Rick Caruso expands the shopping 'experience'

Most recently the buzz surrounding Rick Caruso was that the L.A. mega-developer was considering a run for mayor. One could imagine a Caruso regime solving L.A.’s mass-transit problems with colorful trolley cars running down every boulevard, while economic woes could be addressed by placing a Cheesecake Factory at each strategic intersection.

In Caruso’s view, urban planning with an accent on celebratory commerce could be just what the city needs. But because Antonio Villaraigosa appears to have a lock on a second term as mayor, Caruso continues to build on the success of the Grove by focusing on providing the city’s outlying areas with his trademark festive shopping experience.

Glendale’s Americana on Brand, which opened in May, is already a runaway success despite opening in the midst of a recession. And gas prices be damned, Caruso’s research indicates shoppers are coming from as far as Thousand Oaks to check out the newest lavish simulacrum of a charming small-town-America square. Just don’t call it a mall.

“Malls are fine if it’s purely a destination to shop, you go there, you buy your stuff and you leave,” Caruso says.

“We’re giving someone an experience, and they can spend the day there,” he says, explaining that the enterprise is also about social engagement and community interaction. In fact, they can spend their whole lives there because the Americana offers both rental and condominium units.

“Malls are suffering,” Caruso says. “People want to be outside.”

The 49-year-old, whose father started Dollar Rent-a-Car, has been refining his commercial real-estate focus for several years. His earlier developments, the Commons in Calabasas and the Promenade in Westlake Village, proved high summer temperatures don’t dissuade patrons who are looking to re-create the evening strolls they might have once enjoyed in smaller towns. “I don’t think it’s a function of weather,” he says. “The best sales are always in an open-air environment. Look at Fifth Avenue in New York — it’s still packed when it’s cold.

“You don’t have those gathering places here,” the L.A. native continues. Caruso says that traveling in Europe and seeing people hanging out in piazzas and going for walks after dinner was a big influence on how his developments have evolved.

While architecture critics and other urban observers have called Caruso’s environments sterile and artificial, the general public doesn’t seem to mind. With its dancing fountains and trolley car for the kids, the Grove — adjacent to the historic Farmers Market on Third and Fairfax — became one of L.A.’s top tourist attractions in just a few years, despite its preponderance of chain franchises.

Caruso’s developments tend to encourage naysayers who complain about traffic or competition. But in Glendale’s case, it wasn’t the mom-and-pop businesses along the city’s main drag, Brand Boulevard, that were protesting. Instead, it was the long-established indoor Galleria mall across the street that challenged Caruso in court and eventually lost.

Now he’s facing similar blowback in Arcadia, home of the Santa Anita Park racetrack, near where the Shops at Santa Anita are planned for a 2010 completion. The nearby Westfield Santa Anita mall is not impressed with his plans.

“Their business has increased in Glendale, just like we said it would,” Caruso counters. “The same thing will happen in Arcadia. They want to control the market, but you shouldn’t be able to do that, it’s about who can build a better product.”

Caruso says it’s crucial to get the mix of restaurants, shops and theaters just right. “If you layer too much entertainment, you lose the serious shopper,” he warns, citing Universal CityWalk as an example of a development that draws mostly tourists without attracting enough local repeat shoppers.

And as far as that mayoral bid, he might be interested “if the right opportunity came along, and it made sense,” he says.

“You’ve got to solve the traffic problem,” he adds. “It just amazes me that we don’t have rapid transit in this city. People have to get serious to promote business.”

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