Today there isn’t much about South Bay Plaza to distinguish it from the commercial buildings around it: just two parallel lines of stores separated by an unpretentious pedestrian mall. It was the biggest shopping center in San Diego when it opened in two phases, in 1955 and 1956, on what had been a cabbage field at Plaza Boulevard and Highland Avenue in National City. Chuck Shannon, who opened his barber shop there in early 1956, when many of the stores were still vacant, remembers the national- attention South Bay Plaza attracted at the time.
“When I signed my lease, there were real estate people from Detroit, Cleveland, and somewhere else, checking on the center [because it was so new and different]. Then one year later shopping centers were sprouting like wheat all the way across the nation. This was a forerunner of shopping centers for the whole country. Like the first-built Model-T Ford, it was experimental, no one knew they would turn out this good.”
Before there were places like South Bay Plaza, we shopped in local neighborhood stores or made the trip downtown to a department store. Then there were open-strip shopping centers: a single line of stores that shared some off-road parking spaces but had little or nothing in common.
Larger neighborhood centers, serving a total trade area of up to 10.000 people, and still larger community centers, serving a wider trade area of up to 40,000, followed; but the first regional shopping centers with thirty to fifty stores and more, that depended on drawing customers — at least 100,000 — not just from the local community but from beyond, were a daring investment of money and land. By now. of course, our habits and our city and suburban landscapes have changed so thoroughly because of them that many of us wouldn’t be able to imagine life without them.
An American invention that other countries have eagerly emulated, shopping centers have been praised, and criticized, as contemporary equivalents of the medieval marketplace or traditional town square, horizontal department stores, the Main Streets of suburbia, total controlled environments, repositories of one-stop culture, temples to commerce, the public theaters of our times — with those who go there both audience and performer.
We go to them by choice, although our choice is manipulated more than we know by those who create them and guide the flow of money in and merchandise out. The final judgment and responsibility for them is ours, however, for if they push us or pull us too much, we can drive five miles down the road to the next shopping center.
In San Diego County there are more than 200 shopping centers. Thirteen of those have the industry’s requisite size and status (350,000 square feet of leasable retail space, with at least one full-size department store) to be considered regional shopping centers; a few of these, with four to six department stores and a million square feet or more, are known as super-regionals.
There are those who might say “a mall is a mall,” or ‘‘seen one, seen ’em all,” but there are certainly differences to be discerned, as well as an evolutionary course that shopping centers in San Diego, Peoria, and Any Town have pursued. And those who scoff at the “mailing of America” can’t deny the function they fill.
Out of our metropolitan population of 1,924,700 (not counting visitors), about 21,000 people go to the San Diego Zoo on its busiest day of the year, about 22,000 to Sea World. The busier shopping centers report a daily average of 25,000 shoppers each. The total daily average of people at regional shopping centers in San Diego could probably be rounded up to 200,000; and half a million people every day are at all the shopping centers combined.
Here as elsewhere, the automobile and the freeway made their existence possible, and cheap land, mass affluence, and population growth — especially in the suburbs — made them profitable. Soaring construction costs, leveling off or decreasing population, saturation of markets, and economic recession apparently haven’t yet affected San Diego as much as most other parts of the country; new and bigger shopping centers are still being built.
Two new regional shopping centers are underway right now: North County Fair in Escondido, which will be built on seventy-five acres of land at a cost of $130 million; and Horton Plaza, the $140 million retail portion, on five and a half acres of downtown San Diego, that is part of the most comprehensive redevelopment project the city has seen. Both are scheduled to open in the spring of 1985, and both are being built by Ernest W. Hahn, Inc., the third-Iargest developer of shopping centers in the country and developer of three other centers in San Diego. A co-developer of North County Fair is the May Company department store — a sister company of May Centers, Inc. of St. Louis, which has developed four regional shopping centers in San Diego. Ernest Hahn predicts that after these two projects are completed, aside from possible expansion or remodeling of some already existing centers, there will be no further development for at least eight or nine years — unless there is new housing growth.
Of all those who are behind the scenes, the developer — who may own and manage the center as well — is the cornerstone. Development of a shopping center is a process that takes years, most of them before the first shovel is turned over. The land usually comes first, then commitments from department stores (known as the “anchors,” being the most important tenants of a shopping center), then site analyses and estimates for on-site and off-site improvements; environmental impact studies and reports, planning commission hearings, zoning changes. National demographics and marketing studies — “hard data,” as Hahn demographer Bob Goldey refers to it, “massaged with my own intuition” — identify the number of people in the prospective center's trade area, count the “disposable” dollars they have to spend, and indicate how many of those dollars are likely to end up in the new center. Somewhere along the line an architect is hired, and a contractor. The year and a half to two and a half years of construction time seem fast after the average five years of planning for a suburban center, or ten years for a downtown redevelopment plan.
With the opening of the finished center begins its public life, and the ways in which people use it.
The Largest Center
From the south, Fashion Valley appears off the steering-wheel side of Highway 163 like a walled city, ringed by moatlike roads. Elevated walkways connect large buildings, and thick tapering walls inset with lamps shaped like torches seem to protect the flanks of the smaller stores and hide the service ports. Of its six department stores, the ones with grand, imposing entrances, high arches, broad-stepped piazzas, climbing ivy, and no display windows have more the aspect of auditoriums or concert halls than retail stores.
