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New owners begin tearing down former East Hills Mall

Demolition of the former East Hills Mall has begun as new owners of the 36-acre property in northeast Bakersfield mull how to balance demand for new retail in the area with other possible uses.

On Thursday, an excavator made progress tearing down part of the building's northern-central area and loading debris into large dumpsters. A developer representative said the site will be cleared by the first quarter of next year, if not the end of 2021.

No formal redevelopment plan has been submitted to the city since a group led by Southern California developer-investors Stephen Zimmerman and Michael Heslov paid about $7.2 million in June for the dilapidated shopping center.

The property had attracted transients and others who vandalized the structure, even causing fires that had to be put out by Bakersfield firefighters. As a result, city officials in 2019 called on the property's former owners to clear and secure the site.

City Hall issued a demolition permit to the owners on Aug. 3.

Bakersfield commercial property broker Vince Roche, executive director and principal at Pacific Commercial Realty Advisors, said there is clearly significant demand for retail in the area but that the new owners want to take their time before deciding what to do with the property.

"They're just starting to talk to architects. The haven't done a site plan," Roche said, adding that the owners are "staying open-minded" and that studies may be done during the next couple of months in an effort to compare potential uses with market demand.

"There’s just not any huge rush. They want to do it right and they're just going to take their time to do it right,” he said. "Sometimes not being in a hurry works to your benefit."

A city spokesman said city officials have not had any recent discussions with the new owners about their plans for the property.

The former mall has changed hands several times in recent years. Proposals for reusing it have generally called for mixed-use redevelopment, including retail, offices and residential, but none made it as far as demolition.

Roche, explaining the decision to move forward with the demolition, called the mall structure “functionally obsolete, beyond repair” and added the new owners bought it with land value in mind.