After all the drama at East Hills Mall — the slow death, the purchase by local developers, foreclosure proceedings and then an auction that never happened — the question remains: What should be done with the property?

On one level, the mall's neighbors in northeast Bakersfield are no closer to knowing what lies ahead after the former and current owner, Modesto-based The Save Mart Cos. Inc., retook possession of the 350,500-square-foot property earlier this month.

But on another level, the high-level thinking that has guided years of debate over how to reuse the property very much continues. And in light of the mall industry's struggles with e-commerce, new ideas are popping up that are testing City Hall's assumptions on what, really, is the site's highest and best use.

Save Mart, it turns out, has never stated publicly how it would redevelop the mall. It successfully pieced together constituent parcels but neglected to specify what it thought should be done with the place. It left that to the local developers who agreed to pay $8.5 million for the mall but didn't.

City officials, on the other hand, had a pretty good idea what they would like to see done with it. They wanted a mixed-use development combining retail, entertainment, offices and multi-family residential.

But there may be good reason to rethink that idea. The kind of national retailers ready to anchor a development like that are in short supply these days, worried that any large investment — even in an area underserved by retail, as northeast Bakersfield is — could backfire as consumers increasingly shop online instead of driving to the store.

So, what about minimizing the site's retail and instead filling up the property with something like self-storage, light industrial or a distribution center?

"It's not going to be a retail center going forward," said Jeffrey Green, a Phoenix-based partner at Hoffman Strategy Group, which does feasibility studies for retail, office, hotel, lodging and other uses of struggling mall sites.

Noting that no malls were built in the United States last year, and only one is currently under construction, in Connecticut, Green said Bakersfield may want to reconsider its insistence on a retail-heavy project incorporating other consumer-focused uses.

At most, asserted Green, who is familiar with Bakersfield but not intimately so, East Hills can support 30,000 square feet of retail, most of it restaurants.

The distribution-center idea sounds intriguing: Kern County has proved to be an attractive place for such projects, evident most recently in the Amazon project being built near Meadows Field Airport.

City Hall, however, is unimpressed. City Manager Alan Tandy allowed the property would be a benefit if it became a major employment center and job creator. But he sees a downside, too.

"If you imagine the worst case of those type of uses that is quite another thing," he wrote in an email Monday.

Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen is equally skeptical. A strong proponent of a mixed-use development as opposed to strictly retail, she says an industrial use is incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

"A distribution center might work from a comparability standpoint, but honestly I do not think that is the highest and best use of this unique property," she noted by email.

Bakersfield commercial real estate broker Scott Underhill said he wholeheartedly agrees with Kitchen. To him, a distribution center misses the point. Not only would it be hard to get tractor-trailers in and out of the site, but the surrounding retailers could use just the right addition to address pent-up demand for new stores.

Neither would a mall upgrade work, he said. The mall needs to be torn down.

"What replaces (East Hills) will be a hybrid," he said Monday. "There absolutely will be a retail component," he added, saying multi-family residential, retail and entertainment are the best bets.

Save Mart, for its part, said it's open to suggestion.

Spokeswoman Victoria Castro said taking back the property from local developers has given the company a chance to take a new look at the mall. Even so, she was unable to say whether the company plans to develop the property itself or sell it to developers with their own ideas.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business

(13) comments

Sramos

Oh just build an IKEA already! 🙄

2carpoor

As the buildings are standing and bus routes are near, why not encourage Clinica Sierra Vista and,The homeless center and the Mission at Kern Co to move there?

Lilyrose

Outdoor sports in Bakersfield is extremely dangerous due to the unhealthy air. Forget giving the excuse of heat, it's the filth. So until you are willing to address the real issue , no mall, no investment from out of the area will come in with something positive. Valley view doesn't exist. No valley can been seen because of year around smog. Stop being the joke and fight hard to clean up the oil, pesticides and dairy . Your Planning Dept and City Representatives have a responsibility to provide a safe and healthy community, but they haven't. So why would they expect any investors to come here and take this place seriously . They don't. Clean house Bakersfield !

Starjasso

I think a bass pro shop would be a great idea, it could bring more family activities all year round. And a grocery store, we need more on this side of town. And a Theater we need our theater back.

JR

There is no money in Bakersfield. That's why so many restaurants have closed here. Lack of business, as well as lack of safe food prep, storage and clean facilities. When I go to the Valley Plaza on Ming, there's always a ton of people, walking OUTSIDE the stores, not inside, buying stuff. It seems more like a town plaza or open air market, than a place for serious shopping. The exceptions seem to be the inexpensive stores like NYC Inc. or Old Navy. However, Macy's always has a lot of people milling around inside but that's because it's one of the entrances to the mall, So, I think those who say retail is a dead-in-the-water idea, are right. Why can't the city planners just make a chart of all the thriving and succeeding businesses in Bakersfield and replicate some of those. This town also badly needs affordable housing for seniors and families. So if apartments are included, a certain percentage should be allocated to low-income tenants. I also think if there is cooperation, and smart, appropriate planning by all concerned, this could be a vital, dynamic, and important place for residents of Bakersfield to go. It could be a huge success if the powers that be come at it from the right perspective.

dlc

Whoever originally developed the East Hills Mall did a pretty good job, but then they made the fatal mistake of developing the surrounding land on the perimeter of the mall for clients like Target and Walmart which siphoned customers away from Mervyn's and Gottchalks (two of the mall's anchors). That lack of foot traffic rippled through the mall. The clothing and product choices at Walmart and Target aren't really that much different than Mervyn's and Gottschalks? So why bother with Mervyn's and Gottchhalks? Why did the city allow those big box stores to go in so close to the established mall? Had the city required offices, restaurants, single and multi-family residential in those locations north of Bernard street and between Oswell and Mount Vernon, that were on the periphery of the mall, that mall would be thriving today and the city would have the tax revenue from it. The city should've directed the big box Target, Walmart, Big Lots and Home Depot to locate down at the either old Hillcrest Shopping Center on Niles or the College Heights Shopping Center over on Columbus (which, by the way, now has a Lowes and a Dollar Tree). Meanwhile, we have one supermarket, Albertson's on Mt Vernon servings the entire area and the East Hills Mall is a fine example of urban blight in the middle of an otherwise thriving area. SaveMart should level the East Hills Mall, build a new but smaller shopping center with a grocery store on half the land and sell the other half for use as offices, restaurants and multi-family residential. The city planning department really made some bad decisions allowing the former developers to do whatever they wanted up there, it's a mess.

yorkies2014

what are city planners being paid for?...sounds like the last scheme was just pie in the sky....no mall has been built in the whole US of A this year?...really?....should we really be thanking Amazon? seems like they have quite a hold on us all...

chargersfan

Bass Pro.

BakoGuy805

Fry’s electronics store and restaurants. Done.

Marshal Clay Farr

Build a Triple AAA Baseball/ Special Events - Concerts stadium surrounded by restaurants, breweries and taverns, which overlook the city and southern valley.. Of course, first secure a contract for a Triple AAA Baseball Team.

JR

I think you've hit on a great idea. If the Condors draw a huge crowd, then a sports arena, et al, just may be the answer. From what I know about Bakersfield residents, they don't go to restaurants much and they don't shop in retail stores much but they seem to like family activities a lot.

JimmyDude

I agree with Marshal and JR - Why though didn't the Bakersfield Blaze work? I think they played their last season the year we moved here. Went to a handful of games and had a great time! Maybe the heat? Too hot here for an outdoor summertime league?

Patricia Edna

And make sure it faces the right direction so the batters aren’t staring into the sun!

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