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.

Oasis at Sawgrass Mills
Just ten years after opening, Sawgrass Mills mall bills itself as the second-most-popular tourist attraction in Florida, behind only a new Super Kmart outside Kissimmee. More than 24 million people visit the alligator-shape outlet mall each year to troll for bargains at popular retailers such as Ann Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. The phenomenal success of Sawgrass Mills has transformed Sunrise from a sleepy bedroom community out by the Everglades into a congested bedroom community out by the Everglades that has a major shopping mall.

And a major new sports arena, too, now that the Florida Panthers hockey team has constructed a car rental drop-off facility adjacent to the mall. The arrival of the National Car Rental Center prompted mall officials to speed up their long-established plans to add an "entertainment" component to the complex. The $50 million result, the Oasis at Sawgrass Mills, opened this past April.

We arrive at the Oasis a few minutes before 1 p.m. Parking is free, which is nice, but the mall on a Saturday is always very crowded, so it's hard to find a spot. We are tempted to use the three-dollar valet, if we ever did that sort of thing. After a few laps of frustration, we roll down the window to ask a worker in a golf cart for a little help. He points us to a lot approximately seven miles away.

On the half-hour drive up I-75, it had taken the girls only a few minutes to overcome their shyness and partake of the cookies, chips, and Gatorade provided for their comfort. Not only has this feast raised their blood sugar levels higher than medically advisable, it has also topped off their bladders. As soon as the van's wheels stop, the I-Team slides open the side doors and darts toward the bathrooms. "Hey, it's the Cheesecake Factory!" says Vania, speed walking past a CocoWalk institution.

"This is just like Coconut Grove," Michelle adds.
The Oasis is a pastel candyland of a shoppertainment center. Yellow and pink paints shade the walls. Whimsically tiled spiral fountains are great for little kids to play on, though security guards chase off those who do. On a wall near the Burlington Coat Factory entrance, the Oasis mascot, a fanciful bird (the rare Yellow-Bellied Purple-Plumed Shill) totes a banner that carries the Oasis slogan: "The most fun under the sun. The most fun under the stars."

"It looks like Disney World," chirps Gabriella, emerging from the restrooms, which she reports are modern and clean.

The Oasis is geared toward family entertainment, so no Hooters, thank you. Instead alongside the mandatory multiplex theater sits a Hard Rock Cafe and Steven Spielberg's GameWorks arcade. A Polo outlet store sells $50 loose-fit jeans for only $35. Most of the stores are unknowns. Adventura? Time Factory? At the latter, Barbie wristwatches loiter in the windows.

Mostly we got restaurants, lots of them, every last one a chain. Joining the Hard Rock are a Los Ranchos steak house, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop, and Cafe Tu Tu Tango, another CocoWalk success story. Internationally known chef Wolfgang Puck invites us to "Eat, Live, and Love" at his cafe, but it isn't open yet. Come to mention it, neither is almost every other restaurant, nor most of the stores. It's one week after the mall's highly publicized grand opening, yet the movie theater is closed. Construction workers scurry around the Hard Rock. The GameWorks arcade is silent, as is a giant Ron Jon Surf Shop. It's encouraging that the Legal Sea Foods restaurant serves $4.25 bowls of clam chowder, but so far only at dinnertime.

"We won't be coming back here until this place opens up for real," says a mother to her young son, who is toting a yellow balloon.

"The bottom line," adds Pembroke Pines resident Diedre Thornhill, "is it's open, but most of the things that I want to go to are not open. So, sorry."

The I-Team shares the frustration. "Nothing is open yet," grumbles Michelle.
"It doesn't have good stores," Gabriella adds. "It has good restaurants, but not good stores."

All three praise the mall's colorful design, especially the fountains. And the bathrooms are nice. What don't they like? "Everything else!" shouts Vania, and the I-Team breaks into giggles.

We run through the checklist:
Cafe Tu Tu Tango? Check!
Cheesecake Factory? Check!
Hooters? No.
Guy with a parrot on his shoulder? No.
Gap? No.
Flamenco guitarist? No.
Are you having the most fun you've ever had under the sun? No.
Do you think you would be having more fun if you were under the stars? No.

Is this place the heart and beat of Sunrise? The question provokes quizzical looks, indicating it's time to move on. We trek back to the van. Downtown Fort Lauderdale awaits.

Las Olas Riverfront
Fort Lauderdale lost its first downtown to fire in 1912. A replacement main street rose alongside Henry Flagler's railroad tracks on the north bank of the New River. Local farmers traveled to the attractive new downtown to ship their crops north, to shop at the city's first dry goods store, or to make a run on the first city bank. By the '60s, though, the neighborhood had gone to seed. Not that the largely abandoned buildings didn't retain their good looks, especially in relation to the soulless structures rising along Broward Boulevard. To save old downtown, city officials in 1975 designated the area an historic district. Nine of eleven buildings in that area were destroyed in the construction of Las Olas Riverfront.

