Where's the party? It's at The Block at Orange, an urban-savvy entertainment and retail development in Orange, Calif., produced and directed by The Mills Corp. Producing a first-time blockbuster motion picture -- a tightly woven film that appeals to the masses - is a rarity for a novice director. It usually takes lessons learned from previous works to skillfully hone and transform one's vision into cinematic timelessness.Building shopping centers is no different. After debuting Potomac Mills in 1985, leading up to Ontario Mills in 1996 and Grapevine Mills in 1997, The Mills Corp. has reached deep into its resources to unveil The Block at Orange, a new signature development that will add "urban entertainment center" to its long list of credits.

Nearly all of The Block at Orange's 811,000 sq. ft. has been dedicated to full-price, lifestyle entertainment and retail tenants. For example, entertainment and restaurant users occupy more than 70% of The Block's square footage. That figure is somewhat misleading, however, because the total number of separate specialty retail "experiences," with approximately 80 tenants, is greater than their entertainment and restaurant counterparts (27 tenants). The Block also has a specialty leasing tenant roster of 31 merchants.

With The Block's entertaining, urban-street design, coupled with an aggressive leasing model, the Arlington, Va.-based developer has used its previous experiences to create a CBD-like shopping experience in a suburban setting. According to Laurence C. Siegel, Mills' chairman and CEO, The Block at Orange's new urban feel is a product of collaborative corporate spirit.

"There's a definite passion in this company, and it was clearly merged out in this project," he says, adding that the opportunity to produce something different came into clearer focus after the site was purchased for redevelopment. "We saw an opportunity here, and we grabbed it. I can't tell you that when we grabbed it we knew exactly what we were going to do, but one of the things that has personified this company is our creativity. The Block was definitely an evolutionary process."

A New Lease on Nightlife The Block at Orange succeeds The City shopping center, a retail development that had an evolutionary process of a different kind. Once a vibrant regional mall with solid anchors and strong tenancy, the center become an albatross for the city of Orange, Calif., and sat vacant for more than two years.

Linda Boone, redevelopment director with the City of Orange Redevelopment Agency, says the city needed to find a developer that could revive the shuttered group of buildings with an exciting development for the local population -- both business workers and resident dwellers. And with Disneyland situated five miles from the project, any development would have to have strong appeal to tourists.

The entire City Council became involved in the approvals process, Boone recalls, expressing satisfaction with the outcome of the project. "Not only is The Block a beautiful development, but it's on a site where we previously had a closed-down, vacant mall," she says. "The increased sales and property tax will be a huge benefit to the city."

Jerry Engen, vice president and development director for The Mills Corp., says proposals for The Block at Orange met with resounding applause once Mills' capabilities became clear to all involved. "They really were excited about replacing something that was [languishing] into a development that is going to be a great revenue generator for the city and the community," he says.

Boone adds that Mills was the city's developer of choice because of its experience with creating vibrant shopping destinations. "We pursued them aggressively because we felt they had the track record to be innovative," she says, adding that Orange, Calif., officials thought The Mills Corp. would select only one location in their area. The announcement of Ontario Mills handed them a serious setback in breathing new life into the site.

"But we kept pursuing," she recalls. "And when they decided to go with this property, they came to decide on a different concept because it really wasn't large enough to be a regional outlet center."

Tenancy with a Sense of 'Adventure' With the success of its branded, value-oriented mega centers -- seven in all around the country, with two more on tap for 1999 -- Mills has forged a number of exceptionally strong partnerships with its tenants (the company also has 11 community centers). But, says Mark Rivers, Mills' senior vice president and director of national accounts, familiar Mills retailers had mixed reactions to an unproven, first-of-its-kind development.

"We take our alliances with merchants very seriously, and we treat them as very special relationships," says Rivers, who spearheaded the leasing along with Judith Berson, Mills' executive vice president of specialty leasing. "It comes from a sense of adventure that I think both we as developers and they as retailers have. This project is the first of its brand, and when we described it on paper, a lot of merchants couldn't get their arms around it.

