Almost since it was built in the early 1990s, Costa Mesa’s Triangle Square has been something of a square peg – or maybe a triangular one – in a round hole.
It sits in a highly visible spot at the confluence of a freeway and a major arterial road – the 55 and Harbor Boulevard – in an affluent and populous area. Yet none of a succession of owners, remodels or rebrandings have brought the mall lasting success.
The current owner, real estate investor Tyler Mateen, thinks the key to improving Triangle Square’s fortunes is letting more potential customers know what it has to offer – and the way to do that is by adding several billboard-size LED signs, including one that would wrap around the shopping center’s signature dome feature.
Mateen needs the city’s approval for the new signs, and some residents have already made their opposition known.
“What we’d like to do is use these signs to market our tenants and show everyone who drives by what’s going on with the different programming,” Mateen said. “It (the mall) has so much potential and it really has the ability to be transformed if it can play up its strengths, and that’s really the reason I was attracted to it.”
Though the pandemic put a damper on business, the center already has an array of entertainment choices: movie theater, bowling alley, nightclub with live acts, and eateries serving tacos, tapas and sushi.
But it’s seen a lot of tenant turnover, with original anchors such as NikeTown and Barnes & Noble long gone, and other revitalization plans – including rumors around 2006 that condos might be built above the mall – that either didn’t materialize or didn’t give business a lasting boost.
“The persistent problem with Triangle Square has been principally its location,” said Byron De Arakal, a longtime resident who chairs the city’s planning commission. “Basically what you’ve got is this great-looking center that’s highly visible, but because it’s so difficult to get to it doesn’t get any customers.”
Mateen said the lack of foot traffic (the center is wedged between busy streets) makes it hard to attract top-tier tenants, but the proposed new signs would help. The plan includes three large digital signs, including the dome wrap and signs along Harbor and 19th Street, as well as new and refurbished signs to direct people to businesses and parking.
The big LED signs are the ones that have some residents worried. In emails to the Planning Commission before an April meeting, which ended up being postponed, residents objected to the signs because they feared they’d send light pollution into nearby homes and distract passing drivers (several made comparisons to Las Vegas and Times Square), and they worried the city wouldn’t have any say over advertising or other content the signs might display.
As the 55 peters out in front of Triangle Square, there are frequent backups because the number of lanes shrinks and drivers fight to merge into traffic, said John Reiss, who lives a few blocks from mall. “They need all their focus to be on that traffic, and anything that pulls their attention away is asking for accidents.”
Under a proposed development agreement, the city would get a cut of advertising revenue from the signs that Mateen estimated could come to $1.2 million a year for Costa Mesa.
Reiss said that revenue could easily be wiped out if a driver sues the city after an accident, and he worried that allowing big, colorful digital signs at Triangle Square – they’re generally forbidden by city codes – will “let that genie out of the bottle” and other business owners will start asking to add them.
Mateen said he’s been meeting with the community and hopes to convince residents their fears are unfounded.
He proposed writing restrictions on advertising – including no alcohol or tobacco, sexually explicit material or payday loan companies – into the agreement with the city. Lighting studies said the proposed LED signs would cause less light pollution than the area sees now, he said, and the signs would be dimmed at certain hours.
Because of the pandemic, Mateen said only about a half dozen businesses at the mall are open and he’s reduced rents to keep more tenants from leaving. A number of business operators and employees have emailed the city urging approval of the sign program.
“I just want the community to understand how positively this would impact the businesses there and how it would really help me turn this whole thing around,” Mateen said. “We’re at a point here where we really need the community’s help to bring this place back to life.”
The Costa Mesa Planning Commission is expected to discuss the Triangle Square sign program later this month, though a date has not been announced.