Like two rival siblings,Tempe Marketplace and Mesa Riverview grew up side by side merely a mile apart near the interchanges of loops 101 and 202.
Although developers on both projects have always chafed at the suggestion the two centers are similar, both multimillion-dollar developments broke ground around the same time. Both have similar designs, including movie theaters, main street-style shopping plazas and "big-box" power centers, and both benefit from the confluence of two major freeways.
But three years after construction started on the projects, Marketplace has sprinted far ahead of Riverview in the race for both tenants and shoppers.
"I'm surprised it's so dead still (at Riverview)," said Vivian Buzan, who huddled near an outdoor fireplace at Tempe Marketplace on a cold January evening with her friend, Shirley Green.
Buzan, waiting to see a movie at Marketplace's Harkins Theatre, said she's visited both centers and was struck by the relative lack of customers and stores open at Riverview.
Marketplace is nearly fully leased and operational, while only about 65 percent of Riverview's space is leased.
The differences, viewed on consecutive weekday nights, between the centers' main shopping cores - both called the Districts - were even starker.
While Marketplace's District more resembles a bustling downtown rather than an outdoor mall, Riverview's looks more akin to a ghost town.
At Marketplace, a steady throbbing of bass-heavy dance music regularly fills the air as throngs of revelers, diners and shoppers swarm its main shopping commons. Sidewalks at Riverview's main plaza, meanwhile, are usually nearly bare. Soft music emanates from the loudspeakers, intensifying an already spooky, lonely ambiance.
Sales tax receipts flowing to Tempe and Mesa further illustrate the uneven progress at each center.
Reports show Marketplace's shoppers are heavily outspending their Riverview counterparts.
The Tempe site earned $242,000 during its first month of operation in October 2007, nearly $70,000 more than the Mesa site netted.
However, Riverview closed that gap by nearly $10,000 in November, raking in about $213,915, while Marketplace netted about $273,000.
That's hardly a surprise, considering the amount of trendy brand-name stores like Gap, Wet Seal and PacSun that fill every nook and cranny in Marketplace's District.
At Riverview, only six stores have opened in the center's main shopping area, and many are small restaurants like Quiznos sandwich shop or Rinaldi's Deli. Most are often empty except for a few employees.
The remaining shop spaces scarcely have walls and ceilings let alone display stands, merchandise or decoration.
Doug Hinman, an employee at the Scout Shop in Riverview's main shopping district, pointed out that foot traffic is much higher on weekends. And the mall's larger shopping area, which includes several big box stores like Wal-Mart, is more developed than the district.
"Right around here, it's like a ghost town," he said.
Luckily for Hinman, the shop is unaffected because it's a destination store for customers looking for Boy Scout supplies.
But Mindi Perdue, owner of Blame it on the Wine, a wine bar and restaurant at Riverview, said customers have noted Riverview's district looks more like a glorified mall food court, with less than a handful of shops open.
"We definitely have a problem," she said.
Mesa officials and Riverview's developers say assessing the project's success requires a deeper look below the surface.
For starters, Riverview is nearly twice the size of Marketplace, said Marty De Rito, president of the center's developer, De Rito Partners.
Unlike its neighbor to the west, Riverview is a mixed-use development with offices, a hotel andauto dealerships, he said.
Simply put, the center had a longer construction schedule than Marketplace, being developed by Phoenix-based Vestar Development Co.
That size difference also means gauging crowd turnout is difficult to do, he said.
De Rito said judging the center's success by how full its grounds and parking lots are, is like comparing a small fast-food eatery to a larger full-service restaurant, based on how many seats are occupied.
De Rito said he hasn't begun counting customers at the center because 75 acres are still under development.
It's impossible to keep an accurate tally, given the number of construction workers still swarming the property, he said.
"So, it's skewed," De Rito said. "It really doesn't mean anything."
Bob Kammrath, a private retail and real estate analyst based in the Valley, agreed, adding it's premature to compare centers since neither is completed. Riverview isn't expected to be finished until 2010, while Marketplace is mostly done.
"In the long run, they'll both do fine," he said.
David Larcher, vice president of Vestar Development Co., declined to comment on anything related to Riverview, but said he was pleased with the early success Marketplace is enjoying.
Larcher said among the keys to its success was marketing it heavily and the firm's particular tenant recruitment process and layout.
"It's really a painstakingly delicate operation," he said.
Mike Whalen, a Mesa councilman and early advocate of Riverview, said the center was disadvantaged because its development hinged on a public referendum.
That gave Marketplace's developers a head start on tenant recruitment.
He said Marketplace may be winning the current battle, but the Riverview area will win the war in terms of profitability and customers, given its vast array of offerings, including the $250 million Waveyard water park.
"I think you're going to see the boutique shops fill up once the people start coming," he said.
But Perdue said she's still nervous because so little leasing progress has been made on Riverview's main shopping district.
"There's a lot of frustrated people in Mesa who want to see more than what's here," she said.
When Perdue was shopping for a location for her bar, her leasing agents told her that Riverview's district would soon teem with shoppers and upscale stores like bridal boutiques, sushi bars, bookstores and the other venues needed to support a wine bar.
To make the situation worse, Perdue said her business sank 30 percent once Marketplace opened four months ago.
"Howie's Game Shack is not going to help me," she said referring to plans for a video game store in the center.
250-acre commercial center between Dobson and Alma School roads, south of Loop 202
Developer: De Rito Partners
Broke ground: Early 2006
65 percent occupied
85 percent leased
Major retailers: Cinemark Theaters, Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, Wal-Mart Supercenter, Home Depot
120 acres at the northwest corner of Rio Salado Parkway and McClintock Drive, south of Loop 202
Developer: Vestar Development Co.
Broke ground: Early 2006
Completion: February-March 2009
90 percent occupied
99 percent leased
Major retailers: Harkins Theatres, Target, Best Buy, JCPenney, Sam’s Club