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New Suitors Courting the Wallflower of Area Malls

January 15, 1987|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

LA MIRADA — It is the mall that time--and shoppers--forgot.

Miles from the nearest freeway, the La Mirada Mall is often a deserted retail island in this bedroom community. Residents go elsewhere to spend their dollars and buy their goods, a fact that is painfully clear to all who monitor the mall's slumping sales.

But if the City Council has its way, 1987 will mark the beginning of the mall's long-awaited turnaround.

In recent months, City Manager Gary K. Sloan said several developers have contacted the city about acquiring the mall and surrounding property and dramatically altering its look. He said some options include replacing portions of the mall with office buildings and high-density housing, such as condominiums. Sloan would not disclose the names of the developers, but he did say that they are attempting to acquire the mall site from the current owners, Los Angeles businessmen Jeb Levy and Ray Mallet.

Promise Unfulfilled

The two men bought the 80-acre site in 1984 for $25 million, promising all sorts of changes to revive flagging sales at the mall, which was built in 1960. City officials eagerly embraced the change in ownership, hoping years of high vacancy rates and unfulfilled financial promise were finally at an end.

Not so, Sloan said, and today the mall--with its enclosed maze of 59 shops and surrounding property--is back on the market for a reported $32 million. It is in need of a face lift, officials say. A fresh coat of paint would help, and much of the asphalt parking lot is crumbling or dotted with potholes. And some residents say they no longer feel safe shopping there because of poor maintenance and lighting.

In a city survey last year that asked, among other things, about the mall, one resident simply said, "blow it up."

"(The mall) is a blight on the community," said Councilman Art Leslie, who was elected in April, in large part because of his call for sweeping changes at the mall.

But Leslie and others in the city say new owners are only the first step. New uses for the site, including office buildings and high-density residential development, also are needed to revitalize the area and recapture La Mirada shoppers who now prefer malls in Whittier, Buena Park and Cerritos.

There are good reasons the council has listed the mall as its top priority this year. In a city that grew up without a true downtown, the mall and surrounding development on the property--several restaurants, banks and a grocery store--have always been considered the hub of retail activity. As Councilman Wayne Rew said, "La Mirada does not have a downtown, but if it did, (that mall) would be it."

Central Location

Centrally located, it sits at the intersection of La Mirada Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue, two of the city's busiest thoroughfares. The city's pride and cultural joy, the popular Civic Theater, is on mall property, as is the oldest supermarket in town, a Lucky store. The city's main post office is also there, and only a few blocks away on La Mirada Boulevard is the Civic Center.

But for all its symbolic and geographic importance, the mall has never bustled with success, particularly in recent years. Mall manager Norma Carlisle said about half of the mall's 59 stores and fast food outlets are vacant.

One reason, most agree, is that the mall violates the first tenet of real estate: location. While ideally situated for La Mirada residents, the mall has been unable to fulfill its promise as a regional shopping attraction because the nearest freeway is three miles away.

The mall's confusing layout also is blamed for discouraging shoppers. "I'll bet there are some people who have been in that mall for years just trying to find their way out," Rew said sarcastically.

The other drawback has been the lack of a major department store to anchor the center, a must by almost any retail standard. Since Ohrbach's moved to the Los Cerritos Center in 1972, the La Mirada Mall has simply been a collection of small stores, many of them discount outlets. And the chance of landing a big retailer now is "slim and none," Mayor Ben Ashley said. Even past offers of free rent or land have failed to lure a major department store.

"The solution in the past has always been, 'Hey, let's get a major department store, then things will turn around.' No way," Ashley said. "You don't just go out and find a Penney's or May Co. or Broadway. They come to you . . . and nobody is going to come calling to get into that mall."

There may not be much of a mall left if the council pushes ahead with plans now being discussed. Sloan said he hopes to send a plan to revitalize the mall to the council before the end of the month.

Mixed Uses Favored

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