"Now that they see the project in three-dimensional full color, everybody's crazy about it," he continues. "When you go through the process of learning about a new project together, it makes the tenant-landlord relationships even stronger."

Like the rest of the project, the leasing process became an evolutionary exercise. Says Siegel, "It turned out to be poetry in motion -- not without a dose of frustration."

The difficult part, he says, was remaining focused on the correct users, given such a high level of interest: "I remember sitting through dozens of meetings where we had found regular big-box power center tenants, and I just kept saying, 'No way -- this is a place where we have to make something unique and special.' And everyone just rose to the occasion."

>From a leasing standpoint, The Block is a hub of lights, clamor and action >that has lit up the Orange County skyline. Tenants such as Dave & >Buster's, GameWorks, AMC 30 theater, Borders Books & Music, Virgin >Megastore, Alcatraz Brewing Co., and Vans Skate Park should whet the >appetites of hungry entertainment-seekers.

Apparel and specialty merchants such as Old Navy, 5-7-9, I.S. Interstate, Big Dogs, American Outpost, Big Entertainment, Glow, Las Vegas Golf & Tennis, and Toys International will add retail complement to The Block's restaurant roster. Cafe Tu Tu Tango, Left at Albuquerque, Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe, Ron Jon Surf Grill, Corner Bakery and Johnny Rockets round out the group of full-service restaurants.

Other unique labors of leasing at The Block at Orange produced a number of firsts. Ron Jon Surf Shop opened its 25,500 sq. ft. location as its first new store in 30 years. Also for the first time, Virgin Megastore and Borders Books & Music share tenancy in the same center. And Hilo Hattie, a Hawaiian-lifestyle retailer, opened its first store on the mainland.

"What's neat is that these merchants are helping define what our project is, but at the same time, our project is helping define the types of merchants they are and the types of environments they expect to be in," Rivers says. "There are a lot of interesting stories here."

One such story is Hilo (pronounced hee-lo) Hattie, the Honolulu-based retailer of Hawaiian apparel, home accessories, food and gifts. Founded 30 years ago on the island of Kauai, the company began as a successful wholesaler of Hawaiian apparel and eventually opened its own stores.

Chris Resich, president and COO of Hilo Hattie, says the company's store at The Block at Orange is a significant design departure, and, at 20,000 sq. ft., is the second largest of its group of stores. The personality and design of The Block created a match with the retailer's expansion goals and store image.

"The Block was particularly attractive to us because it is positioned as a very attractive retail and entertainment center," Resich says. "And that's what our concept is -- a highly entertaining and highly retail concept."

With its proximity to Disneyland, The Block's potential to draw tourists was another motivator for Hilo Hattie. And while the retailer had proven its tourist appeal in Hawaii, the company saw equal opportunity with a Hilo Hattie-educated California consumer.

"The combination of access to the tourist market as well as the local California consumer -- who is very familiar with Hawaii and Hawaiian product lines -- was very appealing to us," Resich explains. "Mills has demonstrated that they understand the value of the tourist channel in growing overall sales in shopping centers."

Re-creating the Entertainment Niche As consumers constantly search for something different in their shopping destinations, municipalities and developers scramble to bring it to them. According to both Boone and Rivers, The Block at Orange is not a regurgitated regional shopping center format with a new window dressing.

"The urban street appeal for consumers arose because people are tired of the traditional mall," says Boone. "The success of our downtown area can attest to the fact that people want an experience. They want to stroll and see things that are different and unique."

Rivers notes that the design of the center captures the spirit of Southern California as well as the city of Orange. As a collaborative design effort between Boston-based D'Agostino Izzo Quirk and Boulder, Colo.-based Communications Arts, The Block boasts California-themed design elements, with two main pedestrian walkways: the Boulevard and the Strip.

Oversized, creative signage and graphics are intended to light up the two retail thoroughfares and remind shoppers of some of the great shopping plazas around the country. "The only places we've seen some of these retailers before are indoor shopping malls," says Rivers. "So the only presentations we've seen are from walking past and seeing a relatively traditional storefront and signage package. At The Block, we held hands together with merchants and came up with the most innovative design possible, bringing the brand to life from a vision and sightline perspective."

