Friday, July 21, 2006

Blackhawk Plaza to add stores to tempt shoppers

New owners are planning an overhaul to bring more people to the rarely crowded Danville center
By Blanca Torres

Susan Bellig would seem to be an ideal Blackhawk Plaza shopper. She lives a few miles away and works across the street.

But Bellig finds the center's small and upscale selection of stores disappointing. The restaurants and coffee shops are great, she says, and the landscaping is beautiful.

"I like the environment here," Bellig said on a recent afternoon while she strolled through the center. "But I'm not really going to buy anything."

Like many locals, Bellig thinks the center needs more stores to entice customers. Blackhawk Plaza is rarely, if ever, crowded, and the numerous vacant storefronts only add to the ghost-town feel of the place.

By next year, that could all change. CenterCal, the latest owner of the plaza, plans to spend $30 million to overhaul the upscale outdoor mall by rearranging current tenants, refurbishing the exterior and increasing the number of retailers by a quarter, including Draeger's Market as the new anchor.

The shopping center has gone through various changes in its 17-year history, including repeated owner changes and anchor tenant turnover.

CenterCal's strategy is more than a face lift, said Bonny Monares, general manager of the center, because the company is not looking to make a quick-hit investment like previous owners.

"We're retailers," she said. "We stay in the communities we come in. We're here for the long run."

Besides Blackhawk, the company owns about 12 shopping centers and strip malls in Washington state, Oregon and Utah.

Nestled in an area known for its high-priced "executive homes," Blackhawk Plaza caters to posh shoppers with boutique shops such as Patrizia Marrone, Alina B. and Patrick James. The mall gives some shoppers the feeling that there is a six-digit-income requirement to walk in.

"We want to soften it up," Monares said. "We want to make it more comfortable for people."

The shopping center is an unusual venue in the East Bay. It does not attract large crowds. It is not visible from or convenient to major freeways. It is quiet, with the main source of noise being the running waters of a man-made river.

The center looks more like a resort than a mall -- and with a spa and plastic surgery center, it could be confused as one. It is almost devoid of national chains, with only a handful of recognizable names, including Ann Taylor Loft, Restoration Hardware and Coldstone Creamery.

"We want unique food and fashion," Monares said. "We do not want to duplicate Walnut Creek."

The absence of foot traffic would send some retailers running, but some long-standing tenants do not mind it.

Alina Bialobrodsta, owner of Alina B. women's boutique, said she does not need crowds to keep her business running. Her approach is to provide full service, such as style consultations, shopping appointments and makeup advice to a small number of clients who become regulars.

"We're making the business ourselves," Bialobrodsta said. "We call our customers. We invite them to trunk shows if we have designers in town. We teach them about fashion."

Her prices give her some leeway. She travels to Europe each year to handpick her selection, including AG jeans for $150, Tom Ford sunglasses for $375 and casual tops for $189.

Bialobrodsta, who has been at the center since it opened, said she is excited about the upcoming changes and plans to move her store from the north end to the middle section "for more visibility."

Blackhawk Art Gallery, a vendor of original artwork, is one tenant that will leave during the renovation because it cannot afford to pay rising rent costs.

The gallery is still searching for a new location, but is hoping for a site with more random people walking by.

"I don't know what's not bringing people," said Tracy Bauer, a spokeswoman for the gallery. "(Blackhawk Plaza) has struggled to get people to come there. It's not a destination -- people drive right by it. The marquee does not bring people in."

For many shoppers, the center's obvious void is clothing stores. The center has more restaurants than it does apparel shops.

"Maybe (the owners) just ought to fill it with restaurants to get more people here," Bellig said.

She and other shoppers had mixed feelings about making Draeger's Market, a gourmet grocer with three stores in the Peninsula, the anchor tenant.

"We don't need another upscale grocery store," said Karen Bittarini of Danville, who shopped the Gottschalks closing sale earlier this week.

Gottschalks, scheduled to close Aug. 26, joins the list of anchors that have come and gone, including gourmet grocer FJ's, children's clothing shop Stars and high-end department store Saks Fifth Avenue, which lasted less than a year.

"I wouldn't go out of my way to shop here," said Lisa Costa of Brentwood, who stopped by Blackhawk Plaza after visiting a nearby spa. "They're going to have to get some big names if they want people to come here."

The center's ability to attract a critical mass is yet to be seen. It currently houses about 35 tenants, Monares said, and the goal is to bring that number up to around 45 by next year.

"There's enough population to be served here; that's the first goal," Monares said. "Once fully leased, there's an opportunity to be a destination."

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