The natives are getting restless.
East Hills Mall, that commercial black hole in the middle of east Bakersfield's burgeoning retail revival, seems to be slipping from blighted status to whatever comes after blighted status.
Windows are boarded shut, sidewalks cracked, and the asphalt parking lot has a weed problem perhaps best remedied with a missile strike. Vandals and vagrants have broken in and started fires, the city of Bakersfield reports.
The enclosed mall, once home to national and regional chains like Mervyns, Gottschalks and Harris, has been locked tight for years. It was supposed to have opened this summer as City Lights.
"It looks awful," said Gloria Hutchins, who has lived off Mount Vernon Avenue since 1979 and passes by regularly on her way to other shopping. "They had a fence up, then they took it down. The whole parking lot is full of weeds, and it's been how many years? Too many. People are just tired of looking at it."
City officials are well aware of the situation and have been reaching out to the project developers, City Lights LLC, run by developer Craig Carver, and MarkChris Investments LLC, operated by investors Chris Hayden and Mark Shuman. The partners missed a $7.5 million payment last summer, prompting the property's former owner to file a loan default notice against them Jan. 16.
Jacqui Kitchen, the city's director of development services, says she has been working with the property owners to better secure the vacant mall. The next conversation she needs to have with them, she said, is one that plots a different course for the property.
"Maybe a straight commercial center isn't the right fit," she said Wednesday.
Kitchen suggests a mixed-use development, similar to Market Street, a retail-office-residential town center in the Woodlands, Texas, a suburb north of Houston.
Since its opening in 2004, Market Street has become a blueprint for a commercial paradigm shift, with shops, restaurants, cinema, office suites and hotel accommodations — "a premier urban-style shopping, dining, business and leisure destination," as commercial property developer Trademark characterized it.
The land now occupied by derelict East Hills Mall could evolve into the same sort of live-work-play concept, Kitchen said.
Changing plans would involve significant additional expense at this point, of course, but it might be the best option. Traditional brick-and-mortar retail is struggling everywhere, with Amazon-type operations grabbing bigger market shares daily. Mixed use now seems to be the way to go.
Neither Hayden nor Shuman were in the office Tuesday or otherwise available, a MarkChris employee told me, and she declined to provide contact information for Carver.
East Hills Mall opened in 1986 with the two of its three eventual anchor department stores, a United Artists Theatre and dozens of smaller shops. All of the original stores were gone by 2010, when Gottschalks closed. So, as of next January, east Bakersfield residents will have been dealing with this mess for a decade.
Hutchins just wants to see something — anything but those weeds and plywood-shuttered windows.
"Every place in town they're bringing in new stores," she said. "Over here, East Hills is just sitting. It's an eyesore."
Surely you've seen the studies. Best Small Cities in America. Most Gambling Addicted States. Most Obese Cities. Most Drunken Cities.
Some of these lists are more useful than others.
Here's a new list with potential significance that got my attention: Top 10 Most Popular Markets for Millennials, based on research by the National Association of Realtors. Surprise: We're number one.
Yes, "rough hewn" Bakersfield, as the San Jose Mercury News put it Tuesday, is being taken over by the 23-to-38 age group.
NAR reached its conclusions, published this week, by analyzing population trends, income levels, housing conditions and employment gains in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas. Among the key criteria: Favorable employment opportunities.
Bakersfield has an unemployment rate of 8 percent, double the national rate of 3.8 percent, but another factor weighed heavily: affordable homes. The February median price in Bakersfield was $249,600, according to Zillow. That's roughly half the median price of housing in the Bay Area.
The study reports that 28 percent of the Bakersfield's population is of millennial age, and the trend is moving upward fast: 67 percent of the city's most recent newcomers belong to that age group.
What might this mean for Bakersfield's cultural and economic near-future? Sacramento and Pittsburgh, cities that have benefitted from an influx of this age demographic over the past decade, may offer clues. We know that the restaurant, art and music scenes all blossomed in those cities, and that seems like a good start.
Thinking of starting a new business? Consider the fact that your prospective clients may start skewing younger in the next few years.
Who says there's nothing to do in Bakersfield in terms of musical entertainment? Well, I've said it a few times myself, but that gripe does not apply to May 8, a week from Saturday.
First, the third Boxcar Festival will take place at the Kern County Museum, with Ben and Noel Haggard, Mo Pitney and my favorite local band, Truxton Mile, among the openers. Museum director Mike McCoy says he's especially looking forward to Almeda Bradshaw, a Montana-bred singer-songwriter who looks a little like a young Rose Maddox, right down to her flowered, Western snap-button shirt. The festival starts at 3 p.m. and runs till 10 or so.
Then, Monty Byrom and Big House will be at the Fox Theater for Monty's first big coming-out show since leaving the Buckaroos and the Crystal Palace this past winter. The opening act is Truxton Mile, which should already be warmed up. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Then, over at the Crystal Palace will be Raul Malo, lead singer of the Mavericks, who is performing an acoustic show. Malo does everything from standards to salsa, and he does Buck Owens well enough to have once fooled Buck's aunt into thinking he'd released a comeback record. Nope: It was the Mavericks' 1996 "All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down." The show starts at 7:30. As far as I know, Truxton Mile will not open.
Then, at Lake Buena Vista, southwest of Bakersfield, there's Lightning in a Bottle, a festival of electronic, devotional, folk, blues and other musical genres. The festival, in its 14th year, depending on how you count, will also feature seminars, demonstrations and assorted other learning exhibitions. Saturday will actually be Day 4 of the six-day event. I'm exhausted just thinking abut it.