On a chilly evening in late October, the long-awaited, much-hyped Victoria Gardens lifestyle center opened with much fanfare. A mariachi band and a 20-foot walking vine, called Divine, greeted residents who had come for a first-look at what developers Forest City Enterprises and locally-based Lewis Retail Centers hope will become a ready-made downtown for Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

The $285 million venture, with 1.3 million square feet of retail, is part of a mixed-use development in the sprawling Inland Empire stretched over 147 acres that includes 20 acres of multifamily housing and 40,000 square feet of office space. (There is no timetable yet for completion of the housing component.) It is expected to serve as a regional shopping attraction for 841,000 of the Inland Empire's 3.5 million residents.

This is not your typical lifestyle center. For example, Macy's and JCPenney are anchors — not exactly the traditional choice for a lifestyle project. A police substation, a fire station and a yet-to-be-built cultural venue contribute to the city-center feel.

Retailers new to the region include an Apple Store, Coach, Jos. A. Bank Clothiers. OshKosh B'Gosh's has built its first lifestyle concept store in California.

Much remains to be completed. Only two-thirds of the stores were ready for business during the grand opening, though 95 percent of the retail space is leased, according to Glen Miller, director of marketing for Victoria Gardens. The Cultural Center, which should also make the development more than just a shopping destination, is slated for completion in 2006, and will include the Lewis Theatre, a second library and a multipurpose room. For now, it's just an empty plot north of the center of the town.

Designed by Altoon + Porter Architects LLC of Los Angeles, Field Paoli Architects of San Francisco and ka Inc. Architecture of Cleveland, Victoria Gardens was conceived to look and feel like a real downtown that evolved over time. Buildings in the town square have an antique Spanish charm, and the architecture by the outer perimeter evinces the art-deco era.

The design for Victoria Gardens reflects the history of the Inland Empire, a series of agricultural communities created when the Chaffey Brothers, of local fame, helped irrigate the infertile land. Water is ever-present — in fountains and quietly running streams. The town center, Chaffey Square, is named for the men who brought water to an inhospitable land.

The Disneyesque design, which includes cobblestone streets, rusty, rustic signs for pretend long-ago stores and a tin-shingled food mart emulating an orange warehouse, can't hide the fact that the center is an island in a sea of parking with easy access to the Interstate. It's a fantasyland of sorts, but one likely to emerge as a destination experience for many of the area's residents.

Vitals

Location: Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Size: 1.3 million sq. ft.

Opened: October 2004

Owners: Forest City Enterprises, Lewis Retail Centers

Major stores include: Macy's, JCPenney