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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

Future of Simi Valley Regional Mall Is Still Uncertain

May 02, 2000|TONY LYSTRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask Simi Valley officials for an update on plans for the city's regional mall, and they'll say the same thing they've said for years: There is no update.

City officials began entertaining visions of food-court pizza, 20%-off sales and holiday shopping mania in the mid-1980s. In 1992, the city bought about 32 acres north of the California 118 for $3.5 million.

Since then, housing tracts and small retail centers have sprung up throughout the city. But the parcel by the freeway has remained a pile of dirt and scrub grass, stalled because the city has been unable to attract major anchor tenants to the project.

Now, though, officials say the time is right for the project to move forward. The housing market is booming, the economy is soaring, local family sizes are growing.

The average home in Simi Valley sells for more than $200,000, and a flurry of new building has speckled the city with homes priced at nearly half a million dollars.

"It all points to a successful market here," said Brian Gabler, Simi Valley's director of economic development.

City Council members and other officials will attend a Las Vegas convention of retailers and shopping mall developers later this month to woo potential developers and anchor tenants.

It will be the fifth time that the city has sent a delegation to the Las Vegas convention. Officials hope that it will not be the fifth time they come home empty-handed.

Despite the optimism of city officials, Simi Valley's effort to build a regional mall faces some daunting obstacles.

Retailers have seen the Simi Valley market as too weak to support a regional mall, officials say, mainly because the city does not have the population density of its neighbors--the San Fernando and Conejo valleys.

Those areas have seen strong retail activity for years, and companies located there don't want to spoil their own business. Macy's, for example, has been reluctant to open a Simi Valley store that would compete with the one in Thousand Oaks.

"Thousand Oaks would have a slightly more appealing demographic for some of the retailers," said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

He said some retailers view Thousand Oaks as an upper-middle class community with higher housing prices, while they see Simi Valley as a more middle-class burg.

The fact that the project has not seen major progress for 15 years may not look promising either.

But examples from around the country show that planning and building malls can take years. A West Nyack, N. Y., mall was built after more than a decade of planning, said Patrice Selleck, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, which will host the Las Vegas convention. In West Nyack's case, some residents protested building the mall because, among other reasons, it was two miles up the road from an existing shopping center.

"They don't normally take that long, but some do," she said.

Should the Simi mall take shape, the city plans to work with an Arcadia development company, which owns 80 acres east of the city parcel, to build a 1-million-square-foot mall chock full of high-end retailers. Officials want to attract stores on a par with Macy's, the Gap and Banana Republic.

Part of Simi Valley's ambition for a mall is a result of necessity.

A mall would stop the diversion of sales tax dollars--the main source of city government revenue--to nearby Thousand Oaks and surrounding cities, officials say.

While Thousand Oaks generates more than $1.4 billion in taxable retail sales a year, Simi Valley--only slightly smaller in population--generates less than half that, $632 million, Kyser said.

Simi Valley's regional mall would also create jobs. And a mall would "complete the city," said City Councilman Glen Becerra, providing "things to our residents that they have to currently travel out of town to get."

One question, of course, is that even if Simi Valley officials get their mall built, will it survive? By some accounts, the odds don't look good.

The regional mall building industry has all but dried up in Southern California, Kyser said. Only two have made it off the drawing board in the past five years, he said. One is planned for Rancho Cucamonga; another was built in Temecula.

And some shopping malls have been fading away. Those in Sherman Oaks, Glendale and Long Beach all died in recent years, Kyser said.

"The shopping mall business is a tough business," he said.

But while some malls have died, the companies that inhabit them haven't.

The Gap clothing store, which has become a mall mainstay, plans at least 320 new stores this year, spokeswoman Anna Lonergan said.

The trick to the Simi Valley mall's success would be its originality, experts agree. Kyser said the Simi area "might support another mall, but it would have to be something different than what you have in Thousand Oaks."

Simi Valley officials have the same idea. They say they aren't sure what the mall would look like, but their visions are grand. They speak of a "shopping experience" where residents would come for great food and great entertainment. Becerra is even kicking around the idea of an Imax theater--the county's first.

For all the talk, the land north of the freeway still amounts only to scrub brush, the aspirations of city officials, and a whole lot of persistence.

"I don't get discouraged," Gabler said. "It is still a promising project that we think will happen."

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