Shopping center Christmas trees compete for needling rights

When the lights were flipped on, the 90-foot Christmas tree at Fashion Island stood as another enormous sentry in the forest of arbors that sparkle to life during the holidays in shopping centers throughout Southern California.

But the white fir, which cost roughly $1,000 a foot, still came up 25 feet short of being the tallest in the region.

That’s because the title of tallest tree comes at a premium and is covered by a contract so precise that the buyer is guaranteed a 15-foot height advantage over the next loftiest competitor.


This year, the founder, president and chief executive of Craig Realty Group paid what he estimated to be about $25,000 extra for a pair of trees — each standing 115 feet when fully decorated — to be displayed at the Outlets at Anthem in Phoenix and the Citadel Outlets in Los Angeles.

“A lot of people want to have that little mantra,” said Steven Craig, who heads the company. “It’s worth something.”

The payment comes as part of his ongoing contract with Christmas tree vendor Victor Serrao, who discovered a niche market among shopping centers willing to pay top dollar to secure the title of tallest tree in Southern California, or at least one that is tall enough to draw the proper number of gasps from customers.

That 90-foot tree at Fashion Island? Serrao’s company — Victor’s Custom Christmas Trees — found it. The 96-foot white fir near South Coast Plaza? Serrao installed it. And the 100-footers standing at the Grove in Los Angeles and at the Americana at Brand in Glendale? Also the work of the company.

Whether it’s a result of the contract that locks in the clear-cut winner or just a growing sense of proportion, some centers have started to downplay what once was a fierce holiday competition.

In Newport Beach, Fashion Island’s tree used to arrived pre-ordained as the tallest Serrao provided, protected under a contract similar to the one now held by Craig. The tree stood at 115 feet for several years but shrunk to 40 feet in 2009 because of construction in front of Bloomingdale’s — the tree’s usual spot.

When the construction wrapped up, Fashion Island dropped the contract and selected a 90-foot tree instead, a size “just right for that spot,” which had been reconfigured and was surrounded by towering palm trees, Stacie Ellis, director of marketing for mall owner Irvine Co. Retail Properties, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, South Coast Plaza’s tree height has always been chosen according to the height of the surrounding poplars in Costa Mesa’s Town Center Park, where the holiday addition has been installed annually for 32 years, said Debra Gunn Downing, the shopping center’s executive director of marketing.

The tree has stood at 96 feet for at least the last 20 years, Serrao estimated, framed by the park’s now fully grown poplars.

Developer Rick Caruso said the trees at his Grove and Americana properties draw on his childhood memories of a well-decorated Los Angeles during the holidays. A model of Santa in his sleigh that hangs at the Grove even mimics a model he remembers hanging near the intersection of Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards.

“I think the trees are big enough,” he said, noting that they are both in keeping with the surrounding property and high enough to be powerful and unique. “It just feels right and feels like the holidays.”

Craig said the price of securing the right to the tallest of Serrao’s trees is worth it just to see the community come together to celebrate the holidays.

Victor’s Custom Christmas Trees started life on a much smaller scale, first attracting customers as a Christmas tree lot in 1959. “From there on, it just grew,” said Serrao, whose father began soliciting shopping malls and hotels before getting into the how-tall-can-you-go business.

This year, the company is set to provide 16 trees, the smallest of which will rise a mere 20 feet. The trees are harvested near Mt. Shasta on land owned by a timber company.

For all the work, though, Serrao’s trees fall far short of what Guinness World Records holds to be the tallest cut Christmas tree: a 221-foot Douglas fir erected in 1950 at Northgate Shopping Center in Seattle.

The title is a contentious one. John Egan, of Egan Acres Tree Farm in New York, believes that a tree his company set up — a 135-footer that stood in 2007 at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif. — is in fact the largest ever erected.

The famed Northgate tree, he argues, was actually constructed from three arbors placed end-to-end-to-end.

Serrao thought about beating the 221-foot record, by finding and keeping the tallest tree for himself, but decided it seemed too egotistical.

“We could do it. Anybody could do it,” he said. “If you had enough money, anybody could do it.”

His trees nonetheless reign supreme today. The Northgate Mall is forgoing a live tree this year. And the largest tree that Egan’s company plans to install, in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, measures just 83 feet.