Sony mall delivers wholesale fun; Entertainment: Sony Metreon has the look of a mall but contains sensory overload of cyber amusement.


SAN FRANCISCO -- Sony Metreon isn't a suburban high school hangout, and it's not Disneyland either. It's somewhere in between and somewhere far beyond.

"It's the first true urban entertainment center," says Sony Development president Mike Swinney. "We're not a mall. You can't buy underwear and socks here, but you can buy a 51-inch television."

Americans are looking for a little mega in their mall, or, rather, in their Urban Entertainment Center. And it doesn't get much more mega than Metreon -- four floors and 350,000 square feet of pure sensory overload that cost $85 million dollars to make.

This space-age retail universe boasts restaurants, retail, theme-park attractions and an IMAX theater.

Instead of cheese fries, dig into the fare of San Francisco faves such as Longlife Noodle Co. and Jillian's South of Market.

Expand your mind while your wallet contracts at the questionable cultural attractions. The futuristic arcade, called the Airtight Garage, is designed by French graphic designer Jean "Moebius" Giraud, for cyber-credibility.

"Wild Things," where the kiddies provoke massive animatronic beasts to roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth, and are promptly funneled into a gift shop bigger than the exhibit, is inspired by Maurice Sendak's book.

"Lifestyle" stores are big on try and buy. Take, for example, the Discovery Channel Store -- think the Nature Company on steroids -- or microsoftSF.

"It's a cross between software and Crate and Barrel," says Troy Buckland, a 35-year-old Petaluma resident.

And indeed you can purchase Microsoft mugs, tape dispensers and a host of products that Bill Gates probably would never deign to display in his own home. At microsoftSF, a community-college computer class gets a store tour. Metreon-ites wait in line to send digital postcards or e-mail all over the world.

Other retail-entertainment marriages are being consummated across the country. The Mall of America, in Minneapolis, complete with amusement park, is an established relationship. Universal City Walk in Los Angeles, Coco Walk in Coconut Grove, Fla., Sunset Place in Miami, Pacific Place in Seattle and Chicago's Disney Quest are still getting settled.

Metreon is a slick retail galaxy. Starship Enterprise-esque suspended walkways lead to attractions. It's all curvy and metal and liquid. Stores and attractions flow into each other. No doors. No boundaries.

"It doesn't surprise me at all to have stumbled across something like this in America," says Katie Weston, 30, from Winchester, England. "This is for computer geeks. Pure escapism -- it's almost grotesque."

Weston, a journalist, is sitting at the Airtight Garage's bar, calmly writing a letter home as her husband Louis bounces from game to game, eventually opting for "HyperBowl," a virtual bowling experience. Metreon is "nerdy," according to Louis Weston. He can take it for only about 10 minutes before the nausea descends.

His wife smiles and says, "You've been here longer than 10 minutes."

The longer the better, says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting firm in New York City.

"The big issue for Americans is they have no time and fewer are going to malls," he says. Food, fun and shopping in a one-stop package is preferable to angling for parking at three separate places or going broke at a gold-digging theme park.

E-commerce is another threat to the traditional shopping center, he says. To get a slice of priceless time, you've got to add some spice to the retail recipe.

"Sony Metreon is an extravaganza. All the mall developers are trying to install more entertainment," Davidowitz says. "It's not the death of the mall. Malls are adapting."

It may seem Lilliputian in comparison to Metreon, but malls everywhere are taking a shot with multiplexes, arcades and theme restaurants like Planet Hollywood. Plus, Metreon is fashion-free, unless you consider a Metreon sweat shirt haute couture. Nordstrom, Gap, or any apparel store for that matter, is not part of the mix.

Metreon is too excessive and expensive to be duplicated on a large scale, Davidowitz says, but Metreon projects in Tokyo and Berlin are already in the works. Swinney says Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami and other major U.S. cities, may get their own versions of Metreon in the future.

The mall was suffering long before its high-tech sibling came of age. According to Michael Rubin of MRA International in Philadelphia, a firm dealing with urban entertainment and retail projects, today's malls do an average of less than $300 of business per square foot. He says a successful mall should be doing between $400 and $500.

During the mall's 1970s heyday, it served as a community center for families who had spread to the suburbs. Now, venues like Metreon may be assuming that social retail responsibility. "People still need gathering places," Swinney says.

Paula Pettavino, 49, thinks Metreon is less like a nurturing community center and more like an irresponsible, indulgent parent.

"It makes them mean and aggressive," she says, as her kids Madeline Farber, 7, and Sam Farber, 11, battle over a bouncing bottle-cap-like toy she bought at a Metreon gift shop.

She finds the overt commercialism as toxic as the implications of an arcade named Airtight Garage. "An airtight garage, to me, is carbon monoxide," says Pettavino, who teaches at American University.

The Sony name is championed throughout Metreon, most blatantly at the PlayStation and Sony Style shops. It's a branding strategy, like Niketown or the Disney Store, Davidowitz says. Metreon even has its own card, and its own ATM-ish machine, where customers can add value. It's hardly a bastion of subtlety and independent spirit.

"If you're offended by that, don't go," Swinney says.

Pettavino wouldn't have gone if her kids' eyes hadn't lighted up so lustily as they walked by.

"It's such an unbelievable blend of video suck-in and media hype and marketing," she says. "There are some very disturbing things about this place."

Pettavino and her fellow hype-haters should prepare to be disturbed for a while. Urban Entertainment Centers no mere a fad. "It's about as trendy as a convention center," Rubin says. With aging boomers and echo-boom families looking for efficient ways to fill limited leisure time, they have a good 20 years ahead of them.

So raise a Microsoft mug to the Urban Entertainment Center; the mall of the millennium.

Pub Date: 10/06/99

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