Prospective buyers of the boarded-up East Hills Mall recently reached out to Bakersfield city officials with a new vision for demolishing and redeveloping the property into a village-like mixed-use center.
While it remains unclear who the interested party is, and the existing owners say they have not yet entered escrow to sell the property, the meetings earlier this month at City Hall suggest the dilapidated mall continues to attract interest among investors looking to move forward with an overhaul of the site.
"If the financials work out for them, I'd say that they're a very serious contender" to buy the property, Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen said, referring to a meeting she had in the last several days with real estate professionals representing potential buyers of the mall in northeast Bakersfield.
"I don't really have a sense of the timeline but the folks that I spoke with were obviously well-versed in community development and had experience of developing other areas of Southern California," she said.
Renewed interest in the property has come less than three months after ownership of the mall reverted to Modesto-based The Save Mart Cos. Inc.
The grocery-store chain paid $10 in early June to retake possession following a loan default by local investors who bought the property in December 2016 and proposed a mixed-use, dining-shopping-entertainment center, only to miss loan payments after lease negotiations proved unsuccessful.
Save Mart declined to comment other than to say it will notify The Californian as soon as it has entered into a formal agreement to sell the mall.
Meanwhile, the company recently responded to city officials' concerns that the property had slipped into blight, with unsightly weeds growing in the parking lot and people breaking into the mall's interior and setting fires, among other problems.
The weeds were abated and an "ineffective" chain-link fence was replaced by a stronger barrier with posts driven into the ground, City of Bakersfield Code Enforcement Supervisor David Paquette said.
"They got that stuff cleaned up," Paquette said. He added that the new owner has secured the mall's doors against unauthorized entry and hired a company to patrol the property.
"It's still an imperfect property," he said, "but they're keeping it up to meet some minimum standards, at least."
Kitchen described her meeting with the potential buyer's representatives as unofficial but said, "I feel like it's real."
The representatives asked her what has been permitted at the site, she said. After being told the latest plan was for an interior surface parking lot flanked by stores, restaurants and entertainment options, the representatives asked what level of flexibility the city might be willing to extend to possible new owners.
The concept expressed by the agents, she said, was for a "more village-integrated layout" found in cities outside Bakersfield.
"The message I relayed to them is that we're extremely supportive of redevelopment of that site and we're interested in a redesign that will help close the deals on the leases," she said.