The time is just before dusk. Perched on one of the concrete seating islands in the central mall area is Begona, an attractive and sophisticated-looking twenty-year-old from Tijuana. She is wearing tight jeans, a black blazer and black high-heeled boots, bright-red lipstick, and speaks in a dreamy voice. “I come to Fashion Valley or Plaza Bonita or University Towne Centre twice a week, on the weekend from twelve to six or in the evening after work just for a few hours. I always come with some idea in mind — a sweater, a dress for a party. Certain stores I prefer more — the big ones usually have what I want, but sometimes I find something in the smaller ones. I always buy something. I never think afterwards, I shouldn’t have bought that. Usually I’m thinking about what I left there. If I didn’t have enough money. I’ll come back later; sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. I’ve been coming here since I was ten years old, with my mom or my dad. Now I come with a friend or cousin. It’s no fun alone.”
Shoppers like Begona spent $150 million in Fashion Valley last year, a good-size chunk of the billion dollars spent overall in the regional shopping centers. They will be spending $40 million just during the Christmas season in this center that was developed in 1969, and owned personally by Hahn and partners until they sold it, reportedly for more than $60 million, this July to the Imperial Group, a British company.
A billion dollars may not sound like much of the $7.4 billion total retail sales in the county (all these figures, from the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, refer to taxable retail sales, which excludes nontaxable categories such as food) until you consider that of the 17.000 stores in San Diego, only 1000 are in regional shopping centers. Shopping centers as a whole account for half the total retail trade.
The Newest Center
In the south, between the Navy ships and the trucks from Mexicali, I-805 will deposit you not far from Plaza Bonita, an enclosed shopping center on a seventy-two-acre site on Sweetwater Road that used to be the Bonita Golf Course. The newest regional shopping center in San Diego opened in November, 1981, just a few miles from the first one. South Bay Plaza, but almost a lifetime away in shopping center history. Like South Bay Plaza, the very first shopping centers, built from 1949 through the Fifties, had straight lines of shops that faced outward to the street, and open, landscaped malls; these gradually became more elaborate in layout. In the Sixties came the first boxlike, enclosed malls. And in the Seventies appeared two-story, enclosed malls, and once again, more complex design.
Plaza Bonita is all internal — from the outside it could be a large warehouse complex, with only a few painted rainbows (half-rainbows, actually, showing only the warm, stimulating colors), anchored in a sea of asphalt that can accommodate 4307 cars. Inside the two-story, climate-controlled mall, skylights, clerestory windows, and openings between the levels allow natural light and even sunshine to suffuse the space. With all the tropical plants and poinsettias, the place feels like an exotic aviary or greenhouse — and indeed, enclosed shopping centers nurture and coddle their customers as if they were the rarest of birds or the most delicate of flowers, so they will stay longer and spend more. The long diagonal lines of the escalators, and other angles and corners cutting into storefronts and around open spaces, reduce the vistas and increase walkway options, thus preventing the number-one deterrence to prolonged shopping: monotony and customer fatigue.
Within the circle of the sunken center court, at the edge of a pool of water that surrounds a twenty-four-foot high neon sculpture, sit Roily Montes and his two children, three-year-old Christine and two-year-old Roland J. As he watches his kids run their hands through the water, he says of them, “It’s the only time when they won’t bother you — they like it here so much. We come here about three times a month, probably for one hour, two hours. My wife does the shopping for all of us and I take the kids to a toy place or the game center. We prefer to shop in one place, so we don’t have to drive around. We’ve been here since ten o’clock today.” (It is now three.) “It’s my only day off and she wants to finish the Christmas shopping. This is our meeting plhce. I hope she comes back soon. I’m not bored, just nervous — we might not have any money left.”
The most important element in a shopping center’s success is not merely to have a lot of stores in one place, but to have the right mix of stores. Karen Fisher, a leasing agent for May Centers, who developed and own Plaza Bonita, walked me around to explain how the stores in the center were leased. (Department stores were leased separately, and first.) “We were active more than a year before we opened. We had about sixty-five tenants on opening day [of a total 133]. We have about eighteen percent left to lease. We started with a blank leasing plan and started carving it up with the tenants. First we negotiated deals with shoes, ready-to-wear, and jewelry. They chose their locations — they all wanted to locate near the center of the fashion area, which in this center is on the first floor because the department stores have their fashion areas on the first floor. Jewelry stores want corner locations because they are high volume, and depend on impulse purchasing. Men’s stores, too, need a lot of exposure. Location is a function of how much rent a store can afford to pay: from eight dollars a square foot to a hundred dollars a square foot yearly. In general, the smaller the tenant the more intense the use, so they pay more per square foot because they have more volume per square foot. Department stores sometimes own their own property or sometimes are partners in the center; if they’re paying rent, they pay less per square foot than the smaller stores.”
Four department stores in a center will pay four different rates. There are several principles at play here: smaller stores pay a premium rate to offset the lower total amount they are paying; the more desirable a tenant is to the shopping center, the lower that tenant’s rent may be; and the more successful the center, the higher all the rents tend to be.
