By Fabián Borges
Tico Times Staff
There was a time in the not so distant past when residents of towns outside the Central Valley had to travel to downtown San José to do their Christmas and back-to-school shopping, or just to catch the latest movies and eat a Big Mac or a slice of Pizza Hut pizza.
Starting in the early 1990s, downtown San José’s famous shopping landmarks, Librería Universal and Tiendas La Gloria, and movie theaters such as the Omni and Rex began having to share their long-held quasimonopolies with stores located in suburban malls, most notably Multiplaza Escazú to the west and Mall San Pedro to the east. Over time, the number of malls grew and new shopping options emerged in other suburbs and, eventually, other Central Valley cities: Mall Internacional de Alajuela, northwest of San José, Paseo de las Flores in Heredia, to the north, and Terramall, on the road to Cartago, east of the capital.
With the Central Valley’s market for malls near or at the point of saturation, the latest wave of malls is being built near major cities outside the Central Valley. This new trend is helping to bring greater convenience and diversity of shopping options to local residents and visiting tourists.
“At this time, Costa Rica has the conditions for these types of projects to develop,” explained Mara Mekler of Neiman & Mekler, a firm that has advised the developers of several malls outside the Central Valley. “Commercial projects in these secondary markets greatly benefit the regions where they are developed. They serve as important sources of employment and improve the quality of life of local residents, giving them access to services they would otherwise have to travel to acquire.” Tourism and real estate in recent years have transformed Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, from a sleepy town to the commercial capital of the country’s booming “Gold Coast.” The “White City,” so named after the limestone used to build many of the town’s original streets and buildings, is home to two major shopping centers: Mall Plaza Liberia (2666- 4512) and the newer Centro Comercial Plaza Santa Rosa (2665-7079).
Plaza Liberia houses Guanacaste’s only four-screen multiplex, showing many of the latest movie releases. The mall has a supermarket, several banks, a Librería Universal bookstore and a La Gloria department store, as well as a small food court. Recently, a restaurant and bar aptly named Bar Pura Vida opened its doors offering good times for the city’s adults.
“We’re being visited by between 20,000 and 30,000 people a year,” said Walter Trejos, the mall’s manager. “Those are very good numbers. It shows the mall is a success for both the shoppers and the businesses that have opened here.” Mall occupancy is at 90 percent, Trejos added.
The newer, smaller Plaza Santa Rosa is home to no fewer than six banks, as well as four clothing stores: Fashion 3, Roca Bruja, Fusión and K-Moda. Food options include a Peruvian and an Italian restaurant. The central Pacific beach town of Jacó is home to Plaza Coral Jacó (2289-2504), which offers a wide range of shopping options, including a Megasuper supermarket and a pharmacy. Being on the coast, the mall naturally houses surf and skate clothing stores, specifically Arenas Surf and Skate and Extremos. Cigar lovers will find a wide selection at Casa del Habano. The mall also houses two major real estate offices, Real Estate Costa Rica’s Best Buy and Real Estate Executive. Diners can enjoy Jacó’s Quiznos and KFC franchises and get a drink at the Alba Rosa Saloon.
In the coming weeks, construction of the mall’s second phase, consisting of 30 offices in a three-story building, is set to begin, according to Mekler, whose firm advises the project’s developers.
The coastal provinces are not the only ones with new malls. Serving the western coffee towns of San Ramón, Palmares, Naranjo, Sarchí, Zarcero and Esparza, Plaza Occidente (2447-6297) has proven that malls can thrive outside the Central Valley. This mall offers the region’s nearly 200,000 consumers access to a Megasuper supermarket, 39 commercial locales, two movie screens and Benz bar and disco, located outside the mall building.
Home to clothing stores such as Fusión, Extremos, Motor Oil, H&M, Boutique Nitro and lingerie store Pasarela Intima, Plaza Occidental has dramatically improved the selection of clothing available to local residents. The food court includes Burger King, Papa John’s, and, for fried chicken lovers, both a Church’s Chicken and a KFC. Soon to be located in the heart of downtown La Fortuna, near Arenal Volcano in north-central Costa Rica, Plaza Arenal (2289- 2504) will bring new shopping options to the Northern Zone. The 10,000-square-meter project will house approximately 60 stores and a large supermarket. In contrast to most malls, where practically all locales are sold, 35 percent of locales in laza Arenal will be rented and the rest sold, according to Mekler, whose firm is also advising the project’s developers, Argentum CR.
The mall will feature a “colonial” style and will be built in such a way that shoppers will be able to see Arenal Volcano in all its splendor while going about their business. Construction is set to begin within three months and be completed by October of next year, Mekler said.