By Jim Tortolano
Almost before it really got started, he summed it up.
“I haven’t seen this many people in Westminster Mall in a while,” Chet Simmons, assistant city manager and community development director said Tuesday evening.
It was at that open house outside an entrance to the closed Sears department store that Westminster city employees, consultants and residents met to consider ways to fill that shopping center again, likely in a very new fashion.
About 400 people packed an area on the lower level of the vacancy-plagued enclosed mall to hear and talk about the future of what was once Orange County’s largest.
Wendy Nowak of Placeworks, which also helped prepare the city’s general plan, spoke about the changing times.
“It’s not unusual for malls that were planned in the Sixties that were auto-oriented with huge parking lots to try to transition,” she said.
The mall, first opened in 1974, is about 100 acres, equivalent to 75 football fields. It is about twice the size of Main Place in Santa Ana, and the property of seven owners. It’s anchored by Macy’s, JC Penney and Target department stores, but in the interior are dozens of vacant smaller storefronts.
“How does Westminster [Mall] set itself apart from other projects?” she said. The city and consultant studied economic and demographic factors, including an aging population and housing stock.
The general plan approved the mall area for “mixed-use” zoning as a combination of housing and retail, as well as office and hotel.
Citing input from members of the general plan advisory committee in favor of creating more of an experience-oriented destination, she said “One of the desires was to create a place where people could hang out, do more than one thing – not just shopping, although shopping is very important.”
As the specific plan for the mall area develops, being weighed are issues like landscaping, building heights, traffic circulation, etc. So far no such plans have been submitted by property owners, although the city wants to coordinate them all to make it into a unified project.
Among the items requested by residents for the new mall, both in the community survey and on Tuesday, were:
- a movie theater
- activities for children
- green space
- open space
- a promenade
- bike paths
- farmer’s market
- dog park.
- solving transportation and circulation issues, including bicycle access and driving services such as Lyft and Uber.
Although the organizers were very pleased both with the earlier survey – almost 2,000 residents responded – and the turnout Tuesday night – the missing link in terms of participation was among younger residents. The town hall throng skewed heavily toward middle age and seniors.
But there will be more opportunities for input into the process. According to Nowak, the timeline for a final specific plan submitted to the planning commission and city council for approval isn’t until the spring of 2020.