“We signed up the national tenants first because the small locals want to be near the nationals. More than fifty percent of the tenants in this center are national chains. Then we listed the other categories, the specialty stores. The hardest to get are the local specialty stores, and they add the most uniqueness to a center. We leased space with no improvements. On the lower level, we provided a subgranular floor, and utilities that run along the back. On the upper floor we poured slabs. That’s it. The tenant had to hire an architect and develop plans that go along with our requirements for signs, flooring, fixtures, wall covering, layout; and the city ordinances for building codes, health, fire; and pay for the construction. We want the most individuality and creativity [so our requirements are just maximums and minimums]. We’ll say that a sign must be illuminated, cover a certain amount of the store, and be a certain size and height.
“Our job is to do the best plan, that means the highest and best land use. We look at how much business various tenants do in our centers. We like to keep the terms short, three to fifteen years. The trend is for tenants to down-scale [i.e., smaller stores] and for more and more specialization, intensity, and definition of use. [For food stores] we have the menu in the lease now; if they want to change the menu, they have to consult us.”
The First Two-Level Center
With the decline of South Bay Plaza to less than regional status (two large stores have closed). College Grove Shopping Center can now claim to be the oldest regional center in San Diego. It opened in 1960 with eighty-five stores, 708,000 square feet, room for 4200 cars, and a second level. On the main level, the storefronts face out to the parking lot and a long beige roofline ties all the stores together. As you enter the open mall through a dim passageway between shops, the sweet warm smell of caramel com fills your nose. On a cold, gray, Saturday afternoon in November, a two-day senior citizens’ craft fair is drawing to a close, but a number of tables set up in the middle of the mall are still laden with red, green, silver, and snow-white objects and ornaments.
Four teen-age boys move down the mall in a pack, the leader carrying a large radio with the volume up loud. Two of them have their hair in dreadlocks, they are all big, and look as though they might get pretty tough. Chris Krug, a young, unarmed security guard who’s been telling me his work is mostly public relations — giving directions, making the merchants feel safe — breaks off in midsentence, saying, “This is a problem.’’ He walks over to the boys, asks them quietly to please turn the volume down. The boy with the radio immediately turns it off, and the security guard says, with sincerity, “Thanks a lot.’’ He goes on to tell me that College Grove is one of the safest shopping centers in San Diego. The new owners, however, are going to have them carry guns.
College Grove used to have a supermarket and it still does have a large drugstore. These two tenant types, once staples in regional shopping centers — supermarkets, in fact, were often the major tenants — started disappearing from regional centers as department stores moved in. The high-volume business of the centers raised the rents to levels they, with their small markups, could not afford to pay. And as browsing in a center became just as important as buying, the quick-trip-to-the-market or -to-buy-aspirin became incompatible with a trip to the shopping center. Only in recent years, as regional centers have developed their own off-mall “convenience” centers, have supermarkets and drugstores started moving back.
After 5:00 p.m. many of the shops and services on the lower mall are closed. The locksmith, in a green steel booth planted in the middle of the passageway, is still open for business. Overhead hangs a gold key large enough to turn the lock of a giant’s door. White-haired Vaugnder Hamlin wears a green apron with tools of his trade in a front pouch pocket. “A cabinetmaker friend made the sign for me out of sugar pine, when I moved in here back in 1960. The center was brand-new. It was the first large shopping center in San Diego. Everything was downtown until then, there was hardly a shoestore in the neighborhood. I would rather be upstairs, always have, but the architects set the locations and put the services down here. Business [at the center] was slow at first. And it hurt when the Safeway supermarket left two years ago. They were here from the beginning, had a twenty-year lease, it was one of their largest stores. But I don’t just sit and wait for customers to walk up here. I make tools for other locksmiths, I always have something to do. I’m sixty-two now, I figure I’ll be here another fifteen years. Sure, things have changed. The neighborhood has changed, but that’s hard to talk about. The center was sold recently by the original owners to a conglomerate. They say there are going to be a lot of changes. You don’t spend $16 million just to sit and look at it. But there's been so much talk about that before, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Renovation will start during the first six months of next year, according to Tim Mullineks, and be completed within three years. Mullineks, who says he has been known for too long as ‘‘the advertising agent with the mall with the smallest budget,” cites an already evident benefit of the new ownership. First American Title and Trust of Riverside, who took over on September 1, is matching advertising dollars with the pooled funds of the individual merchants, thus doubling the previous advertising budget, and increasing sales and shopper traffic at the center. He predicts that College Grove will be changing its image; referring to ‘‘the eighty-twenty rule of merchandising, which is that twenty percent of the products make eighty percent of the sales, with the remaining eighty percent making twenty percent,” Mullineks looks forward to “increased fine tuning of the twenty percent that makes the eighty percent.”
Mission Valley Center squats behind its waffle-patterned facade in the flood plain of the San Diego River like a bunker on pylons. The substantial parking area under the twenty-one-year-old center is colonnaded with rotund columns, painted with four different colors and lettered and numbered to aid you in finding your car when you are ready to leave. Moving ramps and stairs lead up into the center of the mall area. Until Fashion Valley expanded to 1.4 million square feet in 1981, Mission Valley was the largest shopping center in San Diego. The centers have leapfrogged, too, with their sales figures: first it was Fashion Valley, then Mission Valley, then Fashion Valley ahead again. Located within a mile of one another, together they seem to prove the truth of the synergism principle: people will buy more, not less, when there is more choice.
