A Triangle Square Peg in a Round Hole

Photo by Tenaya HillsNiketown hasn't been gone a day, andalready its large metal letters and swooshes have been removed with all the lan of a military junta. Still, you can make out the letters/logo that once welcomed passersby to Costa Mesa's Triangle Square, the scuffed and scratched residue appearing like what's left behind when someone uses a worn pencil eraser to expunge a careless mistake.

Workers have yet to go inside to take down the posters of Olympic sprint champion Justin Gatlin or the ones that read: SLOW IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD. Agreed. Slow is also standard operating practice at Triangle Square, which isn't really a dying mall, unless you define a dying mall as one where nearly a quarter of its retail space is unoccupied and tax revenue is only one-fifth of projections ($200,000 instead of $1 million). If that's the case then, yes, Triangle Square is way dying.

It seems almost quaint now to stand in the deserted food court, where a single man sits, working on a laptop and looking like the guy in the Twilight Zoneepisode who discovers he's the last man on Earth (which episode was that? Oh, that's right, all of them). Remember when people actually talked about this place? In the late '80s and early '90s, they talked a lot about Triangle Square: about the wisdom of using city redevelopment money to raze mom-and-pop businesses to build a pyramid-shaped shopping mall; the wisdom of that mall having an indoor, seven-level parking structure that started at street level and descended toward Hades; the wisdom of the planned demolition across the street from the old Mesa Theater—which at least informed those coming up onto Newport Boulevard from the 55 freeway that they were in Costa Mesa—and having that essentially replaced by one emblazoned with “NIKETOWN.” The debate over the size of those just-removed Niketown letters took up two hours of Costa Mesa City Council time.

These days, about the only time people talk about Triangle Square, they talk about what went wrong. Paul Kim, who owns Bon Bon Sticky Fingers just off the food court, has thought a lot about it, though with about 10 to 15 weekday customers, he doesn't have a lot of people to discuss those thoughts with. When he moved his candy store into this space six years ago, there were people in the food court going to Johnny Rockets, Humphrey Yogart, Chong's Chinese and “some Mexican place.” There was live music, and he'd get upward of 100 customers, but it hasn't been like that for some time.

Paul is a devotee of the “too much competition” school that believes the diminutive Triangle was doomed by the expansion of larger malls such as South Coast Plaza, Irvine Spectrum and Fashion Island. Others believe that argument is weak since even smaller malls, such as the Lab, located just a mile or so from South Coast Plaza, have prospered, even spinning off a second mall, the Camp. They point out that Triangle's location at the confluence of Harbor Boulevard, 19th Street and Newport Boulevard at the mouth of the Costa Mesa Freeway (55) should ensure steady patronage. They say the problem is the mall has never given people a reason to stop. This opinion is voiced by Vanessa Seeley, who has stopped by Bon Bon for a bag of gummis. She lives just five minutes from Triangle Square but rarely comes to the place. In fact, the Orange Coast College student says she only started coming here because she was writing a paper about why the mall was failing.

“I don't think they marketed this place very well,” she says. “They don't seem to be targeting anyone, certainly not college kids. The place has always seemed pretty boring.”

Paul nods and adds that the South Coast Plazas of the world are constantly updating and adapting themselves. Save for a brief period when live music was offered, he says, Triangle hasn't done a lot to keep up. A mall, he says, “should be like the ocean, always fresh water coming in. This place like Dead Sea.”

Built in 1992 for $62 million, Triangle Square did enjoy initial popularity, enough that developer Richard Shapiro crowed in a 1994 OC Metro story that “naysayers didn't take the time to figure it out.” But most new things—with the exception of any film starring Greg Kinnear—earn our initial interest; even the XFL had a few good weeks. Keeping the interest is the hard part. In 1998, with fewer people taking the time for Triangle Square, it was sold for $47 million to Triangle Square Investments.

Tenants have come and gone—mostly gone—since. Now Niketown, which Shapiro said was the key to the mall's success, is gone. And though Costa Mesa Mayor Allan R. Mansoor says, “Anyone with the right vision can make that mall a success,” you have to wonder, since many (myself included) are of the opinion that the mall's fundamental design dooms it.

Put simply, Triangle Square has always made it difficult to shop. For example, if a patron is at Virgin Megastore and wishes to go to the Gap, they must either trudge through the underground parking structure across multiple lanes of traffic or walk outside to the public sidewalk. Granted, it's not the Iditarod, but what other function does a mall have but to provide ease of movement between shopping experiences? Confusion and stress hit you the moment you enter the parking structure and encounter large signs, one reading, “Street Retail and Market Level Parking, L2, L1, 1” the other telling you, “Theatres, Food Court, Valet and Self Park, 2, 3, 4, 5.” The signs seem to assume—nay, demand!—you know exactly where you're going. But for many people, aimless meandering is the most enjoyable part of shopping.

On the bright side, it's never too hard to find parking these days. It certainly wasn't hard for the courier who parked very near Niketown, got out of his van and walked toward its locked entrance. Jiggling the door, he looked around and asked, “Niketown, no ms?”

No ms.”

Curling his lower lip, he nodded for just a second, not the least bit surprised.

No ms,” he said and walked back to his van.

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