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'Sears Hole' Filling Up With Plans

August 27, 1987|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — It is a vacant lot of extraordinary proportions. Its potential is so exceptional that it has been studied, re-studied and studied again.

It is "the hole where the Sears store used to be," in the words of Hahn Co. President John Gilchrist, builder of the adjacent Long Beach Plaza mall.

And now, the authors of the latest study on the 7.6-acre, two-block-long downtown site have said that studies should end and construction begin on a neighborhood shopping center.

The city manager is studying that recommendation and will forward his own to the City Council within 60 days. And another study is expected by January.

All of which led Redevelopment Agency Director Roger Anderman to say this week:

"At this point, we have so many recommendations that we need to give some careful consideration to them all before drawing any conclusions."

What to do with the Sears site has been on the minds of city officials since the department store, plagued by shoplifters and slumping sales, closed after more than 50 years in 1983.

The Redevelopment Agency bought the store and several others north of 4th Street and east of Long Beach Boulevard, then tore them down.

Last September, a city consultant said the acreage should become a unique, non-traditional retail center with a theme--a Pacific Rim market, for example. Discount stores such as Ross and Marshalls are also feasible, the consultant said.

In June, a second consultant said in a broad, new downtown master plan that the Sears site should be occupied primarily by apartments or condos. An elaboration of that report is due in late December.

This month's study by a task force of local business leaders said the neighborhood shopping center should be built.

Likewise, no consensus exists among public officials about what to do with the vacant blocks or when to do it.

Mayor Ernie Kell said he sees no "real dire need" to develop "our last good retail site" for 10 years or so.

At that point, with the rest of the downtown bustling with newly arrived upscale residents, an I. Magnin or Bullock's department store might fit nicely, he said.

The Sears site could be used temporarily as a Long Beach Unified School District campus, Kell said. The district is looking for a site to set up mobile classrooms while a downtown elementary school is being rehabilitated, he said.

Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, whose district includes the property, likes the idea of new apartments and retail stores. But his wife would "love to see a Nordstroms or Bloomingdale's," he said.

Nor does Braude see a pressing need to move quickly, since there is so much other development activity downtown. An open-air market "with a specialty flavor" might work well in the meantime, he said.

"There are those of us who dream a lot," and then there are developers and businessmen who want quicker action, Braude said.

In fact, the business leaders' report to the City Council two weeks ago carried a sense of urgency.

The 23-member Retail Task Force recommended construction of a community shopping center with a large supermarket, drug store, assorted shops and, perhaps, movie theaters and apartments.

Task force chairman Tom Formica said its recommendations should be implemented soon so that downtown residents will have an up-to-date place to shop for their basic needs. Two old supermarkets currently serve the extended downtown area.

The new shopping center would also lure thousands of potential customers a week to the five-year-old, 140-store Plaza mall, where business has improved but is still below that at most similarly sized centers in Southern California.

"I think the time to act on the Sears site is now. The city desperately needs to start building neighborhood centers for existing residents and as a catalyst for new housing," said Formica, executive vice president of Newman Brettin Properties, a prominent Long Beach developer.

"You can't just say we're going to wave a magic wand and 5,000 or 6,000 more housing units are going to appear," he said.

Though city officials project 7,000 new residences for the 421-acre downtown redevelopment zone, only about 200 have been built so far. And Formica said he would urge public officials not to hold the important Sears site for use in a new, affluent downtown that may not exist for many years.

"Developing that site is the right decision for now," he said. "Twenty years from now, somebody might say we should have done something different. But that's 20 years from now."

Developers have always been interested in the site.

Since 1983, proposals for community shopping centers and major discount stores have repeatedly been rejected by the Redevelopment Agency as too small, Anderman said.

Anderman refused additional comment this week, saying his opinions will be included in City Manager James C. Hankla's report on the task force's recommendations.

"I don't want to chalk off that (task force) recommendation," he said.

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