It’s the day after Thanksgiving, the first day of the Christmas “season,” and one of the three busiest shopping days of the year (the other two are the day before and, busiest of all, the day-after, Christmas). Cars are still parked to the edges of the lots, but it's almost evening now, and the crush of the day, which began building at 10:00 a.m. and crescendoed around 3:00 p.m., is over. The sunset sky over the open mall is dramatic and eclipses, for the moment, everything under it. Three obviously tired women, each carrying bags in both hands, pause at a fast-food place. They are Olga, a woman from Mira Mesa, her daughter Grace, from Escondido, and Debi, the girlfriend of Grace’s brother, also from Mira Mesa. Grace speaks first.
“We’re resting before we go home. We’ve been here since one o’clock. We started at 12:30, went to Clairemont Square first, to one particular store we wanted to hit before we came here. I like to get my Christmas shopping done early. Don’t ask me how much I spent — more than $200 for six people. I came today because it’s a free day, my only day off except the weekend, when I’m more selfish with my time. This is my favorite shopping center [but] I only come about three times a year. I don’t just go shopping; there has to be a reason. I just don’t go to big malls. My mother does.”
Olga confirms this. “Shopping centers are a wishing place. 1 shop around, I see a lot of things I want but my brain says, ‘You can’t afford it.’ I’ve been known to spend three hours at University Towne Centre and come home with nothing. I go once a week, to University Towne Centre because it’s closer to my house. Most daily shopping I do at Mira Mesa Mall. I don't like to drive a long way. When I was young, there were no malls. It was hard to find parking. This is the earliest I’ve done my Christmas shopping. I spent over a hundred dollars and only bought one gift.”
Debi says, “I spent about twenty dollars and got a birthday and Christmas gift taken care of. We’re going home now because we can’t carry any more.”
Santa Claus came early to Mission Valley this year, not the traditional day after Thanksgiving but the weekend before. Mission Valley marketing director Geri Belk explains why. “That day is so trafficked, he’d be lost in the crowd. There's consumer resistance to having Christmas start earlier and earlier, but every year it is earlier because everyone tries to be the first.” Santa and computerized gift selection guides are part of the seasonal promotional features at Mission Valley and other May centers that pool their advertising ideas and dollars. “We emphasize community events. Health and Safety Days in August are one of our most popular events. That doesn’t necessarily increase sales, and other malls might think that having those tables garbages up the place, but we like the goodwill aspect, and these are the people who will come back and shop here.”
The marketing director’s main efforts are coordinating merchant advertising and advertising the mall as an entity, for the seven major merchandising retail periods: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, spring, fall, Christmas, January and July sales/clearance. As another marketing director expressed it, they have to find a large enough carrot to bring the people in. “Most people don’t shop out of necessity. If I never bought another sweater in my life. I’d be all right — but I’ll buy tons. My job is promotions. The aim is to increase merchants’ sales, not just to entertain the public. It’s entertainment geared to more sales. There was a time when it was a simple matter of bigger is better. Now they put coupons in their ads and give away free trips: for the slim chance of winning a trip to Hawaii, 26,000 people filled out entry blanks with their name, address, and age — which is great PR and also an inexpensive marketing study to find out how old their shoppers are and what part of town they’re coming from. The trend is toward customer service and quality displays. We have mallwide evaluations four times a year, we send around mystery shoppers who look for dust in the windows and evaluate the friendliness of the sales staff; and every month we let the stores know their ranking [in sales] in their category. Some places, the marketing director is picked to death. Especially in malls that aren’t going well, that want a scapegoat, there’s a tendency to say, ‘If things are going well, it’s because of the merchants; if things aren’t going well, it’s because of the marketing director.’ ”
A Renovated Center
Interstate 8 in La Mesa: this is quintessential shopping center terrain, with the freeway and one shopping center after another all blending together, inseparable intermingling of asphalt and construction, strata of concrete and commodities. Out here the freeway and the shopping centers are what seem most real, they fill your eye in every direction. The conical hills in the distance seem fake, like decorative but extraneous props, and the houses on the hills look miniature and toylike. Leaving the freeway heading east, you shoot off and around in a loop like a pinball, go down and around and come up underneath and into Grossmont Center, where, inside, on the tranquil mall, restful shade trees rustle as though feeling the breeze of Southern lawns or Eastern esplanades.
Over by the food pavilion, a security officer wearing a brown baseball cap emblazoned with an orange G for Grossmont, is petting a small silkie terrier and calling her Chick. Then the dog and her owner, a robust grayhaired man in plaid wool shirt, tan pants, tennis shoes, and bifocals, walk over to a bench. The man sits down and the dog sits on the man s lap. The man’s voice is like gravel. “I come here four, five times a week. I come about 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., leave at 3:00, 3:30. First I have a good walk, I walk all over about one and a half hours, sometimes a couple of hours. Then I sit by the portrait artist and watch him work. He’s one of the best. Often I get him and me something to eat, or he gets me something. I’ve patronized all of the food places here. Then I talk to some of the others in the little shopping areas. I don’t do too much sitting — I'm seventy-five and I need to move around. All my life I have studied the human elements. When I had a construction company, I sat downtown and watched people. That and exercise, those are the main reasons I come here. It’s one of the best shopping centers around the country. I quite often buy something, usually for one of my daughters.”
