There was a time when people went to “the mall” to shop for fun things to do in LA, and – if you were a tween – for a place to hang out with your friends. You could stroll (indoors) from store to store, and maybe hit the food court.
That began to change when The Grove opened in L.A.’s Fairfax district in 2002. Featuring open space with fountains and statues, restaurants and an electric trolley, The Grove feels more like a mini city center than a shopping mall. The Americana at Brand opened in Glendale in 2008 with a similar feel, and the trend toward shopping centers with outdoor space and a community vibe has picked up speed in recent years.
Developers unroofed Santa Monica Place and reopened it in 2010 as a luxury outdoor shopping center. Plaza El Segundo revamped an outdoor area known as “The Edge District” in 2014 and opened an outdoor shopping center called The Point in July 2015, and Westfield Topanga in Woodland Hills added “The Village at Topanga” in September. Westfield Century City is in the middle of a massive renovation that will add an event area and eight acres of outdoor space. One goal for many of these spots is to attract more families.
Putting Families First
“The whole vision for The Village was to be a great hangout for the West Valley, and certainly families are a big part of that,” Westfield Senior Vice President Larry Green said in an interview prior to the center’s debut.
Open, relaxing spaces are part of the draw at these outdoor shopping centers. The Point, The Americana and The Grove feature courtyards with – gasp! – actual grass that’s kept as green as a golf course, where families gather for performances, activities and just to hang out.
Even that family-friendly mall staple, the kids club, takes on new dimensions when it happens outside. At The Americana and The Grove, families sit on chairs or lounge on freshly laundered blankets from the blanket cart, enjoying the blue sky and the family entertainment. A handy rack stocks magazines for moms and coloring books for kids.
Family Time at The Americana
Kalorin Suetrong says she and her husband, Atley Siauw, and their 3-year-old son Abel and 1-year-old daughter Kaleia visit The Americana together often, especially for Kids Club. On a recent Tuesday, Abel danced with other kids near the stage to the songs of popular children’s musician Melissa Green, while Suetrong bounced Kaleia on her lap. At one point, families lined up to form an imaginary train for a trip around the lawn. Siauw says her family often takes advantage of kids-eat-free offers at a handful of restaurants there to create an easy-on-the-wallet family outing. “It’s such a good place, where you can actually relax,” Suetrong says. “Once the band comes on, I feel like the kids just do their own thing.”
Over at The Grove, Katie Stephen, on the lawn with her 1-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend, is also a kids club fan. “It’s different every week. Their attention is completely focused on these people,” she says, pointing to the stage where popular kids’ entertainer Twinkle Time is performing. “It’s also a nice break from the park and other things we do.”
Moms and Tots Come Out for Music
Across the lawn, Katie Grosvenor and Mairead Cusack and their babies are sharing a blanket. They also visit The Americana every week, even though their kids are a little too young to boogie near the stage with Twinkle Time’s tutu-clad fans. “They just like the stimulation of the music,” says Cusack. These moms have positioned themselves near a semi-secret feature found at The Grove and The Americana – the concierge tent. Under the canopy is a table where friendly and helpful staff proffer sunscreen, bottled water, temporary tattoos for the kids and – via walkie talkie – access to lots of other things a family might need. There are also permanent
concierge desks at both shopping centers.
Concierge staff move throughout the facilities, keeping an eye on things and helping keep families happy. “Thursdays from 11-1 [during kids club], the concierge desk is on family watch,” says Corey Evans, concierge manager at The Grove. He says staff members have even been known to see a child drop an ice cream cone, then surprise the child with a Sprinkles cupcake to help prevent a meltdown. “Because who doesn’t love a cupcake?”
Alitzah Wiener, aka Twinkle, is in her fifth year performing with Twinkle Time at local kids clubs. “My career started, actually, at The Americana,” she says, adding she performs monthly there and at The Grove. “That’s kind of my home away from home. Some of the kids think Twinkle Time lives there.” When Plaza El Segundo renovated its play area two years ago, they started inviting Twinkle Time and others to perform at kids clubs there as well. “It’s just been neat to see all these other locations have their own entertainment for kids and families,” Weiner says.
Fair Treatment at Plaza El Segundo
Plaza El Segundo has turned its kids club into a mini family fun fair. Before and after the kids concert, The Counter brings out milkshake samples and other businesses from The Edge District populate tables set up near the stage. There’s face painting, crafts with Wondertree Kids, shoe shopping (and custom fittings) with Brooks Shoes and hair bling and braids from Snip-its Kids Hair Salon & Spa.
In line at the Snip-its table is Cindy Schmicker, whose daughters are 8, 6 and 3. She likes the monthly event because there’s room to walk around. “There are several different things for them to do and the musical acts are really nice,” she says.
Derek Rigaud, owner of Snip-Its Kids Hair Salon & Spa in El Segundo and Encino, has been participating in the kids club events for more than five years. “It’s definitely a great event for us,” he says. “It’s a great way to interface with young families.” Rigaud says kids club attendance has jumped since the renovation, and likes seeing kids play on the playground rather than waiting in long lines for their turn at the activity tables.
Playgrounds Are a Priority
Playgrounds and play structures at these shopping locations sometimes get pretty fancy. The Lifeguard Tower at The Point is painted with vibrant, colorful flowers courtesy of the arts nonprofit Portraits of Hope, the outfit responsible for the beach balls afloat on MacArthur Park Lake last summer. The Village at Westfield Topanga boasts a super-cool Luckey Climber that lets kids (48 inches and under) climb on lilypad-like structures high in the air, and also features a bocce ball court and a fountain that lets kids walk on water.
While the kids play, the grown-ups can take a seat – in the wooden beach chairs at The Point, the boho-style basket chairs in The Village, or under the umbrellas at The Grove or The Americana. At The Village, there are even six book-exchange kiosks where you can pick up a free book.
There are also other enticements to spice up your visit. The animated fountains at The Americana (designed by WET, which created the Fountains of The Bellagio in Las Vegas) perform a musical program hourly. The Grove, The Americana and The Point all offer yoga classes on their lawns, and The Point has a weekly farmers market and a nighttime music series during the summer. The Grove also offers Monday Morning Mommy Movies, first-run showings where no one minds if your baby cries. Public radio station KCSN 88.5FM broadcasts live from The Village daily, and hosts live acoustic performances at 3 p.m. Sundays.
Choo Choo for Trolleys
And then there are the trolleys. The trolley at The Grove only goes a short distance, almost reaching the nearby Original Farmers Market, but when it makes its first run of the day at noon, families are waiting to board. Kids seem to especially like riding in the double-decker vehicle’s top seats. The trolley at The Americana doesn’t boast rooftop seating, but does follow a slightly more practical loop through the property, offering an easy way to get from end to end.
The Westfield Topanga Trolley is even more practical, shuttling shoppers and families between The Village, Westfield Topanga and Warner Center Towers at Oxnard Street and Owensmouth Avenue from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays.
Kids, of course, don’t care where the trolley goes, as long as they get to ride. And whether you’re riding the trolley, walking under the trees, enjoying a concert or a free class, all of these venues are betting that – eventually – you’ll also shop.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.