Sunday, March 19, 2006

Vietnamese Refugee Becomes Developer

Editor's Note: Interestingly, the subject of this article apparently spells his last name "Wynn" rather than what has become the convention "Nguyen," which is in fact pronounced "win."


The country's first internationally themed shopping mall, reminiscent of a high-end Disney Epcot village, where visitors dine in faux-France and snap up saris from India, is expected to find a home in Fremont next year.

The mall is the brainchild of developer John Wynn, 51, of San Jose, who fled Vietnam to build a better life. Now he's building his most ambitious dream as a tribute to the country he says allowed him to prosper beyond his expectations.

In this open-air mall just off Interstate 880, Wynn hopes not only to make a profit, but also to build a community gathering place reflecting the diversity of the Bay Area and Fremont, where its 210,000 residents hail from 155 countries and speak 137 languages.

``I was a `poor boy,' a `bad luck' boy,'' said a cheerful Wynn, who changed his surname from Nguyen to reflect his proud assimilation despite a thick accent and intense memories of the past. ``And with a lot of hard work I fulfilled my dream.''

He and his wife, Marie Le, raised four boys, built a flourishing commercial real estate business, and now, he said, his ``dream got bigger.''

``This country helped me,'' he said. ``It takes in anybody. I want to send a message to the world that we are all one.''

And where better to showcase this harmony, Wynn figures, than at the quintessential American shopping experience: a mall? In Wynn's vision, the various regions of the globe will sit happily next to each other in ``villages'' architecturally designed to represent India, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and countries in Europe, Latin America and the United States. The shops are expected to sell goods reflecting those countries. Wynn hopes the 460,000-square-foot mall at 6000 Stevenson Blvd., called the Globe, will be finished at the end of 2007.

Currently, the ``Saigon Village'' section of the mall is under construction, in a space now inhabited by a hodgepodge of drab-looking furniture stores, which must eventually move out so the buildings can be torn down.

Wynn's team bristles at a comparison to Disney's Epcot theme park in Florida, which features pavilions that look and feel like miniature countries. As Fred Kim, one of Wynn's staff members, puts it, the Globe won't be as ``cheesy'' as Disney.

Last week, the Fremont City Council unanimously approved a crucial step in Wynn's plans, essentially giving him the go-ahead for his project. They voted to rezone the property from industrial use to high-volume retail.

Now, the 47-acre plot that Wynn bought for $68 million last summer is ready for koi ponds, metal latticework and a Spanish fountain.

In the heart of the mall, Wynn envisions visitors doing tai chi, playing chess and Chinese checkers, sniffing cherry blossoms, and watching fashion shows with the latest styles from France and Italy, or Bollywood dancing on water fountains that convert into community stages.

Inspired by marketplaces in Singapore, London and New York, Wynn plans to spend about $130 million more on the project -- all private money from his Milpitas firm, Imperial Investment & Development. He wants to work quickly and more independently than if he asked Fremont's redevelopment agency for help.

Wynn's business model is to buy blighted shopping centers and fix them up. Wynn's family and partners own the Vietnamese-oriented Grand Century Shopping Mall and Vietnam Town, both in San Jose; Milpitas Plaza; Vallco Fashion Park in Cupertino; and Santa Clara Square.

In paving the way for the new mall, council members lamented that Fremont consumers spend $900 million annually in retail dollars -- but in neighboring communities.

``This could be magic,'' said Fremont Councilwoman Anu Natarajan, an architect born in India, who earlier suggested to Wynn's staff that they add modern touches to the Little India section of the mall.

But Natarajan warned that the mall must have a stable team of tenants, be centrally managed and provide adequate parking. Also, Natarajan said, the execution of the plan must be sophisticated: ``There's a thin line between a great concept and a Disneyfied mockery of cultures.''

Wynn remained unwaveringly upbeat. Choosing not to speak publicly with his staccato-sounding English, Wynn hired a former Fremont planning director to tell the council that the Globe has letters of intent from retailers -- such as Jackie's Kitchen, owned by Jackie Chan, and Miss Saigon fashions -- to fill slightly more than half the mall space. Wynn also said he's talking to Paolo's Italian restaurant, an Austrian winery and a German brew pub.

No one, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York, has created an entire globe in one shopping mall.

``This gentleman is thinking what `outside the box' could be. He's pushing it to the next level,'' said ICSC spokeswoman Patrice Duker. ``But will it work? We'll just have to wait and see. It's ultimately the consumer who decides.''

Two big concerns for the Globe, Duker noted, are the kind of anchor tenants it can attract and whether independent shops can afford the mall rents. Even casual observers wonder whether shoppers from around the bay will trek to Fremont, a family-friendly but architecturally bland city.

If the Globe's shoppers are counting on DeAnn Martin, 65, of Fremont, then there are challenges ahead.

``I'll stick with The Hub or NewPark Mall,'' Martin said recently while loading her car trunk full of Target bags, referring to two nearby traditional malls. ``I'm just basic.''

But if the mall's success hinges on shoppers such as Brenda LaCosse, then Wynn has a good chance of realizing his dream. LaCosse said she would ``definitely'' try it out because she's ``sick of driving to Palo Alto for nice restaurants.''

Wynn admits he's a man with big dreams. His father died when he was 8, and he's worked ever since: delivering newspapers, tutoring rich kids, doing menial jobs. Wynn came to the United States in 1975, after a lieutenant scooped him aboard a helicopter leaving Vietnam outside the American Embassy. Wynn's first stop was Guam, then Arkansas, and finally California. He signed up for welfare. But 15 days later, he landed a job at a hospital moving dead bodies.

About 30 years ago, he took a real estate seminar as a way to earn extra income, and began attending night school at San Jose's Phoenix University, earning a degree in business administration. He's been a developer since 1985.

Today, Wynn is acutely aware of his good fortune. He's proud that his second-oldest, Joseph Nguyen, 27, is his director of sales and acquisitions.

``I'm no more `bad luck' boy,'' Wynn said. ``Dreams like mine only happen in America.''

Source: San Jose Mercury News

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