SANTA CLARA -- The suburban shopping center -- a retail concept based almost entirely on the availability of plentiful free parking -- achieved its near-centrality in American life by 1987, when the nation's 30,000 malls and shopping centers accounted for 50 cents of every retail dollar spent.

From the lowliest strip mall to the newly conjoined Valley Fair, which brought open-air shopping centers in San Jose and Santa Clara under a single massive roof, cars and the consumer culture proved an irresistible combination.

But just a couple of miles north of Valley Fair, along one of California's most historic thoroughfares, the former Mervyn's Plaza -- one of the rare exceptions to that successful formula -- has sat for years like a giant graveyard for once-thriving retail chains, turning big box stores into big pine boxes.

"It was a ghost town for years," says Gil Couto, the owner of a mom and pop Portuguese bakery that has clung to life despite the shopping center's funereal air.

Mervyn's itself vanished into insolvency in 2008. Hoping to ward off any future zombie chains, Santa Clara swallowed a popular poison pill in 2009, enacting an ordinance that essentially prohibited big box stores from locating there. But one year later, in an act of desperation, the city repealed its anti-big box rule -- and now a 140,000-square foot Target will be the center's major new tenant. "Originally, the

theory on big box stores was that they would run out the mom and pop stores," says Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews, whose wife worked at the Hallmark card shop when they were dating as teenagers. "But in this case, Target will be the anchor that draws the crowds that the other stores, who have been hanging on by their fingernails for years" will need.

Target is expected to create 200 new jobs, and when it opens this fall, it will bring with it more than a dozen new chain stores, and as many dine-and-dash restaurants, such as Peet's, Panera and Chipotle.

When it was announced four years ago that the shopping center would get a $30 million face-lift, with Target as its anchor, the plucky league of loyalists -- almost all immigrant merchants, including a Mexican dry cleaner, two Asian restaurants, and an Indian-run card shop -- didn't scream that they were about to be big-footed out of existence. They began counting the days until they moved into the cross hairs of Target's big bull's-eye.

In a city so conspicuously lacking a downtown, the newly re-christened Santa Clara Town Centre seeks to create a shop-till-you-drop, gold card village done in Mission-style architecture. The first stirrings of new life were visible last week, when a Sprouts market that will be the center's second-largest tenant opened its doors Wednesday.

Mall of the Dead

That represents a quantum leap forward from the years when a Spirit Halloween costume shop occupied one of the many vacant storefronts, its goblins and grave markers a gruesome reminder that the place was truly haunted by failure. "It got emptier and emptier," recalls Janan Boehme, tour director at the Winchester Mystery House, who grew up blocks away and still lives nearby. "I started calling it the Great Mall of the Dead because there was nobody there. It was sad."

"It was terrible, a case study for everything that can go wrong in a really great location," says Alex Byer, crypt keeper of the hollowed out commercial corpses as longtime owner of the 21-acre property. "Many a time as I drove in, I said, 'Welcome to the ghost town.' But it will definitely not be a ghost town come October."

Before it could become a shopping destination, depressing reminders of such past failures as Grant's -- the center's original anchor store and one of the 20th century's merchandising behemoths before 1976, when it became part of the second-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history -- had to be demolished. The entire project was fenced off like a toxic waste site, and even when pockets of parking were opened for the small coterie shops that remained open during construction, customers stayed away in droves. Plaza Dry Cleaners was forced to close for 6 weeks last year while workmen tore up the area outside his front door. "There have been days when I had only one customer," says owner Modesto Gomez, who had to lay off all three of his employees.

"It got that bad." He had to wipe out his savings just to pay his taxes this year.

Last men standing

Couto says it would have cost $200,000 to move his Portuguese bakery to a new location, and when the landlord originally told him he would need to be closed for three months, he contemplated closing the business for good. "So they came back with a plan that would have us closed for a month, and I said I could swing that," he says. "That came and went." The closure lasted about two months, during which time seven of his eight employees quit. When they reopened the doors, Couto and his baker were the only ones left. "We just stood there," he recalls, "looking at each other."

Baskin Robbins and Subway continued to draw a trickle of customers, and with its busy wedding banquet business, China Stix restaurant experienced only a modest decline in business. But further from the street, Kobe Japanese Restaurant lost most of its staff during a two-month closure and has been so starved for customers that longtime waitress Jene Dinh, 66, came out of retirement, working only for tips to help the owners get through tough times.

"I don't want to work," she says, "but I want to help them."

"We will hang in there," says manager Teresa Lee, looking around a nearly deserted dining room, as fully-loaded sushi boats float by on a little river next to the sushi bar. "The investment to build this restaurant was a lot of money."

The small businesses that stuck it out through a year of construction, closures and a parking shuttle that, for a while, was supposed to ferry customers from a remote lot, seem grateful that Byer allowed them to stay, rather than shutting down the entire site for a year and a half. But they have often found themselves staring out at the empty parking lot, eagerly awaiting the overflow foot traffic from the new Target, Habit Burger and Peninsula Beauty Supply.

"It should be over pretty soon, right?" says Jay Patel, who has owned a Hallmark card shop at the shopping center for 21 years. His business has been off 45 percent during the past year. "Target is supposed to be open in the fall," he says, then begins counting the months on his fingers until his big box-shaped ship comes in.

Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.

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Gary Reyes/staff
A construction crew excavates in front of businesses at the Santa Clara Town Centre this spring. Once known as Mervyn's Plaza, the shopping center is undergoing a massive transformation, disrupting business.