WEST HILLS — Owners of the Fallbrook Mall have ordered many of the center's smaller, short-term tenants to vacate the premises by March 31 to clear the way for a planned make-over.
But even as store employees packed their merchandise or sold off what remained with liquidation sales, mall owners refused to say what's in store for the center, saying on Monday that they are in negotiations with a number of prospective tenants.
"We are looking at several options for the mall right now and we are talking to a lot of people," said David Keating, spokesman for Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., which owns the 1.2-million square-foot center. "As far as anything definitive, nothing is set in stone."
General Growth Properties officials announced plans last fall to transform the enclosed mall into an outdoor center with discount stores, restaurants and entertainment venues. But Keating would not elaborate Monday on those plans.
Keating said the mall owner is not renewing tenant leases, but refused to say how many would be affected. Mall merchants, however, say they believe up to 90% of the mall's tenants have been told their leases will not be renewed.
The atmosphere at the mall has been dimmed by darkened storefronts, near-empty corridors and customers constantly querying merchants about whether the mall will be closing permanently.
"The wings of the mall are almost empty," added Mitch Garten, general manager for Camelot Jewelers, which has a long-term lease at the center. "The mood here is one of uncertainty and concern about the future."
One casualty is Vicki's Gifts. The store, which has sold cards and stuffed animals in Fallbrook Mall the last 10 years, is closing its doors at the end of March.
The mall make-over has "been a rumor in progress for a number of years, but the reality is setting in," said Vivian Burns, who works at the gift shop.
"Probably like everybody else, the saddest thing is that our customer base is in this mall. I guess we thought we would have a little more time."
Aides to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the West San Fernando Valley district that includes the mall, said they were unaware of any plans for the shopping center or permits that had been pulled for the property.
Whatever the outcome, mall merchants say lease expirations and the lack of any definitive announcements by mall management have fueled scores of rumors about potential new tenants, from big-box retailers such as Costco and Wal-Mart to Dallas-based entertainment-themed restaurant company Dave & Busters.
"As far as who is coming in, we've heard nothing," added Manuel Abounayan, manager of Kristof's Jewelers, which has three years left on its lease and is located near an anchor store. "Right now, it's just a bunch of rumors."
Still, Abounayan notes the changeover is part of what he hopes will be a positive trend for the 35-year-old shopping center. It's an effort, he says, "to make changes to get [the mall] to a better position."
Industry experts say that to flourish, Fallbrook Mall faces the challenge of fickle consumers and changing demographics.
In addition, they say, the shopping center also is playing catch-up with major upgrades that malls typically make every 5 to 7 years. Fallbrook Mall has not undertaken such changes since 1985, according to the 2001 Directory of Major Malls Inc.
"In all likelihood, they are changing the tenant mixes to try to reach out to the changes in consumer-shopping patterns and demographic changes," said Patrice Selleck, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "Like others, they are also looking to add in an entertainment component to be more than just a retail shopping center."
Last year, the mall suffered the loss of its 10-screen General Cinema multiplex, which closed amid the chain's financial problems. Last month, J.C. Penney announced it would close its outlet store at the mall at the end of April, also as part of a companywide cutback.
Stuart Axlerod, who analyzes General Growth Properties Inc. for Lehman Bros. Inc., says mall make-overs are not easy, especially at a suburban mall that caters to a middle-class clientele.
"This is a challenging endeavor to upgrade the tenant base and increase sales," Axlerod said. "In part, it's a question of how much they are willing to invest in the property."
The mall, located 21 miles from downtown Los Angeles on Victory Boulevard and Fallbrook Avenue, has 120 stores. Anchor tenants include Burlington Coat Factory, Mervyn's, Sports Chalet, K mart and Target.
A slew of smaller stores cover retail niches such as women's ready-to-wear fashions, gift and specialty items, and shoes.
In the rain and cold Monday, 71-year-old Betty Colvin said she lamented a move away from mom-and-pop stores.
"Being a resident here for 30 years, I've seen a lot of changes," said Colvin, of West Hills.
"But the mall is pretty good. It's kept clean, and it's got stores that the general public uses. It's a gathering place for families."