Grossmont Center opened in the fall of 1961, expanded once, and is expanding again, this time adding a three-story parking structure along with new shops and a fourth department store, and remodeling extensively to unify it all. Most centers of its generation need to renovate to remain competitive, or, in shopping center parlance, to “recapture” any “leakage” they have suffered to other shopping centers.
The First Enclosed Center
Eighteen-year-old Escondido Village Mall was the first fully enclosed, air-conditioned shopping center in California when it opened in 1964 on former pasture land along East Valley Parkway. In more recent years, it has had the unwanted distinction of being the mall with the flattest sales in the county. Under the present ownership. Beneficial Standard Properties, Inc. of Los Angeles, it has undergone a major expansion but has never been renovated. Asked what the plans for the future were, marketing director Sandra Holly said, “We don't know what’s happening here. There are tentative plans for renovation, several different ideas, from a complete, total overhaul to new roofing, landscaping, and so on.”
Five minutes’ drive from Highway 78 westbound and ten minutes across town to Interstate 15 south, is too far for a regional shopping center to be. The marketing director stresses that “we’re more a hometown mall. We do a lot of community things. We just had a meeting of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We underwrite the Miss Escondido beauty pageant every year.” Also: “Every day we have people who come to sit, visit, and read the paper — especially when the weather is bad. During the storm on Tuesday, a lot of people who lost their power came and sat in the mall.” Two men are chatting animatedly on a nearly circular bench that is large enough to accommodate six strangers, eight acquaintances, or a dozen friends. Both are white-haired, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, brown jackets, tan pants. I take them for brothers, or old friends. The one with less hair is Harry, the one with a cane is Donald. They speak with the familiarity and timing of a partnership.
“We’re waiting for our wives.”
“We didn’t know each other before.”
“We met here, just started talking.”
“I meet a new guy here every time I come.”
Harry says, “This is my exercise. I’m supposed to walk a mile a day. I come here at least three times a week and walk up and down in the mall. I’ve been in shopping centers in every state from New York to Florida, from Canada to Mexico. I’ve warmed all those benches. Helen loves shopping, I don’t. I’ll take a book. And I’m a people watcher. The people in Ohio are the biggest and fattest people I’ve ever seen.”
Donald comments, “That’s their agriculture.”
Harry says he retired ten years ago. Donald asks him, “It’s much better now, isn’t it? Payday is not so good but everything else is just fine.” Donald’s wife appears, ready to leave, and the two men say good-bye to one another.
Enclosed malls were the shopping center innovation of the Sixties. They transformed the empty space between the stores into the dominant focus of the center, as a photographer makes a positive image from a photographic negative. They made walls and doors unnecessary, and heightened the illusion that all the stores on the mall were like parts of a single vast department store. They encouraged a self-contained, introspective quality; their outer, street-facing side was dysfunctional and increasingly blank. Best of all, shoppers tended to spend twice as much time in enclosed centers as in open centers: they liked the comfortable climate of them, were secure and protected in their expansive yet snug space, and felt free to flow on and on through one store after another. They were so popular that they became the vogue even in areas where they made no sense climatically. The major problems they posed were how and where to expand. Escondido Village Mall expanded with a jog, an open breeze-way over a flood channel, and another enclosed mall.
An Elongated Enclosed Mall
Across North County is Plaza Camino Real, another May Centers development. A two-level enclosed mall that opened in 1969 at the intersection of Highway 78 and El Camino Real in Carlsbad, its sales jumped upward a decade later after it more than doubled in size to its present million-plus square feet, 140 stores, and 6000 parking spaces. The center’s white stucco exterior, ceramic tile, and high courtyard entrances pay homage to the area’s Spanish mission era; but the traffic controllers in the parking lot are reminders that life moves more quickly now than in the caballo days. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas the shopping center management hires security guards from a private agency to keep the cars flowing into the center parking lots as efficiently as possible. In the mornings, they also ensure that employees park at the back of the lot, making it easier for the shoppers to get close to the merchandise.
Inside, the mall is daunting — a straight expanse, nearly a quarter of a mile in length. After dark, when the domed glass skylights are absolutely black, the subdued lighting, somber floor colors, and lowered ceiling seem as close and claustrophobic as in a tunnel, but the mall is full of lively shoppers, including many babies and young children.
One Community Regional Center
There are seventeen driveways along the periphery of Clairemont Square. The focal point of this rambling center, which began small and expanded all around a Little League field at Clairemont Drive and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, is a chunky wooden clock tower roughly at the midpoint of the center. The number of driveways, the clock, and the fact that the stores in the center do not observe uniform hours, are remarkable. Most shopping centers stand aloof and isolated from their surroundings with only a handful of access points. Never, hardly ever, do you see a clock in a shopping center: for they not only tell you what time it is, they remind you how long you’ve been there, and suggest that it’s time to go home. And shopping centers always demand that stores observe uniform hours, so that customers won’t walk up to a closed door.
