Moving ahead with its master plan of Valencia, Calif., Newhall Land & Farming Co. approaches the full realization of Town Center Drive.

In Valencia, Calif., located north of Los Angeles, Newhall Land & Farming Co. is working to bring a 30-year-old vision to fruition. As the mastermind behind the creation of Valencia itself, the developer is in the process of bringing Main Street to the Santa Clarita Valley.

"Our plan is to invest over $100 million to develop Town Center Drive," says Thomas L. Lee, chief executive officer for Valencia-based Newhall Land. "We're building a downtown for Valencia and the surrounding communities."

All in time

Taking shape since the early 1960s, Valencia combines the incorporated city limits of Santa Clarita and parts of unincorporated Los Angeles County. With 34,000 residents, it is a master-planned community, designed by planner Victor Gruen. It comprises less than one-fifth of the 143,000 acres of ranch land owned by the Newhall family.

Construction of Town Center Drive began in 1996, four years after Newhall Land's opening of Valencia Town Center, a 790,000 sq. ft. regional mall built in partnership with Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties Co. When completed in late 1998, the commercial portion of the Drive will combine with the mall and nearby value-oriented Valencia Marketplace (also owned by Newhall Land) to serve as a commercial hub for the Valley.

According to projections developed by the Southern California Association of Governments, the population within the Valencia trading area exceeds 300,000 and will rise to 450,000 by 2015. The Valley alone is home to 180,000 people.

"Eighty-three percent of the residents of the Santa Clarita Valley shop at the Town Center Mall," says Marlee Lauffer, vice president of corporate communications for Newhall Land. The region's median household income is $69,609 ($78,000 in Valencia proper), and the median age of the area's residents is 30.

Although Gruen's master plan called for a town center mall with a main street, Lee notes that his company had to wait for favorable conditions to proceed. For example, it was not until 1988 that demographics were strong enough to attract the interest of the department stores necessary for the mall.

Only then could the developer consider Town Center Drive, says Lee. "Without a regional mall as a main attraction for customers, the main street would have risked becoming a novelty," he explains.

Urban inspiration

In various stages of development, Town Center Drive flows 2,400 ft. west from the end of Valencia Town Center. It is lined on both sides by a combination of retail, restaurant, office, entertainment and hotel space, and plans call for the addition of apartments and townhomes at the Drive's end.

According to John Kriken, a partner with architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill L.L.P. (SOM), the project's design was inspired by the residential/retail/ commercial districts that dot San Francisco, as well as by the Napa Valley community of St. Helena. "San Francisco's neighborhoods have a great variety of retail, outdoor cafes and commercial offices," Kriken says. "And St. Helena, which is basically a small town, is striking in the urbanity of its main street -- urbanity in terms of both sophistication and urban character.

"You don't normally see this in a small town," he continues. "The feeling of a dense and compact urban energy is very different from what you see in the suburbs."

Using guidelines provided by SOM, land planning and urban design firm PBR Inc., Irvine, Calif., began the task of laying out Town Center Drive. "The street was too long to energize a complete retail shopping street," notes Steven Kellenberg, a vice president for PBR. As a result, the project was divided into quadrants (formed by the intersection of Town Center Drive and McBean Parkway) that "choreograph activities into defined clusters," he says.

The street had to be easy to navigate, with readily available parking and a small-scale central drive to encourage walking. It had to project a distinctive character, with continuous retail and restaurant frontage combined with outdoor cafes and landscaping.

Distance and density

Moving west from Valencia Town Center, a plaza marks the beginning of Town Center Drive. "The plaza is designed to host different kinds of events, such as concerts, art shows and festivals," Kellenberg says.

It is bracketed by one-story restaurants -- TGIFriday's to the north and Sicily's to the south -- that create architectural breathing space between the mall and the main street. Even though the restaurants minimize the retail square footage available outside the mall, Town Center's anchors were concerned about their placement.

"The buildings displace parking for the mall, and mall tenants were a little touchy about them," Kellenberg says. The developer has allayed concerns by agreeing to build a three-story parking deck nearby.

