According to the well-worn axiom, the Huntington Beach Shopping Center had it all. The covered mall, Southern California's oldest, built in 1966, was located in the growing and increasingly urbanized suburb known as Surf City. Better yet, it was just 35 miles south of Los Angeles. Best of all, the nearly 1 million-square-foot mall sat at the intersection of the town's main drag and the jam-packed 405 freeway.

Yet, a few years ago the shopping center was down on its heels. Anchor stores, including Montgomery Ward, had vacated. It lacked such popular amenities as movie theaters and restaurants that attract today's shoppers. And parking was severely limited.

“Originally, it was probably successful,” said Mark Welz, senior project manager with The Jerde Partnership, the Venice, Calif., architects' firm that did the initial redesign of the mall. “By the time we looked at it, though, it was in disrepair.”

Now, J.H. Snyder Co., in partnership with the mall's owner, The Ezralow Co., is putting the 38-year-old mall through an extreme makeover.

They are transforming it into a 60-acre, open-air shopping destination called Bella Terra that will include 71 stores and restaurants, over 1,500 parking spaces, an outdoor amphitheatre and a 20-screen, 4,000-seat Century theater.

Construction, involving seven general contractors, began in January 2004 and is expected to be completed by spring next year. Meanwhile, existing tenants including a Barnes & Noble, Mervyn's, Burlington Coat Factory and Staples are still open for business. One existing retailer, Circuit City, is expanding its space from 25,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet. New tenants will include Bed Bath & Beyond and outdoor gear retailer REI.

The mall is already 90 percent leased, according to Jerry Snyder, senior partner with Los Angeles-based Snyder, which is responsible for marketing and leasing the property's retail space. Snyder's company was brought into the project about two years ago, after Ezralow Co., a residential developer that purchased the property from The Macerich Co. in 1999, had been unsuccessful in working with other developers.

First, Snyder brought in a new design team headed by Jerde's Tammy McKerrow, who acted as lead design architect. “We saved the Broadway building,” says Snyder. “The other architects were going to raze it.” That's the building in which the Broadway department store was located, part of a California chain bought by Federated in 1995. The department store anchor had vacated the mall and left behind a workable, '60s-era store now occupied by Kohl's, which took it over in March 2003.

The mall's style — Tuscan countryside exemplified by plant trellises, wrought iron, Italian tile and lime-wash finish to simulate aging — was dictated by Huntington Beach city planners. The city also approved tax abatements for the project.

“The center is themed, but not in the way Disney themes stuff,” says Rick Overley, project manager for Perkowitz + Ruth Architects Inc., the Newport Beach, Calif., architects' firm brought in later to take over the project from Jerde, which was responsible for the early, conceptual work.

The original plans featured raised retail and cinema space, which was designed to create a varied skyline for the mall, according to Jerde's Welz.

“But when we did the budget analysis that proved not feasible,” says Overley. So the new architects pulled all the structures down to ground level to create what Overley calls a village, and put the focus on the amphitheatre and numerous restaurants that surround it, including new tenants Pasta Pomodora, California Pizza Kitchen and Johnny Rockets. The outdoor theater will be used for concerts and other events sponsored by the mall's owner.

EDAW Inc., a San Francisco-based landscape design firm that designed the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, is landscaping the project.

A new parking structure will sit in the center of the mall to provide shoppers with access directly to the retail area. More parking is available surrounding the center, and those spaces, too, feed directly into shops. Unlike the old mall, none of the stores face one another.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. owns a 13-acre site next door, and is reportedly planning to build a 150,000-square-foot Great Indoors home decorating store there. A spokeswoman for the Hoffman Estates, Ill., company, however, said the retailer's plans for the spot are up in the air.

Bella Terra will also house a Starbucks, Ben & Jerry's and, possibly, Krispy Kreme. Snyder won't talk about lease rates, however. “My tenants wouldn't like that,” he says.

But he expects they'll like the mall's makeover and its location in a growing Southern California town just south of Los Angeles, off the busy 405 freeway.

Case Study/Redevelopment

PROBLEM:

The departure of important anchors left the Huntington Beach Shopping Center in the lurch. With no restaurants, theaters or other amenities, the center couldn't compete.

SOLUTION:

The mall's owners are converting it to an open-air center with an amphitheater, a cineplex and 71 stores and restaurants. Space in the new center is 90 percent leased.