Imagine living on a street that’s swept every hour or so. Where Christmas classics are piped through speakers embedded in lamp posts and hidden under flower beds. Where snow that resembles shaving cream falls every night from Thanksgiving to Christmas. I have seen this street and folks, let me tell you, it made me forget about Donald Trump for an astonishing 20 minutes.
If you haven’t been to the Grove — the faux-European street-cum-shopping mall attached to the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles — you may not be well acquainted with billionaire developer Rick Caruso’s production values, but they are as meticulous as Paul Verhoeven’s. So when I first visited Caruso’s other giant outdoor shopping mall just outside L.A. in Glendale, called the Americana, it didn’t surprise me one iota that people would want to live there.
While the heartland’s indoor malls are emptying out, Caruso’s airy capitalist palaces are thriving; in a 2014 study by real estate research firm Green Street Advisors, the 600,000-square-foot Grove was ranked the number-2 mall in the U.S. for revenue per square foot (behind Bal Harbour Shops in Florida). More people visit the place every year than Disneyland. Of course potential residents would be drawn to Caruso’s equally ostentatious property in Glendale, with its claim of “blissful living” amid stores like Lululemon and Potato Corner; of the 242 units on the property, only nine are currently vacant.
Its lure may be similar to that of Disney-built Celebration, Florida, a planned community that sprinkled elements from small-town America to evoke pre-war optimism. Similarly, the Americana borrows Art Deco buildings and Italianate squares to evoke a general feeling of luxury. Caruso talks about his properties as if they’re theme parks. “We’re in the content and experience business,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re never in the shopping business. The minute we say that, we’re going to start following those rules.”
One winter morning, I arrive at the mall and take the escalator from the parking garage to the Americana at Brand’s leasing office, which is also located in the parking garage. (The walk takes two minutes and smells inexplicably like pine trees.)
While waiting to talk to a tour guide, I overhear the receptionist’s phone call with someone planning a marriage proposal on one of the Grove’s trolleys. “Now that I think about it, another option would be for everyone to hide on the top deck,” the receptionist says. “Then when we stop the trolley, they can run down the stairs and say ‘surprise!’” A beat. “Yes, if you do it at night, the fake snowfall will be in full effect.”
Corrie, my guide, arrives and I instantly feel like fraud: Of course I can’t afford $2,700 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment. But, I reason to myself, that’s probably true of a lot of people who take these tours.
Together, we join throngs of shoppers on the mall’s main concourse. A Frank Sinatra song is playing — the ambient background to all shopping experiences at Caruso properties is a Frank Sinatra song — and the fountains have just begun to rise to the occasion.
I ask Corrie if you can hear the music from your balcony. “Yep, and sometimes you end up humming Frank Sinatra in your head all day,” she says, as if this were an amenity. “After a while, though, you stop noticing and the music becomes like a white noise.”
(I am horrified but shoot her a pained smile and say, “Cool.”)
The Americana is not just one apartment building, but four. There’s the Lido, which offers a view of the dancing fountains (the core attraction at the Americana at Brand); the Continental, which has a contemplation garden; the Mark, where all the common areas are located; and the Raleigh, with views of the promenade along Americana Way and Brand Boulevard.
And for those who’d like to feel like they’re living in a palatial cloud hovering above the shops, there’s the Excelsior, a gilded building filled with condos that cost $1.2 million each. (Every condo was sold within minutes of being put on the market, Corie says.)
Corrie is nonchalant as she goes about listing all the “distinctive offerings” at the Americana, including valet for guests, room delivery from any restaurant on the premises and on-site car washes. Perhaps unintentionally, she ends up making a surprisingly persuasive case for shopping-mall apartments as a natural next step in human evolution: Wake up, grab a Wetzel’s pretzel, come back to your apartment, do some work, then go out and see what’s on sale at H&M. Instead of sitting at home and staring into Amazon’s search bar, you can just go downstairs and stroke the products in real life, perhaps while stoned! Oh, and there are discounts, too: 10 percent off at Top Shop, 20 percent at Madewell. She tells me the discounts at Pressed Juicery are especially popular.
We walk to the Mark, home to the Residences’ pool and fitness center, and across the street from a soon-to-be-opening Capital One cafe (the ad says it’ll offer fee-free ATMs and coffee). The room I tour — freshly shampooed carpets, stainless steel appliances, views of the inner courtyard — provides no visual indication that we’re inside a shopping mall. It’s also deathly quiet, thanks to double-paned glass. “Funnily enough, we’re right above a Jamba Juice,” Corrie says.
The Marc is also where the Americana houses its common areas: Residents can rent the marble kitchen and airy dining room for a mere $100 an hour. The poolside cabanas, meanwhile, are $80 for four hours, which seems steep, “but they have TVs in them,” Corrie tells me.
The apartments and the mall have a synergistic relationship that goes beyond discounts, I learn. In addition to hosting parties, the Marc occasionally holds events like “J. Crew Fittings,” “Pinkberry by the Pool” and “Design Your Own TOM’s Sneakers.” All seem designed to suck more money out of your pockets and deposit it into Rick Caruso’s hands.
After the tour, I walk along the “street” to an Italian deli called Deluca’s that offers panini and Kinder eggs (which I thought were banned). It occurs to me that the Americana doesn’t really feel like a hermetically sealed — and therefore oppressive — Disney town, but like a rich city with a very active urban planning committee. After all, there’s no Din Tai Fung — a Taiwanese restaurant that serves pork dumplings described as “small miracles” by Jonathan Gold — at Epcot.
“I liked the Americana because I love New York,” said Lisa B., who moved into a building down the street so she could be closer to Americana’s “hustle and bustle.” “If I had a choice, I would move to New York, but my husband is here and has a kid,” she said. (She recently moved out, though, because of Glendale’s “terrible air quality.”)
The “hustle and bustle” quality of the Americana is a lie, of course — there’s nothing Midtown Manhattan about Glendale — but L.A. has always been a place where artfully conceived artifice is not just accepted but venerated. Yes, the Americana is too perfect. There’s a lazy mindlessness to walking around, a lack of discernment required to bathe in Caruso’s vision. Everything feels preordained and overproduced. Even the metallic shimmering bow on the tail of the trolley refracts the light a bit too evenly, as if choreographed by Caruso himself. But the doomsday notifications from my New York Times app have left me rattled; the idea of living inside a shopping mall, and falling into the warm, fried Potato-scented embrace of capitalism, seems like a rather pleasant alternative to reality.