Two years and $265 million later, Santa Monica Place reopened Friday with thousands of shoppers pouring in to get a first look at the newly remodeled shopping center.
“Finally! Finally they’ve done something to improve,” said Cyndi Walters, 30, a nurse from Santa Monica. “It was just so run-down and boring. This is a big, huge difference.”
By the time Walters arrived at 8 a.m., two hours before the mall opened, hordes of shoppers were already lined up in a scene reminiscent of Black Friday crowds on the day after Thanksgiving.
All 500 mall gift cards that had been allotted for the opening, valued from $10 to $500, had been given out to early birds, many of whom had camped out overnight. A DJ spun a mix of classic rock, hip-hop and country tunes while an emcee encouraged people to “shop to your hearts’ content.”
Retail industry experts are calling it the most ambitious shopping center opening this year. They have lauded the modern, airy design of the new 524,000-square-foot mall, which features floor-to-ceiling glass walls in some sections, an upscale tenant lineup that includes new anchors Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, and a third floor dedicated to an array of food options.
Previously an enclosed, fortress-like structure designed more than three decades ago by architect Frank Gehry, Santa Monica Place has been converted to a three-story, open-air shopping center with views of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Monica Pier.
“We call it our loft at the beach,” said Bloomingdale’s spokeswoman Anne Keating. “The way it’s been built and the way it’s been designed, it gives people the rare opportunity to have a shopping experience and still feel like they’re in a real urban downtown environment. It’s really quite extraordinary.”
Shortly after 10 a.m. Art Coppola, chief executive of mall owner Macerich, took to a stage set up in the center plaza and welcomed shoppers as hundreds of brown-and-white beach balls were tossed from the upper levels.
“Don’t you think it was worth the wait?” he asked, eliciting a roar of cheers from the crowd, estimated to be more than 3,000 people. “This is going to be the coolest and hippest place to be in Santa Monica.”
Most of the mall’s retail spaces opened their doors Friday, with many offering free products, hosting special guests and doing product demonstrations.
The Disney Store gave away Mickey Mouse ears to the first 500 guests in line; Juicy Couture gave gift cards to the first 200 guests and had male models passing out candy at the door; and White House Black Market handed out coupons for 20% discounts.
Months of hype drew a diverse and eclectic crowd to the mall. Shoppers included the high-heeled, the heavily tattooed, families with strollers, grandmothers in sweatpants, local residents and international tourists.
Nina Withrington, 37, a physical therapist from West Los Angeles, arrived before 9 a.m. with her mother, Anita, 66. The two weren’t looking for anything in particular — the appeal was in the hullabaloo and in the potential for “free stuff,” Withrington said.
“This is like a classic American experience: the great mall opening,” she said. “It’s so American, it’s ridiculous. I love it.”
Macerich had once hoped to demolish Santa Monica Place and replace it with a 10-acre complex of high-rise condominiums, shops and offices with underground parking. The company scrapped those plans in 2006 after being hit with a wave of community opposition from critics who said it would overwhelm the city’s downtown.
Instead, the Santa Monica-based company decided to revamp the outdated mall and moved it in an upscale direction. Besides its high-end anchors, Santa Monica Place is also home to Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton and Burberry stores.
While taking a break from shopping, Bob Swallows, 40, headed to the third-floor dining deck to see the view with his three young daughters, Morgan, Madeline and Molly. The health club owner was on vacation from Evansville, Ind., where “we don’t have anything like this.”
“When I come to the mall with my family, we all want different things,” he said. “So all these options help make it an experience for everyone.”
But the shopping center’s highbrow slant could be a turnoff for consumers who continue to scrimp on discretionary purchases.
A few days before Santa Monica Place’s reopening, Tom Roberts, 29, walked by as workers put the finishing touches on the mall. The high school English teacher said that in better times, he would have been more interested in the shopping center, but these days, “I’m shopping thrift stores.”
“It looks like it’s going to be really fancy and not the kind of stores I’d go to,” he said.
In an interview Friday, Macerich’s Coppola said he was confident that shoppers from Malibu to Manhattan Beach as well as international tourists would continue to flock to the mall well after opening day.
Before the remodel, the mall’s tenants grossed an average of $350 to $400 per square foot annually, far less than the estimated $1,000 that retailers at the adjacent Third Street Promenade were pulling in, he said.
But with its new lineup of tenants plus an array of food choices — including six chef-driven restaurants and 10 fast-casual concepts — the mall expects a huge boost in foot traffic and business.
“There’s no question in my mind that sales will triple what they were before,” Coppola said. “We’re in a very unique location in terms of our immediate demographic — they have high disposable incomes and nowhere to go — and the tourists that we’ve got. So, yeah, I’m worried about the consumer, but not at this project.”
Shopper Francene Huizar, 26, arrived at the mall at 6:30 a.m. and scored one of the coveted mall gift cards, which she used toward a necklace and earrings from Juicy Couture. Huizar, a Starbucks supervisor, said she came on opening day because she “wanted to be one of the first to be part of Santa Monica’s history.”
“I’ve been really pumped about the opening for a while — I even took the day off work,” she said. “I’ve lived in Santa Monica my whole life and the mall was totally dying when it closed in ’08. It looks great now.”