Biltmore Fashion Park: Part two of "Look What They’ve Done to My Mall, Ma!"

Biltmore Fashion Park used to be so full of itself. Once, about 10 years ago, I went there to buy a wedding band, and no one would wait on me. I visited each of the mall's jewelry shops, as well as the jewelry counters in two department stores, and none of the clerks would do more than glance up at me. I was wearing rather expensive deck shoes and had a crease in my khakis, but the help treated me like I'd just come in from a barn, smelling rank and chewing on hay.

Another time, I went with my friend Mike to buy a dress shirt at Macy's. I wasn't shopping, but I spotted a suit marked down so low that I couldn't not buy it. The clerk who rang me up said something like, "Oh, great, another Blue Light Special." (I don't recall, but according to Mike, I replied with, "You're a clerk, not a clothing designer. Just give me my change and shut the fuck up.")

I used to hate the stuck-up attitude at Biltmore Fashion Park, which occupies the northeast corner of 24th Street and Camelback Road. Granted, it never kept me from shopping there; it's the only decent mall that's reasonably close to where I live in downtown Phoenix. But it bothered me that people who sold shoes for a living were serving so much shade.

Then they opened a Cheesecake Factory. Right out in front. And overnight, it seemed, Biltmore Fashion Park was on its way to becoming just another prole mall. Oh, sure. This Cheesecake Factory offers valet parking. But it's no Oscar Taylor's, the linen-and-serviettes restaurant that used to be next door to Border's Books. (Today there's a chain bakery where Oscar Taylor's used to be.) What's next? Spencer Gifts? Orange Julius?

Suddenly, I missed all those snotty clerks. I wanted back the one thing that made the Biltmore different: It was the only mall in town I felt compelled to dress for.

When Biltmore opened in 1963, it was Phoenix's only upscale shopping center, a classy outdoor mall (considered innovative at the time, when the trend in mall design was for enclosed, air-conditioned spaces) anchored with chic department stores and boutiques. But what's old is apparently new again; malls built here in recent years — Kierland Commons and Desert Ridge in Phoenix; Tempe Marketplace; Gilbert's SanTan Village — are replicating Biltmore's outdoor, open-air concept, although on a grander scale and without the stylish garden design.

Which is what has me worried. As I watch Westcor (the 38-year-old, Phoenix-based commercial properties conglomerate that bought the mall in 2004) moving through its three-phase redevelopment of this tasteful old landmark, I worry that it's going to come out on the other end looking like its younger sisters, Westcor's "urban villages." That's what they call the mega-malls they've designed and built and at which I'm unable to shop, because they make me feel like I'm being eaten alive by a three-dimensional commentary on America's passion for buying stuff.

The company's proposal for residential condominiums at the east end of Biltmore Fashion Park (back where all the cool restaurants used to be) has been delayed because of "water pressure challenges" in the Camelback Corridor and city planners' opposition to the proposed building height. But I see the charm-leaching changes Westcor has accomplished at the mall in the meantime, and I wonder: Will I pull into the recently redesigned parking lot one day and see a "Coming Soon!" sign announcing a new Circuit City? How long before Saks is replaced by SuperTarget?

They stopped doing the weekly farmers market here shortly after Westcor bought Fashion Park, and most of my favorite Biltmore shops and restaurants are gone. Ayako Sushi is no more, soon to be replaced by Stingray Sushi, a chain eatery. Restoration Hardware and Coffee Plantation are history, two of many stores that fled during what Westcor is calling its "de-leasing" of Biltmore Fashion Park, and what some disgruntled shoppers are calling "being chased away by newly astronomical rents" on the mall's blog.

I called Devon Hoffman, the senior marketing manager for Biltmore Fashion Park, to ask what was going on. "These changes are all about remaining competitive," she assured me. "We're striving for that same balance of high-end shops and smaller stores, and national and local places that the Biltmore has always had. But we want to keep it fresh and exciting."

When I was there last week, the mall looked less fresh than under construction. I walked around a decidedly uncrowded BFP, looking at all the boarded-up storefronts behind which will shortly emerge a Coach store; a "tea emporium" called Teavana; and a restaurant known as True Food. (Who comes up with these names?) I was looking for signs of the old Biltmore, and I found them by looking up. Way up. Those nice, sandstone-esque friezes remain at the tops of several sections of the mall. Also, the center garden is still there — the one where they build the giant Christmas tree of poinsettia plants each December — now book-ended by the schizophrenia of an Apple Store and Saks. Unfortunately, Westcor's improvements didn't include adding any shady trees or awnings to that garden, which seems like a no-brainer for an outdoor mall in the desert.

I do like the new tunnel that Westcor built beneath Camelback Road, primarily to lure office workers from the Esplanade directly across the street for lunchtime shopping and dining. There's a pretty terrazzo mosaic down there, and I admit it does feel sort of "big city" to go briefly underground, only to emerge at a shopping mall. When I passed through the tunnel the other night on my way to the Biltmore side, there was a youngish guy named Jeff who'd set up an electric piano down there. He was playing his own compositions, for tips. "Usually I sing, too," he confided. "But I'm having dentures put in, and right now my mouth is kind of messed up."

Once safely across the street, I went into Banana Republic, where a tall, impeccably dressed youth approached me. "Can I help you?" he asked.

"Yes," I told him. "Just for old time's sake, say something rude to me."

His response gave me hope. He arched an eyebrow, looked me up and down, and walked away. Maybe there's some snootiness left at the Biltmore after all.