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Years later, customers start arriving

COSTA MESA — Customers are starting to arrive at South Coast Collection, as trendy furnishing stores, a salon school and other retailers open their doors at the remodeled outdoor shopping center in the shadow of the northbound San Diego (405) Freeway near Harbor Boulevard.

The 300,000 square-foot center branded as SoCo is about 80% leased with more than a dozen stores already open, including tpt home, a Tai Pan Trading-owned home decor store, and Paul Mitchell The School, both hosting official grand opening events this week.

The $90-million development project was completed in 2006 and sold a year later to South Coast Home Furnishing Center LLC for just under $110 million.

At one point almost entirely leased out, the center lost momentum during the real-estate slump. Many stores, including Wickes Furniture, closed their doors and the center was bought last year for $40 million by Burnham USA Equities.

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“We had the opportunity to really rethink the property,” Chief Executive Scott Burnham said. “We had the financial base to do something that perhaps the prior owner did not have the opportunity to do.”

The center has undergone a complete remodeling — stacked stone columns, dark glass and metal roofing have been replaced by a modern theme with transparent glass, redwood accents, sustainable landscaping and a central plaza built around a fire pit.

The changes also include an LED sign and other efforts to make the center more visible to commuters on the 405, Burnham said.

To fully rebrand, the center expanded from just furniture. A weekly farmers market debuted in the center’s parking lot Saturday and the OC Mart MIX, a collection of diverse shops and vendors Burnham likened to that of San Francisco’s Ferry Building, is expected to open in less than a month.

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“The question we had to answer was, ‘how do we make this project more complementary to the area and a better asset to city?’” Burnham said. “In doing so, we created lifestyle experience that really does not exist in Orange County today.”

However, amid the opening of new stores, at least three other retailers (Munro’s Furniture, Linder’s Furniture and Legends Fine Furniture) have announced Going Out of Business sales.

Although store management was unavailable Monday to provide answers as to why the shops are closing, the scattered customers in the center’s parking lot said that it may have to do with the near “hidden” nature of the center.

“It’s very nice, but I didn’t even know it was here” said Costa Mesa resident Patricia Kelly, 75.

Kelly came to the center with friend Dianne LaDucca, 72, of Costa Mesa.

“There’s not a lot of drive-by traffic,” LaDucca said, agreeing with Kelly that the weekly farmers market might pull more people into the center.

While quiet on a Monday morning, the center has actually seen an upward swing in customers recently, said shop owner Chris Mulhall, who opened Visions in Contemporary Design in 2006.

“The center has gone through a metamorphosis and is just starting to come out of its cocoon,” Mulhall said.

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That cocoon was caused by a combination of factors, including failure on the part of early owners to come through in promised promotional advertising and the downturn in the economy, he said.

Pointing out the newly opened Paul Mitchell school and farmers market, Mulhall said that energy is starting to come back to the center.

“It’s driving a lot of people here and raising awareness of the center,” Mulhall said. “There are problems that needed to be solved and the Burnham family is doing that. Whether it will happen fast enough to keep the [older tenants] here or not I’m not sure.”


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