Fewer than four months into construction, the $500 million makeover of Westfield UTC shopping center is changing the landscape of the nearly 40-year-old mall daily.
From above the recently added 24 Hour Fitness Super Sport on the mall’s west end — part of the mall’s separate $188 million renovation completed in 2012 — construction crews can be seen bustling on what will be the mall’s new Nordstrom and subterranean parking structure. The expansion that three years ago brought that 24 Hour Fitness, an ArcLight Cinemas, and a general renovation to the entire shopping center comprised Phase 1 of Westfield’s foreseeable vision for the upscale shopping center at Genesse Avenue and La Jolla Village Drive.
Phase 2, responsible for the current construction activity, will extend into late 2017. It includes a much grander plan, including the addition of 400,000 net square feet to the mall, 2,000 additional parking spaces and a number of new specialty stores.
Westfield UTC senior general manager Ryan Perry said recently that improvements underway now will make the upgrades completed in 2012 look small.
“We spent about $180 million doing that, but we really didn’t add very much square footage,” Perry said. “But what that really allowed us to do was to bring in a lot more quality retail. That, in turn, has really spawned more interest and demand into the shopping center. That positioned us to embark on the expansion underway now.”
The increase in demand has come from both the retailer and consumer ends of business, he said, adding that the mall’s existing spaces are currently 100 percent leased. Negotiations are underway with interested suitors on leases for 15 of the 90 new stores that will come with the expansion.
“There’s strong demand in the market for what we’re building,” Perry said.
John Alderson, development director at Westfield UTC, expects Westfield to be in position to announce the new leases at the start of 2016.
The potential for a third phase, which may include a residential tower, is being left on the table, as Perry said Westfield opted not to use all of its entitlements with the Phase 2 improvements. How the existing Nordstrom space is used once the new Nordstrom store opens could shape what’s called for in that potential third phase.
But Perry said it’s too early to know exactly how that space will be developed.
Alderson, who was assigned to Westfield UTC a couple of years ago to specifically focus on the UTC expansion, said Phase 2 is meant to capture Westfield’s luxury-driven vision for UTC. “We’re trying to create an experience that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said.
Included in that experience will be the Nordstrom centerpiece, reconfigured to be a two-level store rather than being set on than three levels, and a re-introduction of the retailer’s café. Alderson said the two-level layout has shown to be more conducive to how shoppers like to experience Nordstrom, which he added has promised to get its best brands into the UTC location.
Specialty dining options are also planned. Alderson said he’s amazed, in a not-so-glamorous way, that Westfield UTC has lacked a go-to specialty restaurant at which special events can be booked.
“If you look around San Diego, and you want to dine outdoors and you want to experience the climate that we all love, it’s very difficult to do,” Alderson said. “You can go to George’s (At The Cove) and hope that you get on the roof during the summertime to watch the sunset. You can go down to Little Italy and hope that you can get one of the five tables that are out in front of a restaurant and dine outside. So we look at that as a big point of differentiation in what we’re doing here.”
He said that with the Phase 2 expansion, patrons will see seven restaurants that don’t exist in the San Diego market today. Declining to provide their names — citing continuing lease negotiations — Alderson said the additions will be “the types of restaurants you would love to be in, hosting your family members, hosting your clients.” He also said the environs around the dining areas will be improved with mature olive trees and patios that can seat upward of 70 people.
“They’re not all white tablecloth, but they are all smart, snappy, current first-to-market restaurants,” he added.
Beyond improvements to the shopping environment, Alderson said Westfield is investing in improvements to the shopping experience that will roll out when Phase 2 is complete.
Westfield’s new digital platform, he said, will focus on the consumer, providing technology for patrons to remotely see things such as store inventories before arriving at the center. The mall’s transit center will be moved to a dedicated location along Genesee Avenue — to eliminate potential conflicts with shopping center traffic — and the new parking garage will be configured to work with the San Diego Association of Governments’ plan with Metropolitan Transit System to build, within a few years, a new light rail Trolley line connecting UTC to downtown San Diego.
“It’s real, it’s happening,” Alderson said. “We’re coordinating on a weekly basis with them. Passengers will come off that elevated platform and come right into the top level of our parking garage.”
A new valet area is also coming to the center. Forecasted to be four lanes wide and the length of a football field, the new valet will allow shoppers to get around without handfuls of merchandise just purchased, accepting deliveries from retailers within the center and allowing shoppers to pick items up on their way out.
••• Westfield UTC Shopping Center •••
• Address: 4545 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
• Owned by: Westfield Corp.
• Year built: 1977
• Anchor stores: Macy’s, Sears, Nordstrom, ArcLight Cinemas, 24 Hour Fitness Super Sport
• No. of retailers: 150
• No. of restaurants: About 40
• Perks: Shuttle starts in November, valet parking, pet-friendly
• Contact: (858) 546-8858
• Website: westfield.com/utc