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.