Says Siegel of the project's two main avenues, "It's one of those great urban streets that looks great all the time. We asked the tenants to dial up their signage and get creative and expressive about who they are so that the project is about the tenants and the atmosphere, not about the buildings."

One of the most striking design features of The Block are its "stylons." At 91 feet tall and custom-backlit, they will bear images of local Orange community volunteers with words such as "dedication," "perseverance," "integrity" and "passion." The monuments were illuminated for the first time at night in the center's grand opening celebration.

"They are stylistic, high-end, photographic icons of some of Orange County's hometown heroes," says Rivers. "They truly help define the project, which is intended to be a magazine of sorts. Constantly changing, very visual and eye-popping, fun and playful -- and what we're so pleased with is that the tenants have all taken it to that level as well."

According to Siegel, The Block's design can be customized to remain as fresh as its opening day. "The project has a wonderful feel to it," he says. "Six months from now, whatever is hip or happening in the local culture here, we can change out all those images and be hip and happening again in no time. We've designed it for constant change."

Although The Block at Orange has opened to rave reviews -- from the city of Orange and retailers alike -- the curtain will not close on The Block as a doable format in other cities.

"This is a project we can build in 200 places," Siegel says. "If this works as well as we think it's going to work, it gives us a whole new growth vehicle. It's going to open all kinds of opportunities for us, especially urban opportunities.

"And that's what most people don't understand: Entertainment and retail are really the same thing," he says. "Shopping is entertainment. Slapping a movie theater upside a retail project is a form of entertainment, but what's more important is getting the retailers themselves to be entertaining. That's what we've done with this project, and that's what makes people excited about going out to shop."

The Block at Orange Orange, Calif.

The Mills Corp., Arlington, Va., - developer, owner and manager

Bayley Construction, Seattle, - general contractor

DAgostino Izzo Quirk, Somerville, Va., - architect of record

Communication Arts, Boulder, Colo., - project designer

McNamara/Salvia, Boston, - structural engineer

David Evans & Assoc., San Jose, Calif., - civil engineer

Nikolakopulos & Assoc., Torrance, Calif., - electrical engineer

Store, Matakovich & Wolfberg, South El Monte, Calif., - mechanical engineer

Mesa Design Group, Dallas, - landscape architect

Francis Krahe & Assoc., Laguna Beach, - Calif., lighting designer

The Hummel Co., Whittier, Calif., - consultants to construction management

Craig Bennett and Assoc., Arlington, Va., - lease/site plan production

ASI Signs, Culver City, Calif., - back-of-house and directional signs manufacturer

Benchmark, Morris Plains, N.J., - furniture supplier

Colour Concepts, Las Vegas, - graphics for street lights supplier

Code Consultants, St. Louis, - building code and fire-life safety

Eller Mall Media, Aliso Viejo, Calif., - billboard graphics supplier

Forms & Surfaces, Carpinteria, Calif., - outdoor furniture manufacturer

Global Interforce, North Hollywood, Calif., - mobile retail units and totem directory image panels fabricator

Landscape Forms, Studio City, Calif., - outdoor furniture Manufacturer

Jon Richards Co., Mira Loma, Calif., - spider fountain fabricator

NRI, Phoenix, - valet parking cabinet and retail kiosk furniture fabricator

Penwal, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., - custom benches, ATM and retail kiosks, custom light fixtures, and AMC filmstrip benches fabricator

Quality Outdoor Advertising, Orange, Calif., - billboard and vending kiosks fabricator

Smithcraft, Phoenix, - site directional and common area signage fabricator

Supercolor Digital, Irvine, Calif., - graphics for vertical signs and specialty features supplier

Universal Signs, Tampa, Fla., - stylons, vertical signs, food court sign, and specialty signage fabricator

VSA Partners, Chicago, - consultant in graphic imagery of stylons