THE PATRIARCH OF NEW JERSEY'S shopping centers, Garden State Plaza in Paramus was the state's first regional retail complex and now approaches the new millenium with abundant verve and vitality.

Having undergone periodic renovations and expansions since its spring 1957 debut as an open-air center, the property today stands in the superregional class. With nearly 2 million sq. ft. of retail space, including five anchors and 285 stores in an enclosed mall on 140 acres, Garden State Plaza is among the 10 largest shopping centers in the nation.

Located less than eight miles from Manhattan in Bergen County - New Jersey's most populous and most affluent - its trading area counts 2.1 million people in a 10-mile radius with an average annual household income of nearly $65,000. The Garden State Plaza shopper has an average household income that exceeds $75,000, according to Westfield Corp., the center's owner.

Five anchors plus another 285 stores, ranging from moderate to upscale, generate estimated total annual sales of $650 million through visits by 20 million shoppers each year. Demand for tenant space keeps the occupancy rate high, which is now pegged at 97.1%.

"The tenants have refocused on making the shopping experience visually entertaining and interactive by how merchandise is displayed and sold," says Richard Green, co-president of Westfield.

Garden State Plaza's five anchors include Macy's, Nordstrom, JCPenney, Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor. The center boasts 28 kiosks, 15 restaurants, a dozen food court eateries and 10,300 parking spaces - facilities kept functioning by some 4,000 employees.

The early years The shopping complex was conceived in 1951, when R.H. Macy Properties, a division of R.H. Macy & Co., the center's developer and original owner, began assembling the sprawling site at the intersection of Routes 4 and 17 in Paramus - traversed today by more than 250,000 cars daily. Garden State Plaza helped transform the city and north Jersey into a retail mecca.

Located within a five-mile radius of Paramus are Simon Property Group's 1 million sq. ft. Bergen Mall and smaller malls such as Rouse's Paramus Park and Federated's Riverside Square.

Garden State Plaza originally was anchored by a three-level, 424,000 sq. ft. Bamberger's (Macy's suburban unit) and featured strips of smaller shops separated by tree-lined walks and shrubbery. During the peak hours of opening day, more than 5,000 cars filled the parking lot. Eighteen shops, with rents averaging $3 to $4 per sq. ft., were completed for the opening of the $26 million project, which paid real estate taxes of $149,300 the first year.

The growth of Garden State Plaza included the addition of a 245,000 sq. ft. Gimbel's, an 88,000 sq. ft. JCPenney and 53 additional shops. In 1977, Bamberger's, later to become Macy's, underwent a $6 million expansion.

By 1981, the then 24-year-old, open-air center had lost its retailing crown and was suffering. Sales were stagnant. Garden State Plaza had become outclassed by a half-dozen competing, smaller, but newer enclosed centers.

In response, R.H. Macy & Co. initiated construction to enclose, modernize and expand the center at a cost of more than $25 million. Garden State Plaza regained its retailing supremacy as a 1.3 million sq. ft. enclosed mall with 120 stores, a new food court and parking for 7,400 cars.

The enclosure work, which began in 1981 and lasted until 1983, was designed to give the center a "fashion-oriented" image. Common areas featured terra cotta walkways in a garden setting described as an ambience of natural contemporary elegance. The computerized climate-control and lighting systems were complemented by natural light from skylights. The center's property included a freestanding bank and drive-intheater.

Westfield, a veteran shopping center developer and operator with its roots in Australia and U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles, purchased Garden State Plaza in 1986. Three years later, a new lower level carved out of expanded truck-delivery tunnels was opened.

In May 1990, Nordstrom debuted in New Jersey by constructing a $37 million, 272,000 sq. ft., three-level store on the former Gimbel's site. Bergen County's affluent shoppers have kept this Seattle-based retailer's store near the top of the chain's sales volume leaders.

Rodamco, North America, a subsidiary of Rodamco NV, of The Netherlands, became an equity partner in Garden State Plaza with Westfield in 1993, via its U.S. investment advisor, CGR Advisors of Atlanta.

In 1996, the retail complex completed a $200 million expansion and remodeling program. Retail space was increased by nearly 709,000 sq. ft. and two multi-level parking decks were added. JCPenney grew by 62,000 sq. ft. to 150,000 sq. ft., and two new upscale anchors were added: a 150,000 sq. ft. Neiman Marcus and a 130,000 sq. ft. Lord & Taylor. A new food court also opened along with scores of new shops.

Located on the perimeter of the center's property are two freestanding restaurants, a multiplex movie theater and The Wiz, a 54,000 sq. ft. electronics store.

Today, the tenant roster includes some of the best known names in retailing such as Brooks Brothers, Benetton, J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, AnnTaylor, Guess, Eddie Bauer, Walden Books, Victoria's Secret and The Limited.

"We endeavor to provide the north Jersey shopper the best in the way of quality and variety in what's available in U.S. retail, or even international retail markets," says Gary Karl, Westfield's executive regional vice president for Garden State Plaza operations.

"We just opened Sephora, a self-service fragrance store from France," Karl explains. "There are only a few in the U.S. - the first debuted in Manhattan. We were able to attract them to Garden State Plaza, where they've had an extremely successful start."

Rents, sales and profits are strong, confirms Green. "Our business at Garden State Plaza is booming. It's never been better. Fortunately, we can offer a shopper the gamut in variety and choices."

The superregional center's statistics are all the more impressive because they are predicated on a six-day selling week. Bergen is the only one of the state's 21 counties to retain blue laws, or Sunday closings. Only essential sales such as food and prescription drugs are allowed. Sales of clothing, furniture, home furnishings, household appliances, and building and plumbing supplies are prohibited.

Location and accessibility are two of the factors that have played a major role in the success of Garden State Plaza. The shopping center overlooks the intersection of Routes 4 and 17, the busiest in Bergen County and one of the most traveled in New Jersey. Construction work began about four months ago on a two-year, $120 million redesign/reconstruction of the four-way cloverleaf intersection.

At 42 years of age, Garden State Plaza is truly a community center and resource for people in its trade area. It maintains an active events calendar and is a favorite locale for early-morning walkers.

* Location: Paramus, N.J.

* Owner: Westfield Corp., Los Angeles

* Opening: May 1957

* Trade area population: 2.1 million

* Average household income: $65,000

* Current GLA: 2 million sq. ft.

* Number of stores: 285

* Current anchors: Macy's, Nordstrom, JCPenney, Neiman Marcus

* Original anchors: Bamberger's (Macy's suburban unit)

* Fun fact: As New Jersey's largest shopping center, Garden State Plaza generates estimated annual sales of $650 million.