Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

At the Urban Land Institute fall meeting in Los Angeles in November, architects and developers debated the myth vs. reality of Main Street retail. The word “authentic” was tossed around a lot at the session, chaired by Don Goodman, president of Walt Disney Imagineering. Disneyland is, of course, the myth. The reality is harder to define.

Take Victoria Gardens, for example. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., mixed-use development (see bottom photo, left) is hailed for bringing an urban center to an old agricultural community that sorely needed a downtown. To create a “sense of place,” Forest City Enterprises and local partner Lewis Retail Centers spun a fantasy around a pair of real-life early settlers, the Chaffey brothers, and turned it into pseudo-reality at the $285 million lifestyle center, according to Brian Jones, president of the REIT's Western Commercial Group.

Victoria Gardens' town center, Chaffey Square, is named for the men who brought irrigation to an unfertile land in the late 19th century. Water features are spread throughout the center, and the Disneyesque design includes cobblestone streets, rustic signs for pretend long-ago stores and a tin-shingled food court emulating a produce warehouse. “We created a storyboard and designed the center with a whispered history that helped differentiate it from a nearby Mills Corp. mall and also a Nordstrom-anchored mall,” says Jones.

Authentic or not? One could be cynical. Wouldn't a Frank Gehry-designed center be more “authentic” in terms of 21st century life? The panel members couldn't agree, acknowledging “authentic” gets a bad rap, especially in Europe where developers resist “Disneyesque” recreations. What do you think? (E-mail me at bkarlin@primediabusiness.com.)

Paul Jacobs, chairman of architecture firm RTKL Associates Inc., distinguished the term “authentic feel,” from genuinely authentic, to describe a mood that conjures up a sense of place — a gathering space recalling a comforting feeling of nostalgia from days gone by. Not really authentic, but it could be … in a parallel universe.

This debate was swirling in my head when I visited Caruso Affiliated's The Grove, nestled in the historic Farmers Market on Fairfax Avenue in L.A. I remember savoring the Farmers Market as a child. It seemed so authentic, to use a misused word. It still does in a way. Built in 1934, it is about as authentic as L.A. gets and now it's been given a new life, blending in as it does with The Grove.

So is The Grove with its adorable trolley and wrap-around comfort authentic? Well, Gehry would likely say one thing; RTKL's Jacobs and Forest City's Jones, another. Certainly, it has the feel of a Main Street like State Street was when I was growing up in suburban Chicago. The design wouldn't work in New York's SoHo or a charming hamlet such as Greenwich, Conn., where authentic means local charm. But after driving through the vast L.A. sprawl, it was most welcome, with its al fresco dining, hidden parking and lovely landscaping.

Maybe people weren't any happier in earlier times, but they did have more of a sense of place — and these new lifestyle centers provide that.

Vitals

Location: Los Angeles

Size: 581,500 square feet

Opened: 2002

Owner: Caruso Affiliated Holdings

Some stores: Antropologie, Apple Computers, Crate & Barrel, nikewomen, Nordstrom