Shopping scrutiny: Yes to Park Place; no to El Con and La Encantada

Let's get down and talk about the heart of Tucson: the malls.

First off, I live in the Park Place arrondissement and have never visited either Tucson Mall or Foothills Mall, so I have no opinion about them. No one who lives in midtown would drive up Oracle Road or Interstate 10 without a really pressing reason anymore. But I'm glad they're there to intercept the hoards from the vast, trackless northwest. Before Tucson Mall went up, everybody came into midtown to shop, turning Broadway into a traffic jam from North Country Club Road to North Wilmot Road every year at Christmas time.

Anyway, I like Park Place just fine. I like it because when the owners remodeled, they put in high barrel ceilings punctured by ranks of clerestory windows that bathe the interior in improbably beautiful light. I like it because it does booming business, houses several stores I like and contains a multiplex I can get to in five minutes, making only right turns. I like it most just for being a great example of what smart renovation can do for an aging structure.

However, I had occasion recently to visit La Encantada for the first time. I hadn't been gone before because it's too far away and because I disapprove of it intensely. I withheld my awesome buying power because I didn't like the bait-and-switch Nordstrom scam, the destruction of a gorgeous patch of virgin desert or, naturally, the classic screwing-over of the neighbors. The frosting on the cake was the local media's orgy of hype over the complex's opening. You would have thought that getting a Pottery Barn was just like landing a particle accelerator.

I was in the market for an iPod, though, and wanted to kick the tires. The only Apple store in town is at La Encantada, so up, up, up I went.

I am delighted to report that last week the place was a ghost town. Except for the Apple store--a buzzing, white hive of covetousness--the charming, imitation-California walkways gave me the same creepy feeling I get downtown in the Labyrinth of Commercial Death known as La Placita Village. (For all you newcomers: La Placita was cursed at birth by a spasm of urban renewal that razed a living barrio to make room for it. Yes, they tore down a neighborhood to make a Village.)

Now, it's true that it was August, even in the foothills, when I visited La Encantada, and most of the shopping pros were probably out of town, and the mall is open-air, but I was there on a freakishly cool, clouded-over monsoon day. (The place does get points for having plenty of deserted covered parking.) Still, the rows of high-rent dress shops appeared uninhabited by even salespeople: If I'd been a thief out to score kicky little lime-green knits, it would have been my day. Lots of retail space is ominously vacant, and one of the big transplanted sycamores is dead and has not been replaced. Whether the problem is bad karma or bad planning or both, things don't look good for The Enchanted mall. Darn.

On to El Con. I know it's like standing around making fun of a corpse, but still, they deserve it. Back in the day, El Con and Park Mall were the only two malls in town, and El Con--which was anchored by good Tucson-owned stores like Levy's, Steinfeld's and Cele Peterson's--was the nicer of the two. So for those of us who've lived here a long time, the downfall of El Con and rise of Park Place has played like a real-estate morality tale. The people who own El Con fought with the neighbors until their chance at remaining the city's central mall had vanished along with most of their tenants. It was actually sort of sad. For a while.

The owners did incredibly stupid stuff, like going down-market right next to some of the city's oldest and wealthiest neighborhoods, and performed many small, self-destructive acts such as bulldozing a nice patch of desert just east of the main Broadway lot to create more parking for, umm, cars that might come sometime. They let this sit as scraped, fenced dirt for many years before getting around to paving that much-needed space. In the meantime, they'd stuck the eight saguaros they'd uprooted right out next to Broadway, where half the commuters in Tucson got to watch as seven of them slowly turned gray and shriveled within feet of the howling traffic. This encouraging panorama has now been obscured by a line of cheery young acacias. Sadly, the owners thought of this about a decade too late.

Then there's that stumpy little fake mission-façade they attached to the front entrance. Everything about it is wrong. It's dwarfed by the rest of the structure, which defeats the whole purpose of a decorative portal. And it's brown. Seen from Broadway, across all those acres of empty asphalt, it does not suggest The Proud Heritage of the Southwest. The effect is more Bizarre Architectural Gesture Miniaturized for Budget Reasons. And, For Some Reason, Painted Brown.

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