By Jim Tortolano
Everybody knows the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa was the first enclosed mall in Orange County, and one of the first in all of California. What few know is that it was nearly beaten to the cash register punch by a shopping center in Garden Grove.
What’s now called The Promenade on Chapman Avenue between Brookhurst and Gilbert streets first opened in 1956 as the first major shopping center in Orange County. The other title – which it almost claimed – was as the first climate-controlled indoor (somewhat) mall in the OC.
The land there went through many uses, including agriculture and a pipe works. There was even a never-built residential development to be called “Berryfield” planned for the land. But in the year that Garden Grove officially became a city – the “fastest growing in the United States” for a while – two developers came to this sunny California community with an idea imported from the frosty upper Midwest.
Louella Kearns, operator of the Kandi Kane dress shop, told this story.
“Don Shandeling and Harry Rinker owned it then,” she said, “and they were very successful. Don was very intelligent, a great shopping center man.”
He came from Minnesota, where the harsh winter climate had given birth to the first enclosed malls. He intended on bringing that idea to the Golden State.
The original plans for the center were somewhat grandiose. A pedestrian bridge was to be built across Chapman to connect to the shopping area to be built on the south side of the street. The original anchors were to be two two-story retailers: JC Penney and J.J. Newberry (a “junior department store”) complimented by a farmer’s market.
Setbacks arose. The J.C. Penney was built as a one-story store, although it did have a huge basement that could have been used as a “second story.” The bridge was never built, and the Newberry store located on the south side of Chapman, a one-story structure with a mezzanine.
But the real blow to Shandeling’s plans came when he sought to retrofit the center to be an all-weather operation.
“A couple of years after it was built,” recalled Kearns, “he tried to get the center enclosed. The tenants wouldn’t go along with it because it would have meant higher rents to pay for the air conditioning and remodeling. That’s not the way to do it. You don’t sign everybody to leases and then afterwards try to get them to agree to something like that.”
Despite that setback, the Orange County Plaza prospered for nearly two decades. The mall’s fortunes began to downturn in 1974 with the opening of the Westminster Mall. Retailers and customers began to flee to tonier digs.
However, there was one more stab at getting an enclosed mall there. Buoyed by a marketing report by Coldwell Banker that Garden Grove was “the hole in the doughnut,” a new owner of the property floated plans to modernize the center, enclose it with two anchors: Montgomery Ward at one end and a Broadway at the other in the late 1970s.
However, the Montgomery Ward chain was purchased by Mobil Oil, which cancelled all expansion plans, killing the dream.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Enclosed malls are dying out, and open-air shopping centers are back in fashion again. After a couple of failed remakes, what’s now The Promenade prospered, and will again after the coronavirus pandemic abates. To put it another way, be careful what you wish for: you may get it.
Portions of this article first appeared in Jim Tortolano’s book, “Garden Grove: A History of the Big Strawberry.”
Categories: History of Orange County