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Escondido, Carlsbad look forward to major mall renovations

As consumers increasingly turn to the Internet for their shopping needs, mall owners are under ever more pressure to attract business. Factor in the lost tax revenues that help fund city budgets, and it's understandable that city officials in Escondido and Carlsbad are eagerly awaiting major renovations at Westfield LLC's North County and Plaza Camino Real shopping centers.

The Westfield Group (OTC: WEFIF) is a real estate investment trust with interests in 118 regional shopping centers in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States valued at more than $63 billion. Its interests in 55 U.S. centers include seven San Diego County locations.

According to Westfield spokesperson Catharine Dickey, the company has not made any major changes to Westfield North County (formerly North County Fair) since acquiring it in 1998, but is proposing a major expansion to add 445,000 square feet to the existing 1,225,000 square feet, which would make it slightly larger than Westfield Fashion Valley, the largest mall in the county.

Westfield would not disclose specifics, but Escondido city officials shared Westfield's proposed master plan, which would expand three Westfield-owned existing department stores to add new use categories, and new tenants that may include a theater, discount department stores, warehouse clubs, new restaurants, lifestyle tenants, entertainment and specialty retailers. The plan also proposes adding 1,000 parking spaces.

If approved, the expansion would be developed in three phases. The first converts the former Robinsons-May North into an anchor store and mini anchor and constructs a parking structure. Phase two expands Robinsons-May South (incorporating two to three levels, anchor store expansion, specialty retail and a parking structure). Phase three converts the Macy's building (spanning two to three levels; anchor, mini-anchor, lifestyle/entertainment uses; and new parking structure).

The mall is located on Via Rancho Parkway directly east of I-15. According to Barbara Redlitz, Escondido assistant planning director, a draft of the environmental impact report was scheduled to be ready for review by city staff in August, and will be submitted to the public in October. The report, in process for more than 18 months, has been challenged by regional traffic improvements currently under way. Direct access ramps to Beethoven, a city-owned street along the mall's north parking lots, are expected to be open by 2011 and the expanded mall in 2012.

"The big issues are the traffic issues," Redlitz said. "Proposing 445,000 additional square footage is a significant increase for a shopping center that doesn't have a lot of ways to get to it -- traffic is a big issue."

Westfield has been negotiating with the city to extend its lease of city-owned land and parking beyond 2038. According to Escondido City Attorney Jeff Epps, the parties are nearing an agreement that would allow the expansion plan to proceed.

In Carlsbad, where the city's top two revenue sources are property and sales taxes, city officials hope to see the renovation of Westfield's Plaza Camino Real happen sooner rather than later.

"Since Robinsons-May left there's been a dip in tax revenues," said Carlsbad City Finance Director Lisa Irvine. "We're very excited to see a renovated mall."

Carlsbad Community Development Director Sandy Holder said the city expects Westfield to present a plan soon for the renovation of Plaza Camino Real, located south of I-78 on El Camino Real. The mall, built in1969, was last renovated in the mid-1990s, prior to its 1996 acquisition by Westfield.

"We're anxiously awaiting that mall to be renovated," Holder said. "It needs to be renovated."

Westfield's Dickey confirmed the company is in preliminary concept phases and working with the city of Carlsbad to "reinvest in and revitalize Westfield PCR, which would include enhancing the visual appearance of the center, along with an expansion for new lifestyle elements, entertainment and special amenities as well as new retail shops."

Dickey said both projects would take 18 to 24 months to complete after receiving approval, but she could not provide cost estimates or completion dates.

Holder said it could take as long as two years to get approval before construction begins on Plaza Camino Real, mostly due to the environmental impact report and state processing time.

"We're going to do everything we can to make it happen quickly," she said.


James is a Carlsbad-based freelance writer.

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