Adjacent to the one-story buildings, a mass of taller buildings has been constructed to contain the plaza and to introduce a feeling of urban density to the project. Three office buildings (from three to six stories) flank the north and south sides of the street.

The office buildings feature courtyard entrances in the rear, fronting on parking lots and retail entrances along the solid main street frontage. "That enables the buildings to serve both types of use [i.e., office and retail] without confusing the two," Kellenberg says.

Just east of McBean Parkway, the buildings are larger yet. On the north side of Town Center Drive stands a 12-screen Edwards Cinema that includes an IMAX 3D theater. A plaza abuts the building, and, on the south side of the street, restaurants (BJ's Pizza Grill and Brewery, and an as-yet-unnamed tenant) offer indoor and outdoor seating to pedestrians.

"This section of the Drive plays off of the beginning of the street next to the mall," Kellenberg says. "At both points [i.e., at the mall and at McBean Parkway], we offer cinema entertainment and restaurants around a plaza."

These clusters provide anchors around the Drive's main retail offerings, says Robert Baker, senior leasing representative for Urban Retail Properties Co. (Urban is leasing Valencia Town Center as well as Town Center Drive.)

Avoiding 'chain row' According to Baker, the leasing strategy for Town Center Drive was devised to accommodate Valencia's high-end demographics and to complement the offerings of the adjacent mall. "The mall was originally designed to serve middle-market customers," he says. "Considering the upscale demographics in Valencia, there's a demand for more upscale retail.

"We're focusing on high-end men's and women's apparel and home furnishings for the ground floor retail in the six-, four-, and three-story buildings just beyond Friday's and Sicily's," Baker explains. (Combined, the buildings offer 50,000 sq. ft. of ground floor retail space.) He adds that he is hopeful the Drive will attract tenants such as Banana Republic, Crate & Barrel, Guess?, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma.

Even as he mentions national retailers, Baker is quick to point out that lesser-known regional tenants are equally, if not more, attractive to the Drive. "I think entrepreneurial tenants will fit better with the downtown feel we're after," he says. "We definitely want to stay away from creating a 'chain row.'"

In addition to the theaters and restaurants, Town Center Drive currently houses or will house Borders Books & Music, Paper Mulberry, Java & Jazz, B on Main dress shop, Sir Speedy, Alacrity beauty salon and Travel Bug. Baker notes that the Drive also is home to Mission Renaissance, a high-end concept that teaches children to paint.

The chain has 15 locations throughout Los Angeles, Baker says. "The idea is to offer kids six one-hour lessons to find out if they have talent," he explains. "It's an idea that brings moms and their kids to the Drive."

Picking a bloom, planting a seed Beyond the office/retail/entertainment components of Town Center Drive -- across McBean Parkway -- the project takes on a different character, says Kellenberg. "We didn't think it was possible to energize the area across McBean with retail and entertainment," he explains. "I think more retail would have spread [the Drive's appeal] too thin."

As a result, the second half of the Drive features Spectrum Health Club (55,000 sq. ft.) to the north and a 250-room Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center to the south. Continuing west, there is a pad for a potential community facility (e.g., a performing arts theater), followed by a run of residential townhomes, all fronting the street.

As leasing continues for all areas of the project, Lee is witnessing the culmination of Gruen's master plan. "Thirty years later, we're building it," he says.

"We've had the benefit of watching others work out this kind of concept in new towns and in traditional downtown city centers," Lee says. "That's taught us a lot of lessons.

"We know, for example, that a cinema and a bookstore work well together, so we've combined the IMAX theater with Borders. We also know that higher end retail doesn't work well next to sit-down restaurants, so we've positioned those offerings at opposite ends of the Drive," he explains.

Newhall Land is optimistic that it has created a combination to nurture future growth in Valencia. According to Lee, the mall will attract people to the Drive, which in turn will attract homebuyers and re-energize the Town Center developments.

"The Santa Clarita Valley [population is] spread among small residential communities, but there is no urban core," adds Lee. "Town Center Drive fills that need, and I believe the Valley will support it."

Mike Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.