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

In a way the traffic is appropriate, for we are headed to the Shops at Sunset Place, a mall in South Miami plagued by traffic problems from the day it opened. At its January debut, visitors quickly filled the mall's 1800-space garage, prompting agonizing backups on Red Road. It reportedly took 45 minutes for most people to park and nearly as long to get out of the garage. Homeowners on nearby streets complained that their front lawns were unacceptable alternatives for overflow parking, while city officials fretted that visitors were afraid to use the Metrorail parking lot located across six busy lanes of South Dixie Highway.

The other malls we visited are designed to complement existing complexes or attractions. Sunset Place stands alone, a destination unto itself. Like the other malls, though, history was destroyed to build the Shops, albeit in an indirect way. The Shops sits on the site of the historic Holsum Bakery, an architectural classic built in 1926. For the next 60 years, the bakery helped soothe road rage by pumping the aroma of fresh-baked bread onto South Dixie Highway. In 1986 the landmark fell in the construction of the Bakery Center mall, a stupendously inappropriate development that not only failed as a shopping center but also sucked the life out of South Miami's quaint downtown. Two years ago the Bakery Center was demolished. In its stead stands Sunset Place.

Inspired by CocoWalk, the Shops at Sunset Place dwarfs its mentor in size, weighing in five times larger than the Grove mall. Instead of a 16-screen multiplex, it boasts 24 screens, plus a giant IMAX. The record store is a Virgin Megastore, the shoe store a NikeTown. The Barnes & Noble bookstore is larger than many public libraries. The mall cost $150 million to build, more than $6 million of which went toward special effects, such as fake lightning and rain at the enormous Wilderness Grill.

Outside that same theme restaurant stands the mall's signature, a giant, shady banyan tree, completely artificial -- just like everything else here. The center of the mall is a CocoWalky staircase accented by a waterfall. Sheets of water cascade over painted cement rocks decorated with plastic ivy. One colleague calls Sunset Place the Heart of Shopping Mall Darkness. Another dubs it the Death Star.

To the I-Team, however, it is nirvana. Whatever good feelings they had for BeachPlace have evaporated like so many fake raindrops. They run into the GameWorks, an arcade that transcends the puny equivalent at Riverfront. And it's open, unlike the GameWorks at Sawgrass Mills. From there they rocket over to Esprit clothing. Gabriella loves the Virgin Megastore. Vania is asked what stores she likes the best. "All of them!" she exclaims.

This is the best mall they have ever been to. They can't envision a better place to be anywhere on the planet. "I like everything," Michelle says. "The stairs, the architecture, the way it looks. Um, the shops. It has bigger stores," she continues, her eyes catching a pack of young scrubs hanging outside the movie theater. "And better guys!"

The I-Team decides it could easily spend an entire day here. Unfortunately the clock on the wall says it's 6:15 p.m., which is 15 minutes after we promised to have the girls home. Although we did secure an extension to 7 o'clock, we need to hurry if we're going to make CocoWalk. Without time even to check out the bathrooms, and against their will, the I-Team is herded up the stairs to the sixth floor of the parking garage. The minivan waits, its engine still warm.

As we drive to the Grove (after paying our $6 parking for 30 minutes), we run through the checklist:

Johnny Rockets? Check!
Guy with parrot? No.
Guy with snakes? No.

Could you see yourself spending four or five hours here on a Friday night aimlessly walking around? Check!

Outrageously expensive parking? Check!
Is this the heart and beat of South Miami? Check!
Is it the most fun under the sun, the most fun under the stars? Check!

The Mothership
Parking at CocoWalk has never been a picnic either, but we find a meter with 17 minutes still on it, which is all we have time for anyway. The girls are told to get out, to check out the mall, and to be back before we get a ticket.

It's a tall order. The dinner-and-a-movie crowd has arrived, and CocoWalk is bustling. All the restaurants, from Cafe Tu Tu Tango on the second floor to the faceless Italian restaurant in the courtyard, are full. Packs of suntanned students cruise past a scruffy gent carrying a parrot on his shoulder. A man tries to sell sweet-smelling roasted almonds to basketball player Latrell Sprewell, who is strolling through the mall with his New York Knicks teammate Marcus Camby.

The fragrance of the almonds, the trill of the cell phones, the cheesy Mediterranean architecture: It is all somehow comforting. All the components we've been searching for are here. A Cheesecake Factory? Check! A Coco Gelato? Check! A Gap, a Banana Republic, and a Hooters? Check, check, and check again! Yet more praise for the live music; it's a pan-flute duo instead of flamenco guitar, but we won't quibble. Compared with the other fake CocoWalks, the fake town center that is CocoWalk actually appears to be an authentic town center. As ersatz as it may be, CocoWalk is an original.

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