Malled!

Six shoppertainment malls, three eager mallrats, one day of shopping nirvana

Future anthropologists chronicling the evolution of America's consumer culture will remember April 1, 1999, as the end of an era. For on that day, in the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks, the Galleria closed forever. This mall not only starred in the movies Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and in the lyrics of Moon Unit Zappa, it also typified the appearance and culture of hundreds of other malls nationwide. When teenagers from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, told their parents, "I'm going to the mall," the said shopping center, for some 20 years, looked a lot like the Galleria.

No more. The developers of the Galleria have cut off the juice to the Orange Julius and unstuck the Hot Dog on a Stick. They're replacing the Galleria with an office building; upscale shops; national-chain, sit-down restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory; and a 16-screen movie theater.

In other words they're making it more like CocoWalk and its replicas in Broward, BeachPlace and Las Olas Riverfront.

Miami's CocoWalk mall debuted in 1990 as a great experiment in shopping. Instead of a Galleria-style closed box anchored by established department stores, CocoWalk is an open-air mix of boutiques and restaurants, all orbiting around a multiplex movie theater. At its launch developer Yaromir Steiner predicted that the future of Coconut Grove hinged on the success of the mall's untested concept.

Well, it's been a success. Big time. For better or worse, CocoWalk has become what it advertises itself to be: the heart and beat of the Grove. A village that was once known as a laid-back artists' colony and hippie hangout is now a crowded and thriving commercial center. The groovy Grove that was flattened to build the mall is but a faint memory, paved over in pink stucco and trampled by an endless parade of tourists.

CocoWalk wasn't the first mall to mix entertainment with shopping, but it was the first to institutionalize it. Its once-unique melange of Mediterranean Revival architecture, Banana Republics, and tacky chain restaurants has been exported quicker than you can say "Hooters!" In South Florida alone, we now have six CocoWalk copycats up and running, with many more on the way.

Look for future duplicates in northwest Broward and West Palm Beach. Town Plaza in Homestead is touted as a "CocoWalk on the Redland." In Miami Beach the familiar horseshoe façade is rising at the north end of Ocean Drive. Even Lincoln Road is moving toward the CocoWalk model, now that a multiplex and a Gap are set to open. In Miami, BrickellWalk is in the design stages, heralded by its developer as "the next generation of CocoWalk."

CocoCritics decry the cookie-cutter sameness of these malls and publicly doubt that the community can support so many similar developments. Muddying the dialogue are pundits like the Miami Herald's Fort Lauderdale-based columnist Fred Grimm, who recognizes the benefits: "Consider the rocket boost to my home's real estate value -- location, location, location -- now that I'm at the very geographic midpoint between two Hooters: the BeachPlace Hooters, in a CocoWalk clone on Fort Lauderdale beach, and barely three miles away, the new Las Olas Riverfront Hooters, in a CocoWalk clone on the New River."

Before New Times weighs in on the debate, we figure it's best first to see just how exportable the CocoWalk concept really is. They are cloning the thing faster than Scottish sheep, but are they really replicating the authentic CocoWalk experience? Are they booking flamenco guitar players? Hare Krishnas? Guys with parrots on their shoulders? Is parking a pain in the neck? Do gangs of young kids loiter for hours? We endeavored to find out. On a not-insignificant side note, we also wanted to see if it is possible to shop at all six malls in one day and survive.

And so we assembled a crack focus group, which in this case consisted of a trio of young female mall enthusiasts: Vania Diaz, age 12, a shy and perceptive seventh-grader at Miami Christian Middle School, teamed up with Gabriella Fernandez, also age 12, and Gabriella's friend and classmate at Hammocks Middle, Michelle Saenz, age 14. Incredibly Gabriella had never been to CocoWalk.

Michelle's two-year age advantage over her colleagues pretty much made her the alpha female. And even though she'd booked a birthday party later in the evening -- for which she could not be late -- she was pumped for a day of manic malling. "Oh my God, I couldn't sleep at all last night I was so excited," she said. "I kept looking over at my chicken -- my alarm clock is a chicken -- but it wouldn't make a sound. I was up and dressed by 8:30."

We picked up her and the other two at noon in a rented minivan stocked with junk food and copies of YM magazine, Teen Beat, and People en Espanol, the one with Ricky Martin on the cover. Gabriella and Michelle both sported tan capri pants. Vania opted to wear wide-leg blue jeans. "I like to go to the mall," she said of her normal Saturday routine.

We loaded them in the minivan, christened them the I-Team, and proceeded to investigate, starting in Broward.

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