Jack McConvey, who manages Clairemont Square and four smaller centers also owned by Connecticut Mutual Insurance, admits readily that “it sprawls all over — that’s one of the things that’s different about this center. This section was built about twenty-six years ago, then as the owners acquired more land, there were more and more buildings. If they had had it all to begin with, they would have built a very different type center. It’s not as good a use of the land as it could be, but it would be too expensive to tear everything down. I would call this a large community center, not a regional center. Our location is very central but we are not as close to the freeway as we should be. People will not travel forever to get to a center. Unless it’s very unique, they are not going to drive ten miles and pass four stores along the way that sell the same thing.” I mention a statistic I have come across, that more than seventy percent of the merchandise in all department stores (in a similar category) is the same. He agrees and adds, “In [branches of] the same department store, it’s ninety-five percent.” McConvey, who’s been at Clairemont Square only two months, says, “We will be spending more for advertising, basically in a five-mile radius of the center. And starting Friday, there will be uniformity in center hours. In most, centers the owners set the hours. In this center, the merchants association sets them.” He adds wryly, ‘‘A shopping center is dictatorial, it has to be. If you spend a week following me around, listening to my phone calls, you’ll see — no five merchants would agree on anything.”
The man spraying snow on the windows of one of the shops is Mac MacDonald, treasurer of the Clairemont Square merchants association. He says, “The board of directors of the merchants association just voted for the first time to have standardized hours. I was president a couple of times, I’ve been active since the day we came in. It’s like any shopping center. There are a few who work year after year — it’s like the PTA or anything else — and a large majority who belong but don’t become involved. Each of the people is a king in his own little place. Once he’s in the merchants association, the thinking has to be institutional.”
Near the Border
Looking big and solid, Chula Vista Shopping Center has fewer stores than any other regional center — only thirty-five, on a thirty-five acre site along Broadway between H and I streets — making for a very short mall. It was refurbished three years ago. According to Ed Carson, the promotional director who’s been there for sixteen of its twenty-two years, its size and its location are its great advantages. “We’re a small regional center. We’re a family center. People enjoy bringing their children here. Where else can they shop and let their children play on the mall and they don’t get lost? And we are the closest regional center to Mexico. When we opened, the governor of Baja California came. We affected [businesses in] downtown San Diego when we opened. Now, naturally, the peso devaluation — which is a terrible thing for the people of Mexico — is affecting us, it’s affecting the whole South Bay, the whole county. [Our customers from Mexico] are still coming but not as often. And every time a major center opens — and Plaza Bonita is five, six miles away — it affects everyone. The slice of the pie gets a little thinner.”
Tijuana shoppers have in the past spent a significant amount of money in San Diego businesses. Estimates at various shopping centers vary from ten to twenty percent and higher.
Four miles past Grossmont Center, after I-8 has dipped down into El Cajon, Parkway Plaza looms below the horizontal edge of the freeway near Magnolia Avenue, a colorless, bermlike monolith. Exiting with it in my rear view mirror, I lose it and wander weaving in and out of several other strip centers before finding it again. “We’re getting a freeway off-ramp next year,” the marketing director tells me in a rueful tone when I’m finally in her office. The long, low, sleek lines of the building don’t tell you anything; the handsomely landscaped embankments soften and obscure further the building’s function. Too pretty to be a bomb shelter, but no sign of offices either. Just one step inside, though, and you know exactly where you are: in an enclosed mall. The lowered ceiling brings everything to eye level, with the intention of creating an intimate atmosphere; the lighting is cool and dim, so the bright, hot lights of the stores look even brighter and livelier to your dilated pupils and make your pulse quicken; the smell of popcorn oil mingles with perfumed candlewax; and Muzak floats by, keeping you moving without wearying. Along the short, linear mall with its middle bulge, the shallow stores with their open storefronts follow one another like a precise row of closets or drawers, contents neatly arranged, everything visible at a glance.
“We have a young center,” Pat Wolf tells me. Parkway Plaza was built in 1972 and has a total of 115 stores. “It appeals to young people. Cheerful, clean — you don’t have to brush off a bench to sit down. We used to have joggers come in early in the morning before anybody else was here. It’s an entertainment center, too. We try to offer something for everyone. Vehicle shows, RVs and cars — people like them and they’re good for the dealers, they always sell at shows. Seventy-five percent of our market area come here once a week. The average time spent is forty-five minutes. That’s fast turnover, it’s a fast, easy mall to shop, it’s not long, there’s no second level. There have been no new subdivisions (in the neighborhood] for a couple of years, so the people who come here know this mall like the back of their hand. Teen-agers hang out — much to our chagrin. They’re here from three until four or five, and on holidays. We have 53,000 high school students in our area. But actually, our market has outgrown us — they are older than our image. We’re changing that, encouraging stores to provide something for the career woman.”
Two pretty young girls are walking briskly down the mall, their heels hitting the terrazzo floor in unison. Sheryl is blonde, vivacious; Colleen is brunette, demure. Both girls have bangs and are sixteen years old, in eleventh grade.
“We come once or twice a week. I come alone sometimes.”
