Phase III: Ferris wheel to take Irvine Spectrum Center to new heights.

Following their triumph with the first two phases of Irvine Spectrum Center in Irvine, Calif., executives with Irvine Retail Properties have decided to sit back and spin their wheels for awhile. However, in this case, spinning their wheels means quite the opposite of doing nothing: The wheels are literal - and big.

Ten-stories big in the case of the giant Ferris wheel that is set to be one of two major draws in the entertainment center's third phase. The other wheel, a 38-foot carousel, is not as large. It's designed to enthrall small children, so size is less important than charm.

A solid foundation If it's true that success breeds success, then Phase III, which is in construction and set to open in stages in 2001, is set to be a surefire winner. Since the project's 256,000-sq.-ft. first phase opened in November 1995, the Spectrum has drawn more than 35 million visitors.

The July '98 opening of a 250,000-sq.-ft. second phase boosted annual patronage from 5 million visits in '97 to a projected 12 million visits for 2000, one of the highest visitor-to-square-foot ratios in the industry. With Phase III taking the project total to 700,000 sq. ft., the developer expects to boost the annual visitor total even more.

Developed by the retail arm of the Irvine Co., headquartered in nearby Newport Beach, Calif. and managed by Cincinnati-based Madison Marquette Retail Services, Irvine Spectrum Center looks as if it has fallen wholly into the entertainment center category. However, while the two above attractions suggest the developers are pushing the project even further in that direction, it is simply not true. The Ferris wheel and carousel are the only pure-entertainment features of the 200,000-sq.-ft. addition.

A stronger retail presence Phase III, to be called the Village at Irvine Spectrum, will devote the majority of its space to hard goods retailers. This is a strong contrast to the existing project, where retail tenants play second fiddle to entertainment venues such as Improv Comedy Club, Crazy Horse Saloon, Dave & Buster's, Sega Gameworks and a 21-screen Edwards cinema with a separate IMAX 3D theater.

Moreover, the retail tenants in Phase III will mostly be general merchandisers rather than the themed retailers of the preceding phases. The existing project boasts Quicksilver Boardriders Club, Gary's Island, Houdini's Magic Shop, Limbo Lounge and Myron's Extreme Machines, but the expansion will feature stores like Old Navy and Wet Seal.

"We're looking for stores with an entertaining edge to them but that aren't entertainment-based," says Rick Evans, president of Irvine Retail Co. "We're trying to carry on the festive atmosphere with retailers who make shopping fun but sell somewhat more regular goods."

As with the previous phases, there will also be restaurant and food tenants, but not nearly so many. The existing project has about a dozen quick-serve or snack outlets plus nine sit-down restaurants, ranging from the upscale Wolfgang Puck Cafe to the family-oriented Johnny Rockets. The expansion will add three or four in each category, according to Evans.

The addition of a larger retail component, Evans explains, is designed both to further consolidate the existing customer base by offering additional reasons to come to the Spectrum and to attract interest from a wider and more varied audience.

It is also designed to set the stage for an even larger retail element in the project's planned - and probably final - fourth phase. This phase, says Evans, will have a "very, very strong" retail focus, with apparel, home goods, furnishings and other products typically sold at shopping centers. "It will not be much different than a regional center," he says.

A deliberate move The decision to include the Ferris wheel and carousel in Phase III was deliberate, Evans emphasizes. From the beginning, he says, the company planned to include amusement park-type rides, though it was initially not settled exactly which ones or in which phase.

As it turned out, no alternatives to the two chosen rides were ever discussed. "They were such obvious choices, we didn't have to think about them," says Evans.

In addition, he continues, each ride presented distinct retail marketing opportunities, with the Ferris wheel creating a niche for what Evans calls "gifty kinds of merchandise" and the carousel being a natural for attracting children's retailers.

The Ferris wheel, which is scheduled to open around Thanksgiving 2001, is also intended to serve as an identifying landmark for both the Spectrum and the region. "I think the Ferris wheel will be an icon, because of the lights and freeway visibility. It will have almost 14,000 lights. I think it will be a beacon," says Evans.

Built in Italy by Westech Inc., the ride will have hanging gondolas offering passengers 360-degree views and will be capable of accommodating up to six adults. The more traditionally designed carousel will feature an entire menagerie of animals, from lions and bears to elephants and zebras. Both attractions will play on the public's taste for nostalgia, though the size and design of the Ferris wheel also speak very much to contemporary technology.

According to Evans, Phase III will be considerably easier to manage and operate than the earlier phases because of their reliance on entertainment.

"Entertainment projects take a lot of time," he says. "They're not like a regular shopping center. To begin with, we have to have a bigger staff than at a typical regional center. The Spectrum opens at 10:00 a.m. but doesn't close till 1:00 a.m."

Intensive marketing Probably the most intensive job, however, is marketing. "Marketing happens every day because we have live entertainment and need to talk to the customer daily because that changes all the time," Evans explains. While it's comparatively easy to draw a crowd to an appearance by Ray Romano at the Improv or Mel Tillis at the Crazy Horse, more effort is needed to bring people to see lesser known performers on other nights, he elaborates.

"There's a synergy to everything working together that makes the Spectrum a place people want to come," he says. "We look on it as a continuous street of entertainment, dining and retail, but the whole street has to be alive in order for each business to stay alive."

Phase III is simply an extension of that street. Like a downtown that has separate shopping and entertainment districts, the Irvine Spectrum Center will now have its separate districts. With the office component of the full Irvine Spectrum development added in as part of the business district, the Spectrum is becoming a bona fide city center, just as the project's original developers envisioned.