SoCo's eclectic and modern mix
Food, furniture mix turns center around
In January 2009, the open-air shopping center off Hyland and Sunflower in Costa Mesa was so empty, you could walk through parking lot and see fewer than half a dozen people all afternoon. Battered by the recession and the downturn in the housing market, stores closed one after the other at South Coast Home Furnishings Center, which never really became a destination for home-related goods.
Three years later, the once-moribund retail complex continues its transformation into an appealing place to hang out and shop with a growing list of new shops.
After Burnham Ward Properties bought the shopping center out of receivership on February 2009, the company gave the property an eco-friendly, contemporary makeover and rebranded it. Large and modern signs and an LED screen visible from the 405 freeway announced the new name that indicated a broader retail concept: South Coast Collection – SoCo for short.
Making changes outside was just the beginning. One of the critical elements that Burnham Ward determined was necessary for the expansive open-air property to attract customers was a place where people could sit, have a cup of coffee, shop and linger, according to Scott Burnham, CEO of Newport Beach-based Burnham USA. "We were inspired by the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco and hoped to create something like that here," he said. The Ferry Building Marketplace is a retail center that houses artisanal food and community vendors.
Burnham Ward devoted one building in the center to the concept, partnering with a Costa Mesa-based business group called the OC Mart. The result of the collaboration is The OC Mart Mix, which, according to co-founder Andrea Young, is fully leased. "We have a waiting list of people who want to get in," Young said.
There's a lounge near the middle of "Mix" where people can relax in a living room-like setup as well as meet at communal tables. Portola Coffee Lab, arguably the most popular tenant in the building, is expanding to house a retail section for coffee connoisseurs. Cheese Shop, an outpost of San Clemente-based The Cellar, opened earlier this year. N'ice Cream, a shop devoted to handmade gelato, debuts this week. Shuck, a raw oyster bar, is scheduled to open this spring near the front entrance to the Mix, said Noah Blom, chef and president of Shuck.
In the adjacent buildings, Blom and business partner Leonard Chan are opening ARC, a restaurant specializing in wood-fire cuisine. Chan is also launching a solo project, Iron Press, a waffles and craft beer eatery.
The list of other new and recent tenants is eclectic. On one hand, there's the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, a gallery and art center, which is getting ready to open. In the nearby buildings small fashion and beauty-related companies such as Orange 88 and Beauty Cirque.
The center hasn't abandoned the home furnishings category. Although furniture retailers such as Munro's Fine Furniture closed in the past few years, other home-related tenants have moved in or are debuting stores at SoCo, among them Lee Stanton Stash, KE Design Studio and Robert Westley Designs.
There's been so much buzz about SoCo that Sunset magazine devoted several pages to OC Mart Mix, calling it "a breath of fresh air."
To be sure, there's nothing like the unusual combination of sophisticated home-related stores and indie/artisanal retailers at SoCo anywhere else in Orange County. But the shopping center is still growing and evolving, Burnham said. He's waiting for that one sign that tells him that the center has finally achieved success: "The day when it's not easy to find a parking space."
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