“I never do. We’ve been here one and a half to two hours today. She’s looking for an outfit for a party. When we were younger, in seventh or eighth grade, we were dropped off. Now we drive. We usually buy something — at least a card. It feels like a waste of time if we don't buy something. My brother comes shopping with my mom.” “My brother walks up to girls and follows them — I don’t like that. Most of the girls we know come here. Sometimes we sit and watch the people, how they walk, the clothes they wear.” Both girls giggle.
Meanwhile, a young man in a dark-blue suit has walked by, paused, turned back, and joined us. “What are you doing?” he asks me unceremoniously. When I mention that I have just spoken with the marketing director, he asks me to describe her physical appearance. Obviously recognizing her from my description, he slowly, as though grudgingly, tells me that I may carry on, pending approval from his supervisor. When our paths cross a few minutes later, he asks for my business card, “for our records.” He has not identified himself, nor have I asked him who he is, for the answer is clear: security.
For all their public welcome and open storefronts, shopping centers are still private property. Virtually every center, open or enclosed, posts notices that skateboards and bicycles are not allowed; or that pets must be on a leash; or that permission must be obtained from the management for activities other than shopping; or no soliciting. “We invite the whole world in,” so they say, but they don’t really want us all to come or to use the center in ways that might not be good for business. The owner’s control over the common areas of shopping centers has been challenged by various lawsuits filed by people wanting to use the space in a mall against the owner’s wishes. The U.S. Supreme Court’s PruneYard decision in 1980 upheld a California Supreme Court ruling that high school students (trying to gather signatures on a petition to send to President Carter denouncing a U.N. resolution against Zionism) were denied their rights under the California state constitution when the shopping center asked them to leave. Without access to the people, agreed both courts, the right of free speech was not applicable, and shopping centers such as PruneYard, in San Jose, are where the people are.
The First Multi-Use Center
It’s fashionable these days for people to speak of shopping centers as cities, implying that they operate as such and offer all the options that a city does. The first center in San Diego to be built that way was University Towne Centre, a “mini-community” designed “like a European village,” whose commercial heart and community facilities were developed in 1977 by Ernest W. Hahn, Inc. in concert with nearby residential units.
Their five community rooms are in use most of the time, according to center manager Gordon Jackson. Community groups use the rooms for free, while individuals and commercial organizations pay for use. The day-care center is kept busy, mostly by neighborhood children whose parents both work. “Everyone thinks that mothers would love to drop their kids off if they could and go shopping. That’s not so. People who shop are a very small part of our day-care center.” Ice skaters of all ages and abilities circle the enclosed rink. And, “We have joggers here all night long on the bicycle path, at two, three in the morning.” Picnickers eat in the canyon. And the center rents space to a museum for a dollar a year. All these facilities, says Jackson, which are not money-making, were a result of the community’s wishes — and the center has one of the highest dollar businesses of all the Hahn projects.
Asked to compare his shopping centers to others, Ernest Hahn’s reply is, “I think we have all followed a rather standard mold, to provide a complete complement of merchandise. I think we have characteristically been leaders in putting other uses in our centers — University Towne Centre is an example of that — and we will be doing more and more of that because it is both profitable and supportive of community needs.”
Two aspects of University Towne Centre that many people find frustrating are its crowded parking lot and its confusing, labyrinthine layout. Both were deliberate, the first to maximize land use, the second to lead the shopper ever onward. The ratio of four and a half parking spaces to every 1000 square feet of leasable retail space is lower than the industry standard of five and a half to 1000, making for a fuller lot. “But there are always empty spaces,” claims demographer Bob Goldey, “where people don’t want to park, because ‘It’s too far to walk.’ You only fill a parking lot six or seven days of the year. Thirty days is maximum. The thirtieth busiest day is ‘design day,* that’s what you design for.” About the layout, Goldey explains the obvious, that “if you can’t see from one end to the other, you have to walk to see what is around the comer. The original ideas [of the architect] were more radical,’’ he says reassuringly. “We made him tone them down.’’
Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving, the part of UTC between the movie theaters and the ice skating rink looks like a junior high playground. In the video arcade, they're standing three and four deep at some of the games. Two brothers, fourteen-year-old Mike and thirteen-year-old Glenn, are taking turns at one console. They come here from their home in Mira Mesa about once a week, on weekends or Friday after school, and play the games for three or four hours. They spendfour or five dollars each, most of their seven-dollar weekly allowance. They don’t shop, they don’t eat or drink, sometimes they go to a movie, hut mostly they just play the games.
Are they typical? Yes and no, according to the arcade manager: during the week, it’s the older customer who comes. Businessmen on their lunch hour, anytime between noon and 3:00 p.m. One man, who wears a telephonic beeper, is there almost every day from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. He’s gotten good at most of the games. The regulars do get good. Once, three guys, trading off, played Defenders for three hours on one quarter.
The Carriage-Trade Center
La Jolla Village Square, like several of the other regional centers, is a center in two parts, its parts being a two-story enclosed mall and a “convenience center’’ across the road. Watching the people and cars go in and out of the convenience center, you might well conclude that business is booming. Over at the main mall, the pace seems, well, more genteel. People in the industry say they like it, at least the first level, and, while I’ve never heard anyone say UTC reminds them of Europe, people do say that of La Jolla Village Square. It is elegant on the outside, with large gray concrete buttress columns standing out from the tan brick; and high-tech inside, with bright enamel-green rafters and narrow blue conduits in bold relief against the angled skylight panels. The sumptuous six-foot-high Christmas figures, the baby grand piano at the foot of the escalators, and the classical Muzak seem to beckon not to the masses who drive up in cars, but to an elite who used to shop from their carriages.
