Tiffany & Co. is among several high-end retail stores that have established a presence at La Cumbre Plaza. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)

Anchored by Sears, La Cumbre Plaza is a far cry from Rodeo Drive. The open-air shopping center is slowly but surely becoming more upscale, however.

The snazzier La Cumbre Plaza is one of the more intriguing business trends currently taking shape on the South Coast, which seems to be only nominally affected by the retail slump plaguing the nation.

Coming this fall to the Upper State Street shopping center are three ritzy new stores: Louis Vuitton, BCBG Max Azria and Optica Eyewear.

Louis Vuitton is a French luxury fashion and leather goods store whose long list of celebrity touters include Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At Louis Vuitton, it’s not unusual for a handbag to fetch $1,200.

BCBG Max Azria is a women’s clothing brand that also originated in France, while Optica Eyewear prides itself on being the “first optical boutique to offer handmade and customized frames.” Like Louis Vuitton, both cherish their celebrity endorsements.

The addition of the three stores continues a two-year trend that has witnessed the ushering in of other high-end occupants, such as Tiffany & Co. jewelry store — where a suited-up body guard is conspicuously stationed at the door — Janie & Jack children’s clothing store and Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Gone are some of the more middle-of-the road shopping options, such as

Easy Spirit footwear, Eddie Bauer, Express clothing, Brooks Shoes for Kids, and Bath & Body Works


“What we’ve done is elevate the merchandise mix,” said Alice Love, senior marketing manager at La Cumbre Plaza, which is owned by Santa Monica-based

Macerich Corp.

Not all shoppers are pleased by this shift.

Montecito resident Katie Oriskovich said the mall’s increased upscale bent has reduced some of the options for families. For instance, because of the loss of Brooks Shoes for Kids, Oriskovich now shops for her children’s footwear online.

“So not only has it alienated the families, it’s also causing us to spend our money elsewhere,” she said. “It’s taking money out of Santa Barbara.”

Meanwhile, Love said the Plaza has felt some of the financial sting of the sluggish economy, but only faintly.

“The feedback I’m getting from a lot of retailers at La Cumbre is things are a little flat,” she said. “But in these economic times, ‘flat’ is good for a center.”

By the real-estate numbers, the Plaza’s experience seems to typify the current retail climate in greater Santa Barbara.

Brad Frohling, a

Radius Group

real-estate agent specializing in commercial leases, said Santa Barbara’s retail vacancy rate has increased only marginally, to just above 1 percent from just below 1 percent at the beginning of the year.

“It’s extremely low,” he said.

Frohling said the markets in worst shape tend to be the ones bludgeoned by the subprime loan crisis, such as Bakersfield and the Inland Empire.

“Our market is stable,” he said, although he added that the average lease rate has held steady for about a year at $4.50 per square foot, after three years of steep increase from $2.50.

“A lot of buildings on State Street that have signs on them have pending deals, so it is a bit of a misnomer that there’s a lot of vacancies,” he said.

For instance,

Apple is poised to move into the spot recently vacated by Pier 1 Imports at 928 State St. And a commercial deal is in the works for the building recently abandoned by Pep Boys Automotive Supercenter

, 424 State St., although Frohling said he wasn’t at liberty to disclose the newcomer.

Also, an entire group of retailers eventually will inhabit the new building under construction in the 1100 block of State Street. Meanwhile, 1 World Imports in the 300 block of State Street is closing, Frohling said.

In other changes,

Best Buy is most likely moving into Goleta’s Camino Real Marketplace, and Whole Foods

is neck deep in the planning phases of opening an Upper State Street store.

Rumors abound that


– which made an unsuccessful bid to move into Goleta four years ago – is still sniffing around.

“They haven’t erased Santa Barbara off the map at all,” Frohling said.

As for La Cumbre Plaza, it is still home to many midrange stores, such as

Macy’s, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, J. Jill and Talbots clothing stores, and Solstice Sunglasses Boutique


Love said the Plaza’s main mission isn’t so much to become posh as it is to offer shoppers options they can’t find elsewhere on the South Coast.

Meanwhile, the Plaza’s occupancy rate is down. Love was forbidden by the corporate office to divulge any numbers, but she insisted the dip is a prelude to positive changes, rather than a sign of distress.

“It isn’t anything that is a signal of a kind of decline in the center,” Love said. “It’s more of a signal of great things happening. We’re bringing in new retailers that suit the market.”

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at