The new ‘old mall’

North Valley Plaza will see destruction and then rebirth as an open-air neighborhood center

BY DESIGN David Geiser, director of design and construction for M & H Realty Partners, explains plans for a North Valley Plaza remodel to the city Architectural Review Board. In the background is Keith Mittemeyer, a partner in Urban Arena Construction Architects.

BY DESIGN David Geiser, director of design and construction for M & H Realty Partners, explains plans for a North Valley Plaza remodel to the city Architectural Review Board. In the background is Keith Mittemeyer, a partner in Urban Arena Construction Architects.

photo by Tom Angel

Survey says? A couple of years ago, M & H Realty Partners hired Chico State University’s Survey Research Center to phone more than 400 people for the “Marketing Strategies for the North Valley Plaza Survey Project.” They asked what types of businesses customers would like to see there. The results were never made public.

Acknowledging that business has long been lagging at the 33-year-old North Valley Plaza, its owners are launching a massive remodel intended to change the feel of the mall to that of a “neighborhood center"—albeit one heavy on the chain retailers and parking lots.

The mall’s owner—M & H Realty Partners of San Francisco—is planning to tear down the parking structure, erect new buildings on the edges of the property and gut the interior of the mall and make it an inviting, open-air plaza. It’s an ambitious chance-of-face that has observers wondering if higher rents could squeeze out small, local businesses—or if customers even care about that type of thing anymore.

The hot spot in town when it was first opened in 1968, the NVP has of late lived in the shadow of the “new mall,” meaning the Chico Mall that opened in 1988. When that mall opened, it lured away J.C. Penney, other retailers and plenty of shoppers.

In December 1997, M & H Realty Partners of San Francisco bought the mall. The company has been tight-lipped ever since about its plans for the complex, asking that members of the media instead wait for celebratory press conferences—like the one when the 14-screen Tinseltown theater opened a couple of years ago.

Local NVP management referred all questions to M & H’s project manager, Jain Wager, who was out of the office last week and did not return calls for comment.

But it never hurts to take in an Architectural Review Board meeting now and then.

At Oct. 17’s ARB meeting, the city board gave conceptual approval to M & H’s plans, which were detailed by David Geiser, M & H’s San Diego-based director of design and construction. (He oversaw the building of Cinemark’s Tinseltown.)

“It’s no secret that the mall has not been doing well. We’re making an attempt to save the project,” Geiser said. He said M & H’s “M.O.” is to “buy these old … centers located in the heart of town” and convince tenants who think they want to be at the end of town that if they build it, shoppers will come.

“It hasn’t been as successful as we wanted it to be, but we have great optimism that this will be the project that will turn the corner for the North Valley Plaza,” Geiser said.

Once the middle of the mall is torn down in January or February 2002 and a parking lot and pedestrian “courtyard” are put in, the present parking structure will fall to make way for two new buildings with four tenants at Cohasset Road and East Avenue, making better use of a very visible corner. Geiser said he thinks they have a deal with Starbucks, and he also mentioned “similar small retail uses” like bagel, juice or sandwich shops. There also might be a bank, and a “key component” is a supermarket where Wards once sat. The company also plans to “quickly” lease out the two largest, vacant buildings to anchor tenants.

The rumor is that Albertson’s will move across East Avenue to the NVP. Spokesperson Stacia Levenfeld said that “we’ve been looking for another site” but couldn’t confirm whether an Albertson’s would be replaced or added in Chico.

“We’re creating a neighborhood component … as opposed to the retail center that we lost to the Chico Mall,” Geiser said, handing out paint color samples and mentioning a stucco, Mission-style design theme that’s not as “monochromatic.”

The NVP’s former owner, Macerich, was thought of as kind of an absentee landlord, so the sale to M & H made tenants hopeful.

The company made a few changes, like ousting Craft Warehouse in bringing in a couple of discount-type stores, including one that soon closed. The outside of the mall was repainted in a more attractive, updated color scheme.

Still, the mall, which always seemed to be wanting for traffic, didn’t make a huge turnaround, although the opening of Cinemark’s 14-screen theater, Tinseltown, certainly helped.

Geiser said at the ARB meeting that it was especially disappointing when Montgomery Ward went bankrupt and closed. “The building was of such a date and condition that we had to tear it down.”

Then, a few months ago, M & H told many of its tenants they had to move out within 30 days to make way for unexplained changes. Perhaps coincidentally, most of those that had to pack up were the locally owned, mom-and-pop businesses like Sofia’s yarn and gift shop, Dove’s Secret Garden gift shop and the One of a Kind handicrafts and antique store. Also forced to leave was Computers for Schools, which had been staying rent-free in a since-demolished building outside the main mall.

Dove Detches, who still hopes to reopen Dove’s Secret Garden somewhere, said she was disappointed that she had to leave after eight years—especially right before the Christmas season, when the seasonal merchandise had already been bought and yet there was not much time to find a new place.

“My customers knew me and loved me and didn’t want me to go,” Detches said. “But I don’t have hard feelings. They were very good to us during the time that we were there. … Business is business. It’s not about having a heart.”

She said she’d move back into the North Valley Plaza if she could, but doubts she could afford it after the remodel. “We didn’t get into hard numbers, but I was definitely left feeling that it was going to be much more expensive to stay,” she said. “If the rent were reasonable, we would certainly come back.”

The only businesses that remain are chains, Mervyn’s being a big draw to the NVP.

And the big businesses are the ones that seem to have the most power: Both Hancock Fabrics and Cinemark told M & H where they wanted the entrances, and Cinemark insisted on plenty of parking in the courtyard. Geiser told the ARB that Tinseltown isn’t doing “that well” and “we’re spending a lot of money to keep them happy here by doing this.”

The ARB stopped short of giving M & H the green light for all its construction projects, asking that Geiser return to city staff with specific building designs when the tenants are secured.

City staff recommended expanding the pedestrian area, and the ARB members hoped for more trees, more pedestrian-friendly elements, and less plain asphalt. John Linhart, who was leading the ARB meeting, praised the design plans but said, “How come you’re not going to carry it through? Let’s try to make [the lot] more attractive than a ‘60s-style parking lot.” Board member Sandy Moran pointed out the strip of parking behind the theater facing East Avenue, and said it would be nice to improve that, too.

Geiser said “it comes down to dollars” and M & H is pouring so much money into the project it can’t afford to landscape the rest of the parking lot. But the company will enhance that strip along East.

Still, Linhart said he was pleased with the design concept and the chance at improving the NVP, which has “really fallen in disrepair and disfavor,” and the earlier upgrades “really didn’t solve the problem—it didn’t get people in there.”

“I’d really like to see this succeed. It’s terrible to not have anything on the north side of town," he said.