Hundreds gather for the opening of the remodeled Santa Monica Place mall Friday. The mall was closed for two years to undergo a $265 million renovation. (photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — Thousands flocked to Santa Monica Place’s grand re-opening Friday to be among the first to experience the open-air, upscale shopping venue and possibly get their hands on a variety of free gift cards.

The 540,000 square foot mall re-opened after two-and-a-half years and $265 million worth of renovations. The three story structure features high-end retail such as Tiffany’s, Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss, as well as a third-floor dining deck with a traditional food court and higher-end restaurants that boast views of the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s probably better than I was expecting,” said Tracy Randall, a Venice resident who showed up on opening day. “Compared to the old one, it’s night and day. I never would come because it was a dump.”

The promise of gift cards, valued from $10 to $500, for the first 500 shoppers prompted people to line up hours before the mall opened, with some even camping out overnight.

Throughout the day, hordes walked through the portal on the corner of Broadway and Third Street, with signs from Nike, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom beckoning the public to come shop and a red carpet leading to the circular heart of the mall, where a new Cadillac sedan was on display and a DJ spinning some tunes. Many took respites on the sleek, modernist benches and chairs, while others stood along the railing on the second and third floors taking in the view and the cool ocean breezes.

Hoping to draw the crowds off the walkways and into their doors, many stores offered entertainment or deals. Skechers posted models outside, stretching and dancing to advertise the new “Shape-ups,” shoes that supposedly help tone muscles and lose weight.

Charlotte Russe, which specializes in the latest teen girl and junior fashions, teamed up with a dog adoption agency to throw a fashion show featuring the pets, as well as actresses from the television show “90210.” On the third floor, to quench the thirst of customers, free sodas were given away.

Lines snaked around the mall, controlled by velvet ropes and scores of security guards. The Disney Store, which offered free Mickey Mouse ears and stories told by Disney princesses, among other attractions, proved to be a popular destination, with a line spanning nearly half of the mall’s length.

By 4 p.m., guests were already seated at the third floor dining deck in anticipation of listening to free music from KCRW DJ Jason Bentley. KCRW will feature a different DJ every Friday night through August.

Despite being officially open, there were a few elements left to be completed. The mall is only 75 percent leased, and some stores, like Tiffany’s and Nordstrom, have yet to open. An escalator on the third floor was not working properly early in the day and some said they had a hard time finding parking.

But that did not deter shoppers, who spanned generations and came from all over. Vi Randall, Tracy’s mother, hails from St. Louis, Miss. but was in town visiting her daughter and made it a point for the two to come to opening day.

“With Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom — that’s my favorite store — I’ll be here to shop every time I come to visit her,” Vi Randall said.

Another mother-daughter duo, Mati Nara and her teenage daughter Samantha, came from Oxnard just for the mall opening. The wide-open spaces make Santa Monica Place better than the shopping near them, they said.

“Everything is so big,” an awe-struck Samantha Nara said.

Though many were impressed with the modern architecture, they did offer suggestions for improvements. Vi Randall expressed disappointment in the shortage of fountains, with only one at the bottom floor. A Santa Monica resident at the opening said he wished there was more greenery, pointing out the five palm trees that line one side of the center circle.

Despite the dour economy shrinking disposable incomes, Friday’s shoppers were confident the mall’s popularity will stay up, though they did attribute some of the day’s high crowds to opening-day frenzy.

“Everybody likes to go to the mall,” Mati Nara said.

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