LA MIRADA — Another would-be white knight has galloped onto the horizon of La Mirada Mall, waving aloft a scheme to rescue the ever-struggling shopping complex from its long life of semi-failure.
This time, city officials say, the rescue plans may work, transforming what is often regarded as an 80-acre mistake into a prosperous development of shops and homes.
"It's been an eyesore and a blight on our community for such a long time that now that it looks like something is going to happen, there's a lot of enthusiasm in the air," City Councilman Art Leslie said.
Two Newport Beach developers want to buy the sprawling, half-empty mall on La Mirada Boulevard, tear down most of its stores, and replace them with new shops and 160 detached, single family homes. By starting anew and paring down the commercial acreage, the developers say they can succeed where a succession of past owners have failed.
Longtime mall watchers say the nearly three-decades-old shopping complex is a badly designed attempt to be something it never could be, a regional mall. Too far from major freeways to draw out-of-town crowds, they point out, the shopping area can only work as a community shopping center. The latest proposal, fashioned by Hopkins Development Co., would make it one.
City Council members, who ultimately would have to approve the plans as a redevelopment project, reacted favorably after the proposal was presented to them last week. "It appears to be a good balance," Mayor Ben Ashley said in an interview. While councilmen indicated they had questions and reservations about some aspects of the project, they all generally liked it.
Nonetheless, City Manager Gary Sloan says the city is three months away from reaching a final development agreement with Hopkins and its partner in the venture, J M Peters Co. That could present a problem for Hopkins, which has put up a $500,000 nonrefundable deposit to buy the $34-million shopping center from the current owners by the end of the month.
"We're not really sure what we're going to do," about the deadline, said company executive Steve Hopkins, adding "We need a little more feedback from the city."
City Considers a Bond
His company is asking La Mirada for a partial zoning change from commercial to residential, redevelopment agency assistance in condemning some of the existing mall leases, and money for public improvements at the site, such as parking, sidewalks and storm gutters.
Sloan said he does not know exactly how much financial help the developers will want, but the city is discussing the possibility of floating a $6-million improvement bond, based on the property tax increases that would flow from the project.
Hopkins said his firm, which has redeveloped several other shopping complexes in the Los Angeles area, would like to retain as many of the mall's existing tenants as possible, including a Lucky grocery store, Toys R Us, Thrifty drug store and a movie theater. At the same time, the developer hopes to add a general merchandise department store along the lines of a Mervyn's or a Target.
The 160 contemporary Mediterranean homes would be built on 24 acres in what is now the rear of the mall, and would be screened from shops by a wall and landscaping. If possible, Hopkins said his company would like to buy the U.S. Post Office, located in the area planned for housing, and raze it to make way for residential units. Under that plan, the post office would be moved to the site of a nearby bowling alley, La Mirada Bowl. Owners of the bowling building have expressed an interest in selling, Hopkins said, but he is just opening discussions with the post office.
Parking and stores, probably also designed with a Mediterranean theme, would be strung along La Mirada Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue. Although the shops of the new mall would be clustered to a greater extent than in the existing, meandering shopping center, the new development would have about the same amount of commercial square footage as the old.
Altogether, a Hopkins consultant told the council, the rebuilt mall and new homes would be worth about $80 million, contributing an extra $300,000 in annual sales tax to the city, and an extra $550,000 in annual property tax to the local redevelopment agency.
Peters has constructed houses in the city before, and Hopkins has revived various moribund shopping complexes in the area, including the former Dutch Village site in Lakewood. "He certainly has a track record throughout Southern California of being able to refurbish deteriorating malls of small and medium size," said Councilman Wayne Rew, referring to Hopkins.
In interviews, several councilmen expressed concern that with approximately seven homes planned per acre, the housing development would be a bit crowded for La Mirada. They also questioned the proposed locations of some of the new stores, wondering if tenants would have enough adjacent parking or sufficient loading access for delivery trucks.
"I see it has some problems, but no problems that can't be corrected," Rew said.
In giving mall owners Jeb Levy and Ray Mallel of Los Angeles a $500,000 deposit on the tract, Hopkins has gone further than other mall suitors. But his is not the only interested company. Sloan said that in the past six months, four other firms have talked to the city about redeveloping the mall with a mix of commercial and residential buildings. One has since dropped out of the picture, two call occasionally, and the fourth, Calmark Development Corp. of Los Angeles, is hovering in the wings, Sloan said.
Don Brumlik, executive vice president of Calmark, said his company was unwilling to hand over a nonreturnable deposit. Hopkins, Brumlik added, was ready to "put their money where their mouth was. It was a bigger gamble than we were willing to take."
Nonetheless, he continued, "We're here, if (Hopkins) falls through."