Ah, but it's progress. Like CocoWalk, Riverfront can truly claim to be the heart and beat of its neighborhood. Located midway between popular Las Olas Boulevard and the Broward Center For the Performing Arts, Riverfront unites an emerging circuit of clubs, restaurants, and museums into a mile-long waterfront strip intersected only by railroad tracks.

We park in an indoor garage two blocks from the mall. Again parking is free -- at least during a weekend day -- though we have to wind our way up three levels before we can find a space. At the bend of Brickell Avenue sits the mall, a three-tier birthday cake of tile, brick, and stucco in a style that is called "Boca Mediterranean." If it's not an exact clone of CocoWalk, it is at least a fraternal twin. Brickell's few remaining original buildings slump opposite the mall. It may be an argument for urban renewal that the Riverfront mall is mostly occupied while the historic structures, all of which have been attractively refurbished, sit empty.

Kind of like the mall itself, peoplewise. Maybe it's the early afternoon hour or the roasting heat, but almost nobody is here, even with many of the stores open, unlike at the Oasis at Sawgrass Mills. A frozen-custard stand waits next to a Sunglass Hut. A lonely kiosk displays baseball caps. Visually anchoring everything, just like it does at CocoWalk, is a bar selling pina coladas. At the moment only one rump rests on a barstool. The cashier from the General Nutrition Center, a mall staple, stands outside her store's front door, counting change in her hand.

The place is dead.
"We were just noticing that," says Miamian Vanina Goldinger, who is visiting the mall with her friend Stacy Blum and Stacy's mom Shelly. "It's always crowded at CocoWalk." The trio is headed to Big Pink, an offshoot of the Miami Beach restaurant. They've decided to bypass Hooters, which in this mall is right out in the open on the second level, not sequestered upstairs as at CocoWalk. The owners of this Hooters say they sold 60,000 chicken wings last June, in the first month the mall opened.

Riverfront cost $52 million to build. It is immediately evident that the money was spent following a recipe that included as many CocoWalk ingredients as possible. In addition to the Spanish tile and the frozen drinks and the Hooters, a cartoonish mural by an artist named Lebo decorates a wall, just like at the Grove's sister mall, Mayfair. Live music is booked every day, though no one is playing right now. A poster near the front entrance notes that CocoWalk's flamenco fixture Arturo Fuerte will be playing six times this month. Out by the water sits a dude with two parrots perched on his shoulders.

However faithful the reproduction, the I-Team is underwhelmed. "The boats are pretty," says Gabriella as a gigantic fiberglass yacht sputters up the New River.

"It is more of a mall," Vania offers halfheartedly, comparing the Riverfront with the Oasis. "It has a little bit of everything."

Only when we climb to the third level do opinions change. There we discover a menacingly large and fear-inducing movie-theater-and-video-games complex called the Escape. Outside the complex's front doors loiter packs of kids weathering the heat in bulky Adidas sweat suits and stocking caps. Inside are 23 theaters with all the character and charm of a crowded South American airport terminal. The girls sprint up an escalator to a game area bathed in a canopy of black light. A cacophony of bleeps and crashes emanates from the bumper cars, the virtual-reality golf courses, and six truncated bowling lanes. It's hard to envision a less soothing or less pleasurable place to see a film. The Escape. It's a call to action.

"This is great!" yelps Michelle as she leans her hips into a pinball machine. "Much better than at Sawgrass Mills." Vania and Gabriella vigorously nod their heads in agreement.

"The bathrooms at Oasis are still better," adds Gabriella, trying to be helpful. They would stay all day if they could, but we have a schedule to keep. As quickly as we can, we pull them out of the darkness and back toward the sunshine of BeachPlace, only three miles away.

First the checklist:
Historic buildings destroyed in the construction? Check!
Tacky souvenir T-shirts? Check!
Cafe Tu Tu Tango? No.
Guy spray-painting psychedelic moonscapes? No.
Hooters? Check!
Packs of kids up to no good? Check!
Frozen daiquiris? Check!

BeachPlace
Fort Lauderdale owes its fame to spring break, though city leaders would prefer to deny it. As the inspiration for the movie Where the Boys Are, as well as the underappreciated Revenge of the Nerds II, Fort Lauderdale is the home of the International Drunken Belly Flop Hall of Fame.

Yet earnest civil servants have spent the past decade washing the beer-bong vomit off their city's image, and to a large degree they've succeeded. Las Olas Boulevard has become a haven for European tourists and their cell phones. The beach is most notable now for its neon-lit sea wall and inline-skater-friendly sidewalk. Popular spring break institutions are crumbling, especially when hit by wrecking balls. The Jolly Roger became a smooth black parking lot. The Marlin Beach Hotel, once the spring break epicenter, was knocked down to make room for BeachPlace.

Don't try to drive there on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Traffic is a mess. Not only are dozens of cars all trying to turn north from Las Olas on to State Road A1A, a never-ending supply of sunbathers and skaters prevents the passage of even one vehicle. The New Times minivan idles for what seems like an hour, watching shirtless boys check out their physiques in the reflective window of a T-shirt shop. While this delay murders our tight schedule, it's no problem for the I-Team, which presses its collective nose against the minivan window to ogle at the passing parade of, to use their vernacular, "cute guys."

