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Coddingtown has been waiting years for a shot in the arm.

It now appears to be coming in the form of an expansive Whole Foods grocery store, planned for a late September opening.

The store brings with it the potential for new vitality and increased foot traffic to the half-century-old shopping center in west Santa Rosa that now may be best known for its vacant spaces and scarcity of shoppers.

Merchants there are pointing to the upscale market as the chance for a new era.

"We're anxiously awaiting Whole Foods," said Lynn Elmer, the manager at Mara Shepard Designer Jewelry.

The opening comes as the mall's developer pushes to transform Coddingtown and its surroundings into a hub of "transit oriented development" that would involve new residences, businesses and a commuter rail station.

"We think there's nowhere to go but up," said Brad Baker, CEO of Codding Enterprises, the company that since 2005 has co-owned Coddingtown with shopping mall giant Simon Property Group of Indianapolis.

The improvement efforts could take a decade, Baker acknowledged, but he sees opportunity to turn the Coddingtown area into "a very connected, very energetic, fun, vibrant place where people could live and work."

The nature of Coddingtown's future likely will depend on potential developments outside the mall.

Transit officials recently voted to study building a commuter rail station on Guerneville Road less than a half-mile west of Coddingtown.

If the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board decides to build it as part of their planned rail system, it would open the door for mixed-use development in an area already approved for city redevelopment aid.

Also in the mix is a proposed pedestrian/bike bridge over Highway 101 that would connect the rail station with Santa Rosa Junior College.

Iconic developer Hugh Codding opened Coddingtown in 1962 and enclosed the mall two decades later to compete with the new downtown shopping center, Santa Rosa Plaza.

Codding managed to delay its construction for 13 years with lawsuits that eventually failed, leaving him with a $24 million judgement. He died in April at age 92.

Coddingtown's recent history has involved more declines than steps forward. A past study by the City of Santa Rosa found that shopper visits to the center dropped from 4.3 million to 3.2 million between 1994 and 2004.

Last summer, the mall lost Gottschalks, one of its three largest tenants, and a half-dozen stores left the previous winter after a miserable holiday shopping season.

The center now has fewer than 70 tenants and about 20 vacant spaces.

Another big tenant, sporting goods retailer Big 5, on Friday opened a new store nearby on Cleveland Avenue. For now, the Coddingtown store remains open, too, but a spokesmen said the company's lease at the shopping center ends late next year.

John Furtado, owner of Village Sewing Center at Coddingtown, readily noted that "right now there's not a lot of draw" at the shopping center.

His business doesn't depend on foot traffic, Furtado said, "but if I had a little hot dog stand in the mall, I'd probably be dying right now."

Other merchants maintain that retailers everywhere have struggled. They point to Santa Rosa Plaza, also owned by Simon, which still hasn't been able to fill the vacancy left when major tenant Mervyns closed in late 2008.

"Business is not good anywhere," said Sherry Martin, owner of the Thomas Kinkade Gallery at Coddingtown. "So it doesn't matter where you're at right now."

Merchants predict the 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods store will attract new customers, and a Whole Foods spokesman said his company wants to play a role in helping Coddingtown "come back into its former glory."

"I'm looking forward to Whole Foods kind of becoming an anchor tenant in that mall and helping revitalize that mall," said R. Adam Smith, a senior design coordinator for the company.

The store's opening was delayed two years, which spokesmen attributed to the poor economy and the need to complete other stores that were planned before Coddingtown.

Baker said officials for Codding Enterprises and Simon will talk this summer about whether to tear down the old Gottschalks space or somehow modify it to accommodate three or four different stores.

And after Big 5 departs, Baker predicts that a long-anticipated mall renovation will begin along the mall's highly visible north face.

A Simon spokeswoman declined comment about upcoming plans for the shopping center.

Codding Enterprises, which owns other commercial property around the mall, also has been active in lobbying Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials to build a station on Guerneville Road. The company paid $20,000 for a site study that was used by SMART planners.

Should SMART's leaders choose the Coddingtown site, the city of Santa Rosa is prepared to spend $400,000 on a study of land within a half mile of the planned rail station. The council would consider increasing the neighborhood's density because a larger residential population "really increases ridership," said city planner Lisa Kranz.

As well, the shopping center sits in the Gateways Redevelopment Project. Four years ago a Simon official wrote the city, indicating that his company planned to seek redevelopment aid to help in Coddingtown's renovation plans.

Baker last week said he hopes the city "would consider investing" to improve the center and the neighborhood.

Jocelyn Lundgren, a manager for the city's Economic Development and Housing Department, said the city remains interested in assisting businesses in the redevelopment area, "particularly in this severely down economy."

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.