Sometimes the problem becomes the solution, then the problem, then –maybe – the solution. The world is a wheel and not only does what goes around comes around, but if you wait long enough, everything goes in and out of style.
I know; I’m being a bit obtuse. But let’s take a look at the City of Westminster’s ongoing financial crisis. As you probably know – if you are a well-informed and regular visitor to www.orangecountytribune.com – voters will be asked on Nov. 8 to approve a 1 cent sales tax to keep the city afloat. Each year it has to dip into financial reserves to balance its budget, and if nothing changes, that rainy day fund will run dry, perhaps as early as 2018.
There are a lot of reasons for Westminster’s predicament, and some of them go back nearly half a century. When Westminster Mall opened in 1974, it was – for a while – the biggest shopping mall in Orange County. Anchored by four department stores – South Coast Plaza started with two – it became a sales tax powerhouse for the city. Boosters of the mall even opined that there wasn’t even really much of a need for property tax: the mall could do it all.
It was this kind of thinking that led to the city council lowering property tax rates to the lowest in Orange County, and second-lowest in the state. Like so many short-sighted decisions, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Prop. 13 in 1979 basically froze property tax rates in place, but that was OK because the mall was doing so well. Its chief competitor was Huntington Center in Huntington Beach. Located just one offramp to the south, that mall – anchored by a Broadway, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward – reeled and eventually closed.
Broadway and Ward went under, and the Penney store fled to Westminster. Things looked pretty rosy through the end of the 20th century.
But, as the poet said, “Distant hands in foreign lands are turning hidden wheels.” Or to put it another way, the world changed. Competition from stores like Walmart and Target dealt killing strokes to most of the big department stores which anchored enclosed malls. Anyone remember Bullocks, Buffums, Ohrbach’s or Mervyn’s?
The whole idea of an enclosed mall in sunny Southern California started to seem passé. The new concept was a “power center” revolving around the things people liked to do in the 21st century… see movies, eat at restaurants (the more variety the better) and escape the sterile sameness of the mall for something with a little more character.
Huntington Center was reborn in that image as Bella Terra, an outdoor center anchored by a 21-screen movie theater, a Kohl’s department store and, now, an incredibly busy Costco.
That center did a lot of damage to the foot traffic at Westminster, but other, greater trends are doing more. Online shopping is becoming huge: Amazon is the biggest retailer in the world, and it’s increasingly taking bites out of such once bulletproof retailers as Nordstrom’s and Macy’s.
Ah, Macy’s. That venerable chain, immortalized in “Miracle on 42nd Street” is starting to reel, too.
Last week came the news that Macy’s was going to close about 100 of its 700-odd stores: the “low-performing” ones. That ax will fall in January, and if the local store is on the list, well, yikes.
Today’s Westminster Mall is clearly struggling. On a walk-through Tuesday afternoon, I counted 20 vacancies. The upper level is doing all right, but the lower level is looking a bit dark and empty. All of this is bad news for the financial health of the city that relied so heavily on it for its financial life-blood.
What to do? The trend now in retail is heavily toward mixed-use development to recreate the old “downtown” feel. Newer malls like Americana at Brand in Glendale or The Grove in Los Angeles are open-air centers that blend eateries, parkland, retail and housing.
The venerable Laguna Hills Mall in South County is already headed in that direction; it will be turned inside out and become open to the sun. It will include housing, a park and more, retaining its major anchors, which are JC Penney and – yikes! – Macy’s. It will be rebranded as The Five Lagunas.
A rebirth of Westminster Mall won’t do much to help out the city in the short run. Such a major renovation, even if launched today, would take years to complete. But one thing is clear. With a few exceptions – South Coast Plaza, for example – the day of the cookie-cutter indoor mall is past. The end may not yet have arrived for the first incarnation of that center at Bolsa and Goldenwest, but you can see it from here.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears each Wednesday.