In the end, the dilapidated, weed-strewn property that is East Hills Mall boomeranged on its former owner.
Modesto-based The Save Mart Cos. Inc., still owed money from local investors with lofty plans to demolish and redevelop the mall, recently bought back the 350,500-square-foot property rather than auction it off on the steps of Bakersfield City Hall.
Purchase price: $10. That sum also wipes away the sellers' debt of more than $7.7 million to Save Mart.
The sale by Bakersfield-based City Lights LLC and Mark Chris Investments LLC, recorded Monday after an agreement was reached late last month, throws a wrench in an ambitious proposal city officials had hoped would result in the novel reuse of one of the city's most prominently blighted properties.
"The transfer of the property is an unfortunate turn of events and means that the developer will not be moving forward with immediate demolition of the mall and redevelopment of the site as was previously promised," Bakersfield Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen wrote in an email late Thursday.
"However, the City is still very supportive of redevelopment of the site as we have been from day 1," she continued. "I am still a major advocate for a mixed-use concept on the site, and I see this change in ownership as an opportunity. Clearly the traditional shopping center concept proposed almost two years ago did not close tenant leases in this new market reality."
Kitchen suggested that the site needed something more innovative and responsive to the new market trends.
"I encourage the ownership to rethink the layout and develop a concept that blends retail with restaurants, entertainment, housing, education and more," she said. "This site is so unique within Bakersfield, and with the right concept and investment it can be something iconic and truly remarkable."
The local investment group did not respond to repeated requests for comment over a two-day period.
Save Mart spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld said it's too early to know what's ahead for the mall property.
“We have controlled the property for a couple of days and we’re assessing all of our options,” she said.
The collapse of the development illustrates the challenges shopping center developers face in the age of e-commerce. Many retailers that have traditionally leased space in malls are now pulling back and instead investing in online sales.
Once a bustling mall, East Hills faltered after losing key tenants Gottschalks and Mervyn's in the early days of the Great Recession. Hopes for its redevelopment were complicated by the property's split ownership.
Local developers Craig Carver, Grant Carver, Chris Hayden and Mark Shuman agreed in December 2016 to pay then-owner Save Mart $8.75 million for the mall. But rather than insist on outside financing, the Modesto grocery chain agreed to finance the purchase in exchange for a $1 million down payment.
The local group proposed to tear down the property and replace it with an open-air shopping, dining and entertainment center. City officials supported the concept, even as they became increasingly concerned about the property's deteriorating condition and signs it had become a de-facto shelter for people with nowhere else to live. Meanwhile, scheduled opening dates came and went without noticeable progress.
Records show City Lights and Mark Chris missed a $7.5 million loan payment on June 29, 2018. That led Save Mart to declare them in default in January, initiating foreclosure proceedings.
Auctions of the property were repeatedly scheduled and postponed in recent months, raising expectations the parties were either working out new financing terms or the property's sale to an outside entity.
But on Wednesday, an auction that had been set for 10 a.m. was cancelled, not postponed, which suggested some sort of deal had been reached. Not until Thursday, when the sale transaction showed up on the county Assessor-Recorder's office, did it become clear the local investors had thrown in the towel and ownership had reverted to Save Mart.