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REAL ESTATE–Project Emphasizes Activities Over Retail

How do you build a commercial project in a community that disdains commercialism in its backyard? Just ask Rick Caruso. The president of Caruso Affiliated Holdings has won approval for a retail center in Thousand Oaks, after residents turned down several projects by other developers. As planned, the $40 million center would encompass 180,000 square feet, with restaurants surrounding a lake that will double as a skating rink in winter. There will also be a movie theater, some office space and a smattering of retail shops. Dubbed Discovery Park, it has been designed to connect with an interactive science and technology learning center also under development, and the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza that will flank the complex. “You’ve got an existing Civic Arts performing center and it has become one of the more popular performing arts centers in the state,” said Caruso. “The concept is to play off that and really expand the entertainment opportunities on the property.” Caruso, perhaps best known for developing The Commons at Calabasas after winning over city residents who had battled other developers for years, scaled down the Thousand Oaks project considerably from versions that others had presented before. But what really convinced the community to support the project was the idea of a center dominated by things to do, not things to buy. “The project Rick is proposing is a people place,” said Jim Friedl, deputy city manager for Thousand Oaks. “And that’s what the community is interested in, a sense of place and a sense of community. Rick has been incredibly successful at developing places like that.” Although developers have increasingly been adding restaurants and other forms of entertainment to shopping center designs, few have developed centers dominated by entertainment. Caruso concedes that the design may not work in other situations, but it makes sense for this particular location. “This is really driven because of the unique characteristic of the civic arts center,” Caruso said. “Unless we have some incredible success on this, and we think we can duplicate it in places, I don’t see limiting a center to the entertainment component.” As the community has grown, attracting high-tech workers and other professionals and managers, the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza has become the heart of the city’s nightlife. A little over five years old, the center originally projected 1 million visitors by its fifth year. “We did it in three,” said theater director Tom Mitze. The complex with two theaters featuring productions that range from Broadway shows to ballet companies, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and pop concerts like Olivia Newton John and Tony Bennett has also increased the demand for restaurants, particularly within walking distance of the theaters. In the 1960s, the strip along Thousand Oaks Boulevard, where the Civic Arts Plaza now stands, housed a wild animal park called Jungle Land. Back then, the city’s population numbered about 36,000, less than a third of today’s 118,000 residents. Jungle Land failed to attract many tourists and closed in the 1970s, leaving 20 acres of land vacant for nearly two decades. But in the early 1990s, with the population growing, the city decided to use the parcel for a new City Hall and to erect an arts center. The city’s redevelopment plan also called for a commercial center, and that project attracted the interest of several developers. One of those developers, Kilroy Partners, proposed a multi-use complex with a hotel, offices, theaters and retail shops, a project that came close to winning approval until it was shot down by the community. “This is kind of the third go-round,” said John Prescott, planning division manager for Thousand Oaks. “Each time when ideas had been put out, the general consensus was the project didn’t fit in the community.” The Ventura County Discovery Center, a nonprofit foundation, had approached the city with an interest in building an interactive science and technology center. As envisioned, Discovery Park would house exhibits that bring to life principles of science and technology, such as what makes things fly and how senses like sight work. The Kilroy plan left only a small portion of land for Discovery Park, whereas the design of the Caruso project left a far larger, 100,000-square-foot space, Friedl said. “That’s probably a critical factor,” he added. “The other is that they (the community) have seen and been to Rick Caruso’s projects and said, ‘We like this.'” Like the Commons, which is designed as a town center with walkways, fountains and weekend entertainment, the commercial complex is designed to be a place where people can congregate or stroll, but unlike the Calabasas development, only about 20,000 square feet will be devoted to retail shops. Most of the center will be taken up with a 10- or 12-screen movie theater and about four restaurants built around a lake that will be frozen over for ice skating during the holiday season. Construction on the development is expected to begin this summer, with completion slated for next summer. The first phase of the science center is planned to open at the same time.

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