Operation Mickey Mouse

U.S. 101 just north of downtown Los Angeles clears finally. But the respite from 70 minutes of grinding traffic from Los Angeles International Airport to North Hollywood on an early Saturday evening doesn't last long.

Another jam appears just off the freeway along Buddy Holly Drive as hundreds of cars line up to pay $8 a pop to gain entry into CityWalk, the huge shopping-and-entertainment complex inside the Universal Studios compound.

Billed by its designer, Jerde Partnership, as the "redefined urban village," CityWalk generates huge sales for its corporate retailers. No matter that it's a tightly secured environment that resembles an actual central city about as much as does Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. in nearby Anaheim.

Its creator calls it a vibrant, auto-free city filled with people of all nationalities and from all walks of life, and this is true. The place is definitely packed -- primarily with tourists who have come to L.A. to gawk at the movie world. Or, more rightly, the façade of it that CityWalk and the Universal Tour provide.

The only self-respecting Angelenos who would be caught walking along CityWalk's self-proclaimed "Coolest Street in America" are those who bring their children here -- usually only once -- or those who are forced to walk through on their way to see favorite performers at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Among the horde of chain restaurants are branches of a few venerable L.A. eateries, including Gladstone's for Fish, but real denizens of the city would rather go to the actual establishments than frequent the faux versions along this plastic landscape.

They would also rather go to somewhere that stays open later. Jerde's version of the new urban world closes at 9 p.m. during the week. With a midnight closing on Fridays and Saturdays, this prefab metropolis becomes deader than downtown Phoenix (on every night except during the once-a-month First Friday art walks). Its temporary citizens are forced to hit that freeway again on their way to a bar in another part of L.A., or on their way to bed.

None of this is to say that CityWalk isn't successful for what it is -- a glorified shopping mall in the tradition of a Walt Disney Company theme park.

In fact, Jerde has long been closely associated with Disney. In the 1980s, the firm designed a vast 6,000-acre city called Satellite New Town that was to accompany the EuroDisney project outside of Paris. While what Jerde described as a "utopian" city was never built, the concepts developed during its design were later used for CityWalk.

Jerde is also a beneficiary of the hyper-tourism unleashed by Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It designed Festival Bay, a massive shopping center that just opened between SeaWorld and Florida's Universal City, about 12 miles from the Disney theme park. Disney promotes the Jerde-developed mega-mall in its literature and on its Web sites as an ideal second destination for those who visit "the happiest place on Earth."

Speaking of tourist magnets, Jerde Partnership is a huge player in Las Vegas. The company designed the Bellagio, Treasure Island and Palms resorts while revamping downtown Vegas with a six-block-long canopy of lights called the Fremont Street Experience.

Jerde is practically overrunning Japan, opening half a dozen mixed-use shopping projects in the last two years. And it's hammering out designs aimed at adding some economic zip to downtrodden cities in England and Poland.

One of its cornerstone projects is Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, a fortresslike shopping mall built in the mid-1980s. Spread over six blocks, Horton has helped spur downtown San Diego's economic revival in the tourist-driven Gas Lamp District.

It is fitting that the Jerde Partnership would be headquartered in L.A., the mini-mall capital of the world. Founded by Jon Jerde in the city's Venice neighborhood, the firm has become wildly successful at what it calls "placemaking."

This involves designing shopping malls, hotels, resorts -- whatever. Jerde isn't interested in making an architectural statement with its buildings; it bills itself as in the business of giving patrons a memorable experience.

The company advertises on its Web site: "Experience makes people want to come to a place, and more importantly, want to come back."

At CityWalk, patrons experience the antiseptic illusion of urbanity. The homespun musicians playing on the coolest street aren't busking for dollars, but are carefully selected by management to appeal to Middle America. The store claiming to sell Native American products is stocked with cheap imitations from Mexico, China and Taiwan.

CityWalk is the mega-mall version of a Universal Studios movie set where 25,000 people a day come to shop and shop and shop.

Forget about authenticity; Jerde's CityWalk ignites a spending frenzy that is three times the national average at regional shopping malls -- a whopping $800 per square foot of retail space annually.