Malled

The Labs creator discovers theres no I in Irvine

Photo by Jeanne RiceThings don't change in Irvine. Irvine changes things.

Your freak flag won't fly here, Mr. Dirty Hippie Man: this is a planned community where they don't cotton to stuff like houses painted the wrong color, lawns that don't get watered and dining tables that aren't set at 5:30 nightly.

An X-Files episode riffed on this SS-suburbia thing (Chris Carter spent some time surfing down here), with a monster that ate people whose homes weren't all purty.

"They're very proud of the fact that what they think they're doing is solving the last problem," urban-planning authority Joel Garreau said. "And the last problem was basically Anaheim." Ba-dum-bum!

But the Irvine monster stopped eating cars and eating bars, and now he only wants to eat Shaheen Sadeghi.

Sadeghi doesn't have the crossover name recognition of a Trump, a Segerstrom or a Bren, but in development circles, he's a slightly edgy but non-threatening god.

Just not in Irvine.

Eleven years ago in Costa Mesa, Sadeghi took two vacant, moldy concrete buildings—most recently a factory for the production of night-vision goggles—and created the Lab, the mall that launched a thousand anti-malls. Its open-air vibe, doorways jack-hammered willy-nilly into solid concrete, and mix of hipster stores like Electric Chair with live performance space and high-octane Gypsy Den java made a mint off Generation X.

Background: it is no coincidence that Sadeghi built the Lab down the street from South Coast Plaza, the Vatican City-sized shopping center.

Sadeghi's next development, the Camp, which opened just under two years ago, used much the same tactic. Across Bristol from the Lab—also no coincidence—the Camp was able to attract the Lab's customers to its own mix of sporting goods/extreme sports/camp gear stores. It's no Lab, but so far, the Camp is no Planet Hollywood.

Sadeghi's third project has run into Irvine.

He calls it Lab a Dab, which sounds like a rejected Dr. Seuss title, and he says it would be six to 10 acres' worth of quality time for moms and families—particularly moms.

Dramatic foreshadowing: it's in Irvine.

Moms could jettison the kids at Lab a Dab—which, in Sadeghi's mind, would be a fenced-in array of retail shops, coffeehouses and restaurants around an Edenic central park—where they (the kids) would be safe, while they (the moms) could knock back a non-fat half-caf latte, have a quiet lunch, or buy and start reading an actual book.

"I basically look for cultural pods out there, and every 10 years, there's a new one," Sadeghi said. "I'm fully convinced that the next great consumer-culture force is the mom."

The way he says it all but makes me a believer, for Sadeghi has the gift of gab. He's like a car salesman for buildings. He has an obstetrician's unwavering confidence in moms across the nation—and he's been right twice before.

But then, he's been right a lot in his career, starting with his earliest training. Sadeghi's folks, Iranian immigrants, settled on the University of Michigan campus, a microcosm of a big town, where they were professors—dad in urban planning, mom in geography.

Following art school in New York and a short stint in couture, Sadeghi came west and started knocking on doors in the surfwear industry—climbing an arc that took him all the way to president of Quiksilver, his last job before going solo and building the Lab.

It was a good education and a great way to meet people, something Sadeghi excels at anyway.

"I think Shaheen is the type of guy who mixes in the right circles," said Joel Cooper, CEO of surfwear company Lost, who worked with Sadeghi in the biz. The right circle, Cooper adds with a laugh, is "any circle that has information. Really, he's a listener, and he makes it his business to know what's going on. That's why he's on top of the game."

If he's so on top of his game, why did he pick Irvine? Sadeghi said he envisioned Lab a Dab as fitting nicely next to the Irvine Spectrum, where—of course—it could feed off the Spectrum.

"I actually think what we'd do will complement the Spectrum because the Spectrum is so many different things," Sadeghi said.

The Spectrum may be many things—a place where parents dump their tweens on weekends; where we allow standup comics to perform a safe distance from our children; where you can see Shrek 2 on 21 screens—but it's all owned by one rich old man, Irvine Co. boss Donald Bren.

Which explains why Sadeghi's getting the cold shoulder from everyone: the city of Irvine, which (he says) has been "trying to arrange a meeting" with him for about a year, and the Irvine Co., which is more pointedly disinterested.

"I don't think we have any retail land for sale," Irvine Co. spokeswoman Jennifer Hieger told me, her jaws clanging shut like a steel trap. "Just as a rule, we don't sell retail land."

And it became clear that Sadeghi, who makes up his own rules as he goes along, who thrives on youth, chaos and recycling, has finally met the mother of all buzz kills: someone else whose rules (seniority, order and the new) are his own—Don Bren.

 
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