If good fences make good neighbors, what do tall walls make?

In the shopping center world, it makes for unhappy neighbors, such as those who are staring at a nearly 50-foot wall at The Grove at Farmers Market, scheduled to open March 15.

The Grove, the next big L.A. shopping center project to come on line, has been hailed as the antithesis of its stodgier neighbor up the road, the Beverly Center.

Looming over La Cienega Boulevard like a cement citadel, the Beverly Center is a remnant of another retail era when boxy was good and enclosed malls were all the rage.

With open-air plazas and a landscaped village square, The Grove was to be a sophisticated shopping center that resembled an old-fashioned downtown right next to the old Farmers Market. And much of the 545,000-square-foot project is just that.

But then there's that daunting cement block wall that stretches nearly 50-feet high right next to the sidewalk on Third Street.

"We are absolutely shocked by what we see," said Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association. "It was supposed to be a beautiful two-story structure with balconies. Everyone thought it would be so wonderfully compatible with the Farmers Market. Now we see this horrible structure going up on Third Street, which will take away all our open space."

The much-maligned wall is part of the 14-screen cinema complex that's part of the shopping center. The project is being developed by Caruso Affiliated Holdings in Santa Monica in partnership with the A.F. Gilmore Co., which owns the old Farmers Market.

The wall could have been higher. The cinema was reconfigured from a two-story movie house originally designed to open onto Third Street to a one-story collection of screens whose entrance is on the interior of the center.

The new design reduced the wall's height by half, to between 35 feet in some spots to nearly 50 feet in others. Its width, however, doubled to 300 feet.

"I would ask the public's patience in what is being built," said Dave Williams, Caruso's senior vice president of architecture and design.

Once the shopping center nears completion, Caruso plans to finish the brick wall to make it look like bronze and stone. "It will be broken up with ins and outs so it is not one flat wall," Williams said. "We will be putting on additional framing on the top of it and adding a variety of finishes."

Vitrines or showcase windows will be added so that The Grove's retailers can display their merchandise. Medjool palm trees that rise 45 feet will be planted on Third Street, as well as cypress trees and shrubs.

Yet some local architects remain up in arms.

"Do you want to look at a huge wall no matter how much it is decorated?" asked Marc Futterman, an architect and urban designer who lives nearby at Park La Brea, a complex of high-rise apartments that have a bird's eye view of the project. "There are a lot of people living at Park La Brea and there are hundreds of more units being added at three new additions. Is it the smartest thing to do to turn your back to them? That doesn't make for good urban design."

Good urban design has been the motto of Rick Caruso, president of Caruso Affiliated Holdings. He built popular open-air centers in Westlake Village, Encino, Calabasas and Moorpark. He recently was given the green light to develop a 16-acre mixed-use project in Glendale.

Caruso unveiled plans for The Grove in May 1998. Nearly 10 years earlier, a 2 million-square-foot project had been proposed at the site, but was killed by neighborhood opposition. Then the economic recession of the early 1990s hit, putting the project on hold until Caruso put forth his proposal for a smaller project.

The original Farmers Market will remain intact but has been undergoing minor changes with the addition of some chain outlets, such as a Johnny Rockets diner and Starbucks cafe.

The Grove with its retail line-up of Nordstrom, FAO Schwartz, Banana Republic, Crate & Barrel and The Gap is expected to be a major competitor to the boxy Beverly Center.

When that mall was constructed in the early 1980s, its design was considered avant-garde, mimicking some of the architectural nuances found at the radical Georges Pompidou Center and Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Escalators were placed on the building's exterior and enclosed in plastic tubes.

But over the years, the Beverly Center's stifling box style has become out of place with the recent wave of California architecture, which makes ample use of the area's mild climate to develop open-air retail centers with fountains, lush landscaping and town plazas.

So how does The Grove wall fit in?

"The project has been touted to be sensitive to the community," said Doug Meyer, an architect at Altoon + Porter who lives near The Grove. "But as I drive back and forth and the thing gets further along, I have been wondering, 'What are they going to do with that wall?' And now I am thinking, 'What can they do?'"

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