LA MIRADA — For almost 15 years Oren Krager has run a book and gift store in the La Mirada Mall, surviving the ups and downs of a shopping complex that has had more downs than ups. But in two months he will finally have to close shop, a victim of the mall's promised renaissance.
"I have until the first part of March to move and that's it," said Krager, whose Christian Book & Gift Store is one of the few enduring ventures in the sprawling, perpetually troubled mall on La Mirada Boulevard.
Housing Tract Planned
The 72-acre complex was purchased last month by two Newport Beach development companies that plan to tear down most of the existing stores and replace them with new shops and a housing tract of 160 detached, single-family homes. While the developers say they hope many of the mall's 95 or so tenants will return to the new shopping center, they are eager to empty the half-vacant mall and reduce it to rubble.
"We're basically trying to clear out the property as quickly as possible," said Tim Cromwell, project manager for Hopkins Development Co., the main partner in the mall redevelopment. That means eviction notices for tenants such as Krager, who hold short-term leases, and negotiations with long-term lease holders such as the Lucky supermarket and Toys R Us.
The mall's sale has generally brought smiles to a city that has long viewed the almost 30-year-old shopping complex as an economic and aesthetic blunder. "This change is going to help the merchants that are left, and the community. . . . There needs to be a change," said Sam DiSpaltro, president of the mall's soon-to-be dissolved merchant association.
"We're pretty happy," said City Manager Gary Sloan, adding that Hopkins has something many of the mall's previous owners have lacked, professional experience in developing and running shopping centers. "You gotta believe they can put it together."
The prospect of sudden relocation is nonetheless upsetting for many of the smaller shop owners, who are not sure where they are going next or whether their customers will follow them. Several say they had expected the enclosed mall to be torn down in stages, allowing them to remain open until new quarters were ready next door.
"That seems to have gone by the wayside," Krager said. "They're not seeing it from the smaller retail merchants' view; these guys are big." Hopkins has given him the names of some locations he could move to, Krager said, but he is not impressed with them.
Another longtime tenant, tailor John Ferraloro, complained, "I've been here about 14 years and you find you have to start all over again. It's quite a problem, because you have to look for another spot. I didn't think it would be this way to tell you the truth."
Many of the shops are already empty, boarded-up testaments to the mall's declining fortunes. "You could shoot a cannon through it and not hit anybody," said Cromwell.
"The (shops) that have stuck it out have been trying desperately to increase or maintain sales, and it's been pretty dismal," said DiSpaltro, who, like others, attributed the mall's problems to its poor design, distance from major freeways and a history of disinterested owners. Tenants had been "extremely unhappy" with the Los Angeles businessmen who sold the mall to Hopkins, DiSpaltro added.
$1 Million Deposit at Stake
Hopkins and its housing partner in the project, JM Peters Co., showed their proposal to city officials last October in hopes of winning local Redevelopment Agency assistance. But months of negotiations failed to yield a redevelopment agreement, and last month Hopkins and Peters decided to move ahead on their own, paying about $34.5 million for the mall without any promise of city help.
Hopkins had to clinch the sale by the end of last month or lose the nearly $1 million deposit it had given to previous owners Jeb Levy and Ray Mallel. When it became obvious that a redevelopment package would not be completed by then, Cromwell said his company concluded it could handle the venture privately.
As for the fruitless redevelopment talks with the city, Cromwell said: "I guess we asked for too much assistance."
City Manager Sloan agreed, saying Hopkins had sought up to $13 million in city help, some of it unspecified and some of it in the form of such things as road and parking lot improvements. "We couldn't supply half of that," Sloan said. He said local officials are "ecstatic" that the developers were able to buy the property without Redevelopment Agency help.
No Condemnation Power
That means Hopkins will have to operate without benefit of city condemnation powers, but Cromwell said his company is gaining certain advantages by developing the project without government strings attached. For example, Hopkins does not have to worry about giving condemned tenants relocation benefits, and it has greater freedom in terminating leases.
Sloan also noted there is nothing preventing the developers from returning for another stab at some sort of redevelopment deal.
Although Cromwell says his company hopes to raze the enclosed portion of the mall all at once, outlying bigger stores may have to remain open while replacement buildings are constructed. That would allow long-term tenants to move from one store to another without a break in business.
The key to rejuvenating the complex, Hopkins executives believe, is to get rid of the poorly designed regional mall layout that has contributed to its failure. They say the parcel can only succeed commercially as a community shopping center, which is what they want to make it. They intend to reduce the commercial portion of the parcel to about 42 acres, using much of the remaining land, in what is now the rear of the mall, to build a housing development.
They will need city approval to start any construction, and local officials already have given generally favorable reactions to the commercial and residential scheme.