By Samantha Hermann
When Vince St. Thomas showed up at the food court of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall to do a crossword puzzle he was taken aback by what he found. The center of the food court had been blocked off leaving only the seats around the perimeter available for patrons.
“I have no idea what they are doing.” said St. Thomas, who shopped at the mall on a recent Sunday. “I see all this stuff going on and every time I come by for the last two or three months or so I have been surprised.”
What they are doing is completing an extensive renovation of the mall, which first opened as the Broadway-Crenshaw Center in 1947, and is among the oldest regional shopping centers in the country. The mall saw its last major overhaul in the late 1980’s and has long been considered an economic and cultural hub in South Los Angeles.
But, without any significant renovation in more than 20 years, it was sorely in need of a facelift.
Curtis Hilton, who manages the mall’s GNC store, said it was so rundown that he avoided coming in unless he had to.
“This is like an old looking mall…When I am on my day off I don’t even want to come up in here. I don’t.” he said. “As much as I might need something on that particular day off, I’d rather wait until I come to work to get that, because its not attractive to me. I work here and that’s enough.”
According to the owners of the mall, Capri Urban Investors, the initial 30 million dollar renovation will include a sprucing up of both the interior and exterior of the mall with new fixtures, furniture, and storefronts, as well as the addition of new stores, restaurants, and a movie theater. The theater is set to open over the 2011 July 4th weekend, while the remaining renovations are expected to be complete by November 2011.
Capri also has plans to add a office space, a hotel, condominiums, and outdoor space to the complex in the future.
While customers like St. James may not know exactly what the construction is all about, retailers, who will be open for businesses throughout the renovation, say the construction seems to be keeping some shoppers away.
“Business has dropped more than 50% in some people’s cases,” said Hilton. “I have seen like six or seven businesses get up and close up out of here since January. There’s a lot of people missing.”
Jesus Sanchez, manager of the mall’s Lady Foot Locker store, attributed some of the slowdown to customers not knowing whether or not the mall was still open. Though there are signs plastered on the exterior of the mall announcing that it will remain open throughout the renovation, Sanchez said that because the entrance on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. is closed customers might be confused.
“We are trying to spread the word with our other customers that we are still open,” he said.
Capri and the mall’s management are doing their part as well. “We are very active in the community,” said Sharron King, the mall’s general manager. We try to attend many of the community based meetings that are held.”
Still, even those who do know the mall is open may be avoiding it because, as Ali Uysal, who works at the Pillow Pets cart, put it, “It doesn’t look very good.”
Though Sanchez said he never hears construction going on inside the mall during business hours, there is no mistaking that it is a work in progress. Wires hang out in the open from the ceilings to supply power to the mobile cart stores, bright yellow caution tape abounds, and several areas are blocked off with wooden boards.
Hilton said he often hears complaints from customers. “ ‘This construction makes this mall look ugly.’ I hear that a lot.”
Safety may be another customer concern. St. James said that as he looked around the mall at the construction he wondered if, “something could fall your head.”
Mall management said it was normal protocol to keep a shopping center open during this type of renovation. According to King, they are being vigilant about safety.
“Safety is our number one priority with regard to the construction work that we are doing here,” she said. “We are taking every precaution to ensure that not just our patrons but mall employees and retail employees that are in the mall are safe at all times.”
In fact, the decision to stay open during the renovation was made specifically with retailers in mind. “This is a crucial time for a lot of small businesses and we just could not see disrupting their business,” said King.
Some business is, of course, better than no business and retailers acknowledge that although it may be hurting their cash flow in the short term, the construction is a necessary means to an end.
Though business at Pillow Pets has been down, Uysal was optimistic about post-renovation possibilities. “I think it’s going to improve the business very much,” he said.
Hilton echoed his sentiments. “I think the construction is a good thing. While the grass is growing the horses are starving. This construction process right now that’s like the growing grass. The businesses that are in here right now are like the starving horses. So we have to try to put up and go through with it because this is supposed to be for the betterment of the whole neighborhood.”
Bettering the neighborhood is a big part of what Capri hopes to achieve with the renovation.
“This mall, we consider, an anchor of the corridor,” said King. “Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza can’t help but be a critical component for the rest of the Crenshaw area, so we certainly are putting forth the effort that’s needed here at the mall to revitalize the mall…hopefully [this is something] the rest of the community will continue to build on.”
The fact that the mall’s owners are willing to put money into this project invokes optimism in members of the community. “The neighborhood is troubled. You’ve got to understand this is South Central,” said Hilton, who also lives in the area. “A lot of folks are kind of still edgy about South Central especially after Rodney King back in the 90’s. A lot of investors pulled out of here, so its’ good to find investors pulling back.”
Still, a mall can only do so much. “This neighborhood has kind of sunk all the way down so low with the gang activities and so forth it is going to take a lot more than just putting a new mall in the neighborhood or refurbishing the mall to make it better,” said Hilton.
One thing a mall can do, however, is create jobs. Though specific unemployment statistics for the Baldwin Hills and Crenshaw neighborhoods are not readily available, Employment Development Department statistics for nearby areas of South Los Angeles, like Compton, report that March 2011 unemployment rates were over 20%.
According to the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) the renovation of the mall is expected to create 1,350 construction jobs and 2,600 permanent jobs.
King said an active effort is being made to hire locally, from the Crenshaw and Baldwin Hills communities.
However, in April, community activist Najee Ali, noticed that there did not appear to be many African Americans working the construction jobs produced by the renovation. This was an alarming observation because, according to 2000 census data, more than 70% of the population of Baldwin Hills and Crenshaw are African American.
“We challenged the mall to eventually meet the numbers that were specified in the contract as far as local hires were concerned,” Ali said. “At that point in time it wasn’t up to par.”
Ali met with Ken Lombard, Capri’s president, to discuss his concerns. Though he did not have specific numbers on hand, Ali called the meeting, “very productive.”
“[Lombard] essentially guaranteed us that not only would the goals be met that we were calling for, he said the goal would actually be surpassed,” said Ali.
Beyond creating jobs, the refurbishing of the mall also has the potential help fund Capri’s future plans to add housing, offices, a hotel, and green space to the plaza. Because the project is located in a designated redevelopment area within Los Angeles, some of the increased revenue from property and sales taxes generated by the mall will be invested back into the project.
Billy Chung, a project manager at CRA/LA, said the the benefits to the larger Crenshaw and Baldwin Hills communities will largely be the “ripple effects” created by the refurbished mall. He said a project of this nature is likely encourage other private investors to come in to the community, hopefully spreading the redevelopment.
Hilton, for one, sees this renovation as a catalyst with the potential to spur other improvements in the community.
“I hope it works out and everybody follows suit and just tries to do their best to protect the neighborhood,” he said. “You just need good things in the neighborhood, that’s all it is.”