James Fenton had been a food chemist at Richmond Chase Canning Company before he and a partner started an advertising business for housing developments in the Santa Clara Valley. James caught the land development bug and moved his family to Aptos in 1958.
In 1959, James purchased 16 acres from Mr. and Mrs. C. W. McFadden of Soquel to develop a shopping center. When plans for the new center were announced, local residents were not happy. They fought the proposal in order to preserve the view and to uphold property values.
The plans included 100,000 square feet of buildings with plans for 20-25 stores, and parking for more than 550 cars with extensive planting and landscaping to provide maximum shopping comfort and convenience. The original drawings showed a large parking area behind the stores but most of that land was sold off to the state for a freeway overpass and ramps, leaving about 12 acres for development. The cost was expected to exceed $2 million. Three years later Rancho Del Mar was considered the most thriving, one-stop shopping complex in the mid-county area.
The first phase of construction was about one-third of the total project and included Safeway and a branch of County Bank. The center was designed and built by the C. W. Wilder company of Los Gatos who had developed shopping centers in the Santa Clara Valley with a rustic ranch style architecture, best described as “Carmel Ranch” with extensive use of rustic brick and other masonry materials, and spacious 12-foot covered walks supported by massive wooden beams.
Rancho Del Mar opened on Wednesday, June 21, 1961 with eight stores. The Grand Opening continued for a week. VIPs in attendance included corporate officers, the state assemblyman, Miss California, and the nationally known, turban wearing, mystical organist, composer, pianist, and television star, Korla Pandit, who played for a total of five hours during opening day. James Fenton called the opening, “sensational.”
As an aside, Korla Pandit claimed to have been born in New Delhi, India, but his real name was John Roland Redd, and he was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a musical genius and master of disguise, which allowed him to become one of the first African-American television stars. He lived in and around Santa Cruz in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Rancho Del Mar redefined Aptos. The Santa Cruz Sentinel later reported, “The Rancho Del Mar shopping center in Aptos, hither a no-man’s land between Santa Cruz and Watsonville commercial centers, is a striking example of Mid-County dynamics.” The success of the center also caused Aptos Village merchants to consider a face-lift for the buildings in the Village in order to compete.
In August 1963, Fenton applied for a county variance to have a revolving neon sign on a 78-foot pole for the shopping center, because the new Highway 1 underpass made the center less visible. After initial approval, the variance was withdrawn.
The second phase of Rancho Del Mar opened in June 1964, with Leask’s department store, a Santa Cruz mainstay since 1892. The third phase was completed in 1968 and the fourth in 1970. The completed shopping center included 66 businesses.
James Fenton and his family moved to Sandpoint, Idaho in 1972. Rancho Del Mar continued to be THE place to shop in Aptos for several decades but eventually began to show its age.
James Fenton died on Jan. 16, 2005. His wife died in 2008 and their son died in 2011. On Feb. 17, 2012, after 50 years, Safeway Inc., and their development arm, Property Development Centers, completed the purchase of Rancho del Mar with plans to completely remodel the center including a new Safeway market with many new stores and restaurants above it, complete with views of the Monterey Bay. Many people in the community were very upset with the proposal.
Safeway’s merger with Albertsons was announced in 2014 and Property Development Center and its assets, including Rancho Del Mar, were sold to Terramar Retail Centers, (TRC) in January 2015. TRC’s plans only involve a face lift for the center which includes Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) improvements and upgraded utilities. The design theme is “contemporary rural western.”
Except for Safeway, the initial tenants at Rancho Del Mar were a vibrant group of locally owned businesses. Even Erik’s Deli is local. They started in Scotts Valley. Their Rancho Del Mar location was their third deli which opened in October 1977 and their corporate office was upstairs across the food court.
Because Rancho Del Mar had not been sold for 50 years, the taxes were artificially low. The county has benefited from the increased tax valuation from the two recent sales but the shopping center tenants had to pay for the increased taxes as part of their rent. This has caused a number of businesses to relocate or close. Once the remodel is completed, the rent may be the highest in the county which means that the new tenants could likely be corporate chain type stores who can afford those rates. Rancho Del Mar will once again redefine Aptos. Change is constant but sometimes it comes in big chunks.
The Aptos History Museum’s first event of the season will be about Frederick Hihn’s little known railroads to his sawmills. This will include the Valencia Mill in Aptos as well as Gold Gulch, Laurel and King’s Creek. The speaker will be Derek Whaley, author of “Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains.”
In addition, Soup De Jour by Jimmie, will be providing a soup tasting for attendees. Saturday, Nov. 4, 3-4:30 p.m., $10 members and $15 for non-members. Reservations ONLY, 688-1467.