People have said the center is doing poorly, that a lot of the merchants are in trouble and rents have been reduced, that one of the problems is no one can find it from the freeway. (It’s located along Interstate 5 just south of La Jolla Village Drive.) General manager Jim Heffel reports that there are two proposed access additions, both included in the overall general plan for the area, neither of which is in the immediate offing. In the case of a freeway offramp, “It’s a little like the chicken before the egg. The density [of users] has to come first.” He elaborates, “Most shopping centers are built prematurely in that they are pioneers into the area. They have to be, because they have to buy a lot of land at an affordable rate. But they have such impact, they usually cause the surrounding area to develop more quickly. [However,] we have had a slowdown in development. We’re in the Golden Triangle, we should have been further along [by now].”
How’s business? ‘‘Our market is really on the west side of the freeway, downtown La Jolla. Our identity was projected for that; our marketing, too. People complain sometimes that it’s empty in here. The normal middle-class shopper is encouraged to do some shopping and spending by a lot of other people doing it. If no one is around, they are reluctant to spend their money. But volume of traffic is not a fair measure of [our] business. We could have one person come in, go to one store, spend $10,000, and not shop.”
What about the merchants? and the rents? Marketing director Kathy Faddis points out that the tenants who have left mostly suffered national bankruptcies of chain stores. Heffel says that individual rents have not been cut but deferred, with an amendment to their lease to get the money back later. “There has been no forgiveness of rent.” Shari Johnson, Faddis’s boss and director of advertising for this and other May Centers shopping centers in the West, says that after questionnaires, telephone surveying, and “focus group” discussions with shoppers, they are directing their advertising to “correct” the lack of customer awareness of their tenants. They have an extraordinarily high percentage of about seventy-five to eighty percent specialty shops and only about twenty to twenty-five percent national chain stores.
Describing other centers as “pretty much alike,” and his as different, Heffel maintains that “each center should have a theme to itself. Twenty years ago shopping centers were brand-new, they didn’t need an identity. Now you’ve got to do more, establish a theme and sell it, then have something on top of that. I think we’re going to see more emphasis on architecture, that’s going to become more competitive.”
Industry publications such as Shopping Center World, Chain Store Age, and National Mall Monitor reflect a consensus that the great growth rates of shopping centers are over, that future growth will be largely in the form of renovation of existing centers, or new urban malls.
Ernest Hahn, who says, “The name of the shopping center game is to get more people to your project,” emphasizes that the development of shopping centers depends on two trade factors: “First, the trade area not being served — when this is the case it is of course primary; second, what other elements are being introduced on any given day that contribute to merchandising? Suburban shopping centers were built basically for convenience, pure convenience. Instead of having to go to Main Street downtown, now Main Street is in your backyard. The suburban shopping center has to be tied to population growth. Horton Plaza is not dependent on the immediate trade area. That’s why downtowns today have more likelihood of being successful — with social, cultural amenities, theaters, a whole new level of purchasing.” I asked if he visualized an ideal shopping center of the future. “Merchandising changes hourly, daily. With improvements in the electronic age, sophisticated computers, while shopping and distribution will be about the same, the physical plant, the bricks and mortar, will be reduced considerably in size. Standard items, food will be bought at home, by computer. I don’t see traditional soft and consumer goods being bought electronically — the things we put on our body and wear we still like to feel, look at, and try on. In existing centers, eventually we’ll start using the parking lots, building high-rise residences, offices that will bring more people close in. Because of the shrinking dimensions of automobiles, by the 1990s parking lots can be half their [current] size.”
Clairemont Square’s Jack McConvey says, “The concept [of shopping centers] is very good, it’s an industry I’m very proud to be in. It served a purpose, has revolutionized the whole 'way the American people shop. In twenty years shopping centers will probably be very different from now. They will be part of an indoor community. Maybe a twenty-story shopping center, with ten floors of apartments and condominiums, four or five of offices, businesses, plus shopping center and parking. If you’re fortunate enough to have a job there, you’ll never have to leave the building. They are becoming more and more community oriented. That’s one place a lot of centers have fallen down. A commercial island, that’s what it’s there for, to make it pleasant for shopping. It’s good in the respect that it simplifies things; bad in that it takes a lot of originality out of life. The question is, do you want originality or convenience?”
Sonny Sturn, who works on special projects for the Hahn corporation, once compiled a list of 400 reasons why people go to shopping centers; he mentions two of those reasons: “To look at people, and to be seen; and for therapy — to get away, and be alone with a group.” He laments that the uniqueness of shopping centers started disappearing as they increased in number. He says, “Shopping centers should be an encyclopedia of San Diego from the retail, charitable, and cultural points of view.” He also says, “Shopping centers could be like Disneyland. Disneyland is really the future. The places we live and work in should be as pleasurable as Disneyland.”
Whatever they build, we’ll use.