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Gleaming Mall Struggles to Attract Tenants, Clients : Commerce: The Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza has failed to win over affluent blacks in the minority area.

ABANDONED CONSUMERS: Flight of Business From South Los Angeles. Second in a series.

November 25, 1991|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before Los Angeles and a private developer collaborated to put a major shopping mall within walking distance of her Baldwin Hills home, Deirdre Hill did her shopping across town.

She still does--three years after the $120-million Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza first beckoned the affluent residents of the nearby hilltop neighborhoods.

Hill said she still makes the trek because the May Co. and Broadway stores at the plaza failed to sufficiently upgrade their merchandise and facilities. "They have allowed a beautiful mall to be built around them and they have invested very little in it themselves," she complained.

When the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza opened in 1988, it immediately gained nationwide attention as the first regional mall in the country built in a largely African-American community. The developer, Alexander Haagen Co., said the center--with its skylights, towering palm trees and white-gloved security guards--not only would attract the neighborhood's affluent black professionals but would also "break the color barrier" by luring white shoppers back to the Crenshaw Boulevard commercial strip they had abandoned long ago.

But it has not happened. Since opening, Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza has steadily lost money--more than $9 million, according to a Haagen company spokesman. Only 60% of the plaza's available 120 retail spaces are occupied, and a Los Angeles Times marketing survey found that the plaza ranked 46 in retail sales volume among 59 malls in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

Today, the gleaming art deco structure at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards embodies the frustration and disappointment that can result when visions of community redevelopment meet the harsh realities of the marketplace.

It also underscores the seemingly intractable problem of attracting--and retaining--department stores and other retail outlets in largely minority South Los Angeles, where access to many goods and services is already limited.

The mall has been caught up in a vicious cycle of frustration. Its tenants have been unable to win over their "natural constituency" of blacks with high disposable income because these consumers are accustomed from years of experience to the neighborhood not meeting their consumer needs. Meanwhile, retailers have resisted upgrading merchandise until more affluent shoppers show an interest in their stores. At the same time, whites, fearful of crime, generally have stayed away altogether.

Political decisions also have conflicted with economic needs. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, for example, opposed pursuing the popular Ikea furniture store chain for the mall area because it would increase traffic. But many residents believe that if Ikea came many other retailers would follow.

In another instance, area residents contend that political leaders got in the way of key efforts to boost the mall by attracting a movie house. The mall management was pressured to negotiate only with a black-owned theater, which ultimately could not finance such a deal.

Despite its financial problems, the plaza has received widespread praise for creating jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for blacks. It provides a safe locale for civic functions, a place where parents can find a black Santa Claus at Christmastime and a place for neighborhood celebrations.

Haagen, for one, remains optimistic about the mall's business future. Sales at the mall continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace. "This has been the hardest deal I have ever done in my life," he said. "It has been a long uphill struggle, but every step has been more encouraging."

Improving the mall's business outlook remains a priority for many politicians who represent the area. In recent months, for example, State Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) has initiated a letter-writing campaign to persuade popular national chains conspicuously absent from the mall--including Judy's, Ann Taylor, Miller's Outpost, the Gap, See's Candy and the Limited--to set up operations there. So far, though, the stores have made no commitments.

Some community activists criticize area residents, contending that they must do more to support the mall by shopping there and by refusing to shop with retailers who won't serve their community.

When conceived in the mid-1970s, the mall was to be a major city effort to stem the flight of business and affluent consumers to the suburbs, isolating the inner-city poor. But it has always been a hard sell to business. Mayor Tom Bradley, according to sources close to the negotiations, had to personally lobby the Broadway and May Co. not to close their Crenshaw stores--a necessity for the mall to go forward.

In a nationwide search for a developer, Manhattan Beach-based Haagen, who has built three successful inner-city shopping centers in the Los Angeles area, was the only bidder to emerge.

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