$300 million vision for Santa Ana’s MainPlace mall sees a food emporium, more entertainment and 1,900 apartments
To keep up with changing consumer tastes, Santa Ana’s MainPlace is poised to get the second major overhaul in its 60-year existence.
The $300 million makeover would add a food hall-style mix of dining choices such as street tacos and bahn mi sandwiches, more entertainment venues including an interactive, educational play center for kids and upgrades to its movie theater, a grocery store and up to 1,900 apartments.
Steven Levin, CEO of mall owner Centennial Real Estate Co., likens his vision for a future MainPlace to “a European marketplace,” with specialty stores, little food carts and spots to listen to music and relax.
Rather than just a place to buy a pair of jeans, he said, “We’re creating a place to go and do all the other things you do in life.”
A previous owner already got city permission to add another 300,000 square feet of retail space as well as offices and a 400-room hotel; Levin is seeking approval to scrap about half of the office space and instead build two apartment communities on parking lots at the northeast and southwest corners of the property.
The city’s Planning Commission held a workshop on Centennial’s proposal on Thursday, Feb. 28, and it could come up for a vote by summer.
While people may be excited for new additions to the mall experience, traffic worries may dog the MainPlace project as they recently did a housing project nearby. All together, four developments within less than a mile of each other – and next to the confluence of the 5 and 22 freeways – would add more than 3,000 new units of housing.
A collection of separate stores called Fashion Square, at the time the second mall in Orange County, opened on the site in 1958, according to an Los Angeles Times article.
In 1987, a major renovation turned Fashion Square into an expanded and enclosed mall that was re-branded as MainPlace.
Millions have been put into changes since then, but what Centennial is pitching now is the biggest upgrade in years. Levin hopes to counteract the contraction of chain stores and declining sales that led to 35 store closures at MainPlace over the past two years and a $54 million drop in gross sales from 2016 to 2018.
He also wants to get the mall in step with a retail environment that’s more focused on activities and places to eat than on things to buy.
“Retail got very boring in the United States and it lost its experience,” he said. “Today, entertainment is much broader than what shopping used to be.”
Shopping will remain part of the mix – Levin wants to bring in up-to-date retailers to fill some of the mall’s empty storefronts – but it will be closer to 50 percent of the mall instead of 90 percent, he said.
A concept he calls the “food emporium” will turn the upper-level parking that fronts the now-closed Nordstrom into an outdoor plaza ringed by new food options and filled with shady spots to eat or chat. Levin also envisions music and other entertainment.
KidZania, a Mexico-based company that offers creative role-playing for children in a model city, is proposed behind the mall next to the parking structure. It would be among the chain’s first several US locations.
Apartments and a grocery store would go on Main Street and additional apartments and parking would be built in the southwest corner, behind the 24-Hour Fitness.
Levin said some of the mall parking may get moved around, but he’ll ensure it remains sufficient even with the addition of apartments.
All that encompasses phase 1; Levin has no specific plans for future phases yet.
Bringing more visitors
At the mall on Thursday afternoon, visitors enticed by scents from the food court were eating cinnamon rolls, pizza and noodles cooked with meat on a sizzling iron grill, while a handful of shoppers browsed the upper-level stores.
Roses Are Red employee Alondra Diaz said her cousin opened the flower-and-gift store in December and they’re still trying to drum up business. She gets tired of eating at the same places on her breaks and would like more food options, she said.
Bryan Barajas, who was selling hats at Cap City, said new stores and restaurants with outdoor dining would bring more shoppers. “The apartments don’t sound bad,” he added, but they might cause parking issues when the mall is busy on weekends.
“I think the mall just needs an update,” said Alyssa Jaeger of Garden Grove, who was pushing her young son’s stroller and browsing the shops with a friend.
She likes that there’s a movie theater, but hopes MainPlace will add plus-sized clothing stores.
Jason Queen, who bought a condo across Main Street last year, said he’d also like to see the mall spruced up, but he wondered whether the nearest freeway ramps, which connect to Main Street and Town and Country Road, can handle the added cars from potentially hundreds of new residents.
About two blocks east on Town and Country Road, the 262-unit Ophelia Apartments is under construction; across the road, a complex with more than 700 units has been approved by the city of Orange.
Across Main Street and just south of the mall, Santa Ana residents fought hard to get a luxury apartment project sent back for revisions, and so far the developer has offered to trim it to fewer than 400 units.
Add in the proposed 1,900 apartments at MainPlace, and Queen sees a potential traffic disaster.
“I know we have this huge shortage in housing and I am all for modernizing and building more housing,” he said, but he hopes city leaders are taking all the projects into account when they look at the impact on roads.
As for the mall itself, Queen is a frequent visitor because he can walk there from home. He’d like more fast-casual dining and maybe some entertainment options, like the virtual reality experience recently added by the Outlets at Orange.
“I think that’s where malls are going to have to go,” he said, “if they’re going to survive.”