Back in 2011, I posed the question in this column: Can the East Hills Mall be saved?
Many of you said yes. Maybe. And the most common, "I don't know, but I hope so."
After years and years of decline, there appears to be new hope and life for the outdated structure built in 1988 that once was thought to be the catalyst for economic development in northeast Bakersfield.
Last month, local developers Craig and Grant Carver of C & C Properties Inc. and Chris Hayden and Mark Shuman of MarkChris Investments announced they closed escrow on the East Hills Mall, a 414,000-square-foot regional shopping center just off Highway 178 between Mount Vernon Avenue and Oswell Street.
The seller was Retail Equities LLC of Modesto and El Corte Ingles of Madrid, Spain. Duane Keathley, Vince Roche and Josh Sherley of Cushman & Wakefield Pacific Commercial Realty Advisors represented the buyer and seller in the sale.
But the new owners are being clandestine about their plans for the 36-acre plot of land whose biggest tenants are Wal-Mart, Target and a discount movie theater. Long gone are the main anchor stores such as Mervyn's, Gottschalks and Harris. Today the enclosed part of the mall houses mostly small, family-run shops while many sites remain vacant, and it's been that way for years.
So what do shoppers want to see in the mall? "I'm hoping that there's more stores open," said shopper Tina Kellogg. Others are more optimistic. "I hope to see lots of fun stuff," said Francis Gonzalez. "I want a lot more stuff to buy and a lot more reasons to come here."
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but don't expect East Hills to become the next Mall of America. In fact, its next life may not be a mall at all, said Robert Bridges, associate professor at USC's Marshall School of Business, who specializes in real estate feasibility and urban economics.
Bridges is familiar with East Hills Mall. A few years ago, 25 of his students conducted a real estate feasibility study of the mall as a class project. Their conclusion? Demolish the site and start anew. I caught up with Bridges last week and he said he was unaware East Hills Mall had been sold.
"I would be very surprised if any sort of large-scale store were to open its doors there," said Bridges. "My guess is it will have mixed-used development such as a large residential component such as apartments, office spaces with smaller-scale retail shops and restaurants."
Hard statistics support his analysis. Malls in general appear to be a declining if not dying breed. There's been a dramatic drop in traffic, according to the real estate research firm Cushman & Wakefield.
In 2010 there were 35 million visits to malls nationwide. By 2013 there were 17 million visits — a whopping 50 percent decline. And this trend is expected to grow, the report concludes.
Iconic retailers such as Macy's, Sears and Gap are closing stores, leaving malls in a precarious situation. Over at Valley Plaza, Sears has already closed down its auto center — hopefully that's not a sign of things to come.
People are shifting in how they shop, as evidenced by online sales in November when Cyber Monday reached $3.45 billion, a new record, according to data from Adobe. Stores at malls are adjusting as they must if they are to survive.
"Some retailers are using a mall space as a showroom where customers order online at the store," said Bridges.
He mentioned that now would be a good time for the public to speak out about what they want to see constructed at East Hills. Good idea.
I called the new owners of East Hills Mall to try to pry some bit of information about this new venture, but no one returned my call. Very hush-hush. But I am glad something is finally being done for this part of town, which is so underserved, and wish the new owners well in their project. I'd be happy with a Home-Run Inn pizza franchise from Chicago. You got a better suggestion?
Email contributing columnist Jose Gaspar at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.