Mall-mart RIP?

Westfield insists the Wal-Mart plan hasn’t been rolled back, but its prospects look grim

Illustration By Don Button

On the TV show South Park, the townspeople burned the new Wal-Mart to the ground.

In real-life Sacramento, Mayor Heather Fargo and her city-council cohorts simply badgered the giant retailer into submission.

In December, the Westfield Corp., the company that owns Downtown Plaza, submitted an application to the city to redevelop the mall. City leaders have been complaining lately that the mall has become too shabby, while Westfield’s other properties have prospered.

The plan included a big box store (Westfield has been negotiating with Wal-Mart), new movie theaters and shops. The whole makeover would cost Westfield and its tenants about $105 million, and the proposal is still winding its way through the city’s planning bureaucracy.

But the plan to bring Wal-Mart into downtown may already be doomed.

“I think [Westfield is] stepping back and taking another look,” said Michelle Nelson, senior project manager with the city’s Economic Development Department. “We’ve really encouraged them to think more boldly, not just plug something in there that you could find anywhere else,” Nelson said.

Aside from trying to inspire Westfield, city leaders have done some chest beating as well.

The mayor and city council have kept up a steady stream of criticism of the plan, saying that Wal-Mart doesn’t fit with their vision of a more unique, more well-to-do, downtown.

And city planners are preparing an ordinance, to be voted on by the city council sometime in the summer, banning shopping carts from city-owned parking lots—including the lot inside Downtown Plaza. The shopping-cart ban would amount to a blockade around any major discount store, a concrete zone through which shoppers could transport only what they could carry in their hands.

Despite these preemptive strikes, Westfield is publicly saying it will stick to its plans. “Our position on bringing a major discount retailer has not changed,” said Westfield’s senior vice president of development, Larry Green. And although Wal-Mart is the only chain that has been mentioned as a new anchor tenant, Green insists that the application “is not a Wal-Mart proposal.” Representatives from Wal-Mart did not return calls seeking comment.

Downtown Plaza is itself a very large box. A Wal-Mart might seem less out of place there than, say, J Street or somewhere in Midtown. And while Wal-Mart bashing is great sport for some, the chain is still tremendously popular. One of its stores would bring millions of dollars of new revenue into that area, said Green.

Green argues that deep discounters like Wal-Mart are the next step in the evolution of shopping centers. Across the country, malls are paring down the number of department stores and moving in hot discounters like Wal-Mart. Malls aren’t just malls anymore; the “lifestyle center” has become the state of the art.

“The face of retail is changing radically,” Green explained. “This is the opportunity we have now; we’d be nuts not to embrace it.” With all the furor over a Wal-Mart, he added, the other parts of the plan have been largely overlooked.

The plan includes relocating and expanding Century Theatres (up to 16 screens) on the mall’s second level near Fifth and L streets. That part of the plan has been controversial because of concerns that the expansion would jeopardize the Tower Theatre’s business. Both the city and the Downtown Partnership, which represents area business owners, are frustrated with the theater plan because they want theaters built on the mall’s east end, at Seventh and K streets. City planners say the Seventh-and-K location would boost evening foot traffic on K Street.

Sticking Wal-Marts in old shopping malls may be the industry trend, but the city council isn’t impressed.

“Deep discounters, to me, signal that a mall is in trouble,” said Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy, who has been among the most vocal opponents of Wal-Mart downtown.

Sheedy would rather see fancier department stores like Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s or Saks Fifth Avenue.

City Councilman Rob Fong also said he’d like to see more high-end tenants in the mall. He recently accompanied Westfield honchos on a trip to a conference in Southern California for shopping-center retailers and said Westfield is “definitely rethinking” its push for a Wal-Mart.

But Fong also hopes the discussion eventually will lead to a more comprehensive rethinking of how Downtown Plaza fits into the rest of downtown.

“There’s that kind of old model of thinking, that if you just pick the right store, it will do well,” Fong said. Like many of his colleagues on the council, Fong said Sacramento should think bigger. If Fong could wave his hand and reshape the mall, he first would focus on the relationship between the building and the surrounding neighborhood.

“If you just look at it, it’s a box. I’m not sure closed-in malls like that work in a downtown,” Fong explained.

Instead of dead space around the mall perimeter, why not have shop windows and entrances that open directly onto the street, he asked. What about a live-music venue, like a jazz club? What about including some housing or a hotel in the mix?

“We could do a much better job of introducing some things that are alive, and apparent from the street,” Fong explained.

Fong’s colleague, Councilman Steve Cohn, agrees that the City Hall and the mall owners need to work together on more creative ideas, or efforts to redevelop downtown will lag.

“I just don’t think they are being very imaginative,” said Cohn. “They look at downtown the way they would look at a suburban area. Then they are disappointed that it’s not as clean and lily-white as some of those other areas, and they just don’t know what to do with it,” Cohn mused.

“It’s kind of a clash of visions,” Cohn said. “Westfield needs to propose something that’s consistent with the city’s vision or sell [the mall] to somebody who will.”