It costs a flat fee of six dollars to park at BeachPlace, ending our string of free rides. Parking at the mall is a well-publicized problem, but we find a space in no time. "Look!" shrieks Gabriella when we step off the garage elevator. "An Express!" The I-Team sprints inside the clothing store, which is advertising a 30 percent-off special.

While Riverfront is reminiscent of CocoWalk, BeachPlace is damn near an exact replica. The stucco looks the same. The bars shoot up three levels, à la the Grove. The dearth of Coco Gelato stands is troubling, but the dominant architectural feature, just like CocoWalk, is a centrally located staircase. No movie theater, unfortunately, but who needs a theater when there is a beach right across the street? Steady customers are guaranteed in part by a Marriott time-share resort built into the complex. Most of the steady customers we see have their fingers wrapped around the long necks of Bud Light bottles.

The I-Team is in love. "There are more stores!" squeals Michelle, pointing her arm like a weathervane to identify a Banana Republic and a Gap -- the day's first! Other stores keep time with the CocoWalk vibe, including the White House, a clothing boutique that was a charter occupant in the Grove. The Blue Water Gallery features the art of T-shirt hero Guy Harvey. The I-Team buys red licorice twists from a small candy shop.

BeachPlace is mostly one giant bar. From the first floor to the third lie seven separate places to buy a frozen daiquiri -- Adobe Gilas, Hooters, Cafe Iguana, and others [see sidebar story, page 15], with more bars opening soon. Sloppy Joe's advertises an upcoming bikini contest, which is a refreshing sign, actually, a triumph of local culture. This mall may look exactly like CocoWalk, but it feels just like Fort Lauderdale beach always has: It's a little edgy, a bit buzzed, and proudly raunchy. It's a great place to have a frat party. If Arturo Fuerte ever performed here, his sidekick flamenco dancing girls would probably have their frilly shirts sprayed down in an involuntary wet T-shirt contest.

Not exactly the place to leave our intrepid investigators. We quickly run through the checklist:

Howl at the Moon Saloon? Check!
Gap? Check!
Hare Krishnas? No.
Pina coladas? Check!
Faux Mediterranean architecture? Check!
Destruction of historic property? Check!
Cute guys? Check!
Bathroom quality? "Really small and dirty," Gabriella says.

Northport Marketplace
By now it's after 4:30 p.m., and the I-Team is wailing with hunger, no matter how much licorice they've just consumed. We decide to eat at the CocoWalkish Planet Hollywood at Northport Marketplace, a mall connected to the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center. Our initial research indicates that Northport is a CocoWalk clone, too. It's not. It features a few restaurants and a few bars, along with some boutiques, but there is no movie theater, no Hooters, and no place for a flamenco guitarist to play even if he wanted to. Our disappointment manifests itself in a surly impoliteness. We're barely past the cement handprint of Luke Perry when Michelle starts to complain.

"Do we get to watch a movie while we eat?" she quizzes Phil, the waiter. Phil points to an active TV screen. "What?!?" Michelle snaps caustically. "We get to watch commercials?"

Despite the earlier complaints of starvation, Vania barely eats her hamburger. Gabriella only nibbles on her turkey sandwich. On the wall hang the leg braces Tom Cruise wore in the film Born on the Fourth of July. We get out of there as quickly as we can.

The Shops at Sunset Place
What's the main impediment to visiting six different shopping malls in one day? Traffic. As we get back on I-95 for the drive down to Miami-Dade County, we run into a traffic jam that makes the backup in Fort Lauderdale look like a day at the beach, which it sort of was.

Some kind of merging issue stops us dead on the freeway and further imperils the likelihood of us seeing all the malls before we return Michelle for her birthday party. The driver of the minivan is a laid-back sort of fellow, but even his irritation grows as he is continually asked to "Please change the station to 99 Jamz!" followed seconds later by, "No, turn it back to Power 96!" The supply of potato chips is exhausted, and no one wants to touch the Oreos, for which good money was paid. The oft-repeated complaint, "We're sweating back here!" is followed inevitably by, "Now we're too cold!"

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.

"The crowd here is older," says Michelle dismissively. "I might like it if I were older and could go to bars, though the guys are cute."

"It does look a lot like BeachPlace, but with a lot more people," Vania offers.

Gabriella has seen so many malls today she can't remember one from the other. "All I know is that the first mall had the best bathrooms," she says.

They do not appreciate CocoWalk, that is clear. For them the Shops at Sunset Place sets the standard and is where they plan to further their investigative research. For now, though, Michelle just wants to get back to her house in time for her birthday party. The same goes for Gabriella. Vania is struggling to stay awake, an effort aided by her rumbling stomach, which is filled with more than the recommended daily allowance of Gatorade and Baked Lays barbecue potato chips. The radio is set to Power 96, no, make that 99 Jamz. And we are all sweating back here.

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