulbs to take best advantage of the stained, leaded glass.

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“We’ve married something new and fresh to something old and historic,” Caruso said.

Caruso also is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, but even as the commission considers the future of Chief Bernard C. Parks, he has found time to peek over the shoulders of craftsmen rushing to meet today’s deadline.

The builder’s attention to detail is evident throughout, from the hand-laid mosaics in the floors and walks to the Broadway-style marquee outside the 14-screen Pacific Theatres multiplex.

For weeks, he has strolled the 575,000-square-foot project at all hours to ensure that it will be ready--"down to the last pansy"--for its debut. There are also more than 900 rose bushes and 25 mature sycamore, jacaranda, coral and magnolia trees shipped from across the nation at a cost of $1 million.

Leaving nothing to chance, Caruso even enlisted a feng shui expert to ensure a harmonious flow of energy. One result: curved lines in buildings and paths, since straight lines are ill advised.

Everywhere are signs of efforts to blend old and new. The architecture is a mix of Art Deco, classical, Spanish colonial revival, mission and contemporary. At the eastern edge is a building with a copper dome that could pass for a town hall but instead houses Abercrombie & Fitch.

To design the red and green, brass-trimmed trolley that runs through the Grove and connects it with the Farmers Market, Caruso hired George McGinnis, a retired Walt Disney “imagineer” who also worked on the Disneyland monorail and Space Mountain rides.

The trolley looks like something out of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” but it will be the first U.S. transit “system” to use state-of-the-art inductive power technology. Each time the trolley passes over a coil near its storage building, power will be transferred across a one-inch air gap to the vehicle’s battery.

Intrigued by the Bellagio’s dancing waters in Las Vegas, Caruso hired the architects of that attraction, Wet Design of Universal City, which also engineered the torch for the recent Winter Olympics. The result is the Grove’s massive fountain, from which choreographed jets will shoot as high as 70 feet in time to four musical selections--all handpicked by Caruso, of course.

Music will be piped throughout the center, with speakers hidden in pillars and potted plants. And speaking of pots, Caruso hates seeing water stains on sidewalks near planters. His solution? Outfit each Italian pot with a drainage system.

The chandeliers for the new 3,000-seat movie complex? Straight from Venice. The Euro-style snack kiosks on the lawn? Also direct from Italy, complete with Italian artisans to assemble them. (Don’t call them kiosks, though. Caruso prefers “pavilions.”)

At $278 a square foot, the project is deemed quite expensive, but “that’s what he does,” said Chris Wilson, a commercial real estate broker. Only the most successful retailers can afford the rent for a Caruso development, brokers say.

Toy seller FAO Schwarz, for example, is closing two other Southern California stores and considers its Grove location a flagship for the region.

Massive Traffic Snarls Feared

The new attractions have many nearby residents predicting massive traffic snarls.

“The people who live in this area have no idea the nightmare that will start” today, said Jamie Wooten, a TV writer and producer who lives nearby. But Wooten acknowledges that he’s thrilled at the prospect of so much quality retail to spiff up his neighborhood. He is equally glad that he won’t have to drive to get to it.

Overall, he said, the Grove will be a “good thing if you have feet, a skateboard or a bicycle.”

Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Assn., said residents negotiated a traffic mitigation fund with Caruso. As soon as the Grove gets up and running, a consultant will analyze the traffic patterns to see whether residents should push for new speed bumps or stop signs.

Caruso said he is well aware that snarled traffic could prove a formidable stumbling block. Although Caruso made some road improvements himself, the city has yet to complete other promised changes, such as left-turn lanes and traffic lights.

Customers will be able to enter the Grove’s 3,500-space parking garage by turning from 3rd Street, Fairfax Avenue or Beverly Boulevard onto new streets that Caruso installed. For the time being, Caruso has hired traffic officers to keep things moving.

“Our whole theory here is to make the experience nice,” he said. “We don’t want customers frustrated trying to get to the place.”

The Grove’s centerpiece is the 80,000-square-foot multiplex, which Caruso’s team designed. Each theater features a curved, wall-to-wall screen and stadium-style seating. For $2 above the standard $9.50 ticket price, patrons may sit in reserved leather seats, with loges available for small parties.

Created in the style of a grand hotel, the lobby includes original art, club chairs and mahogany pillars, topped by back-lighted onyx. Patrons will purchase tickets inside at a hotel registry-style counter or pick up pre-ordered tickets from the theater’s concierge.

Overlooking the lobby will be the balcony of Madame Wu’s Asian Bistro, a reincarnation of a favorite Los Angeles eatery that closed in 1998. Madame Wu’s will open next month.

In years past, all this might have seemed like a pipe dream. A.F. Gilmore Co., owner of the Farmers Market, sought for nearly two decades to develop this parcel. A couple of deals fell through before the Gilmore people met Caruso.

Still, they were concerned about whether Caruso’s style would be compatible “with the market, which is kind of eclectic and misfit,” said Hank Hilty, Gilmore’s president and chief executive. Hilty is pleased that Caruso used the Farmers Market as an anchor for the project. A fourth-generation owner of the property, Hilty traces the storied corner’s history. After his great-grandfather bought the property in 1880, he operated a dairy farm there. Not long after, oil was discovered, giving rise to Gilmore Oil Co., which sold gasoline in the nation’s first self-service “gaseterias.” At various times, the company also operated a ball field and a stadium featuring midget car races, rodeos and boxing matches. Until the mid-1970s, the site of the Grove was a drive-in theater, with a difference: benches for customers who walked in.

Serving as a transition between the old Farmers Market and the Grove will be a 170,000-square-foot expansion built by the Gilmore Co., featuring shops and eateries. Hilty notes that, despite its kitschy reputation, the Farmers Market originally was where Beverly Hills matrons bought their produce. Now, the addition of the upscale Grove shopper “is a natural for us.”


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