Growing up in Orange County in the late 1970s, Kel DeHart would often hang out with her mother at Westminster Mall, checking out the latest fashions and seeing what movies were playing.
As a teenager, she spent many weekends with friends playing pinball and skeeball at the arcade and shopping for trendy Chemin de Fer jeans.
Now, the mall is filled with empty storefronts. In the remaining businesses, employees eagerly jump in to help some customers.
What could happen in its place, if developers and city officials have their way, is a new type of mall that will include lawns, walking trails and thousands of apartments.
“It was the hip place to be, and it was really faded, but let’s go to it,” said DeHart, a 55-year-old massage therapist who still lives near the mall where she grew up. It’s sad to see that happen.” He is among residents who are concerned that the new apartments will increase traffic in order to solve the area’s affordable housing crisis.
In Orange County, the San Fernando Valley, and suburbs across America, the mall was a gathering place with few other places to visit. This was where kids stocked up on the latest fashions and roamed in packs after school, giving rise to the term “mall rat”.
The 1980s cult classic “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” began and ended at the mall where the teens worked. In the 1995 film “Clueless”, a Beverly Hills teen retreats to the mall, which she describes as a “sanctuary”, after failing to persuade a teacher to boost her grades.
Now, teens text their friends and make TikTok videos. Their parents are more likely to shop online than in a brick-and-mortar store.
At the same time, Orange County is desperate for housing, with rents and home prices rising and state laws requiring cities to vacate the area for new construction. In an area where there is little undeveloped land and neighbors likely to push back on new housing, some see the falls as the ideal place to build a mall.
City Manager Christine Corden told the city council during a meeting last November, “The Westminster Mall is probably one of the largest areas of developable space we have in our time.”
Corden remembers taking the bus to the mall decades ago to pick up CDs at Best Buy.
“You’re too young to hang out in a real nightclub as a teen, so back in the day, where would you go? The mall,” said Karen North, a USC professor who specializes in social media and psychology.
“It became the default place to go because it had something for everyone. You never knew who you were going to bump into, but you were always guaranteed that something was going on and there would be people around.” .
As envisioned in the plan adopted by the city council last year, the new mall would have at least 600,000 square feet of retail space. It will include up to 3,000 residential units and 425 hotel rooms, surrounded by a park with 17 acres of green space.
Teens can still hang out there — it just won’t be the Echoie indoor turf that Alicia Silverstone claimed in “Clueless.”
Orange County is catching up to a trend that has already taken hold north in the Los Angeles area, led by developer Rick Caruso with his Americana brand and the Palisades Village mall and residences.
Corden said, “This is really our opportunity to create something that we can be completely proud of to create for the next generation the memories that I have and that others will have at that time.” conforms to.”
Bill Shopoff said his company, which last year bought the Macy’s store and former Sears store at Westminster Mall, hopes to bring people back with the stores, a hotel, townhouses and apartments.
“Upscale malls like South Coast Plaza are flourishing because they have entertainment, food, a reason to go there,” said ShopOff, president and CEO of ShopOff Realty Investments. “I think we need to do this in Westminster
make sense of something.
As their initial plan would be to rent or buy homes, ShopOff is counting on the modern type of suburban dweller—one who would rather walk to restaurants and other amenities than live in a single-family home with a yard.
Experts say the new laws, along with increasing state pressure to build more homes, have convinced some local officials who in the past may have been resistant to rezoning commercial properties.
Roughly every eight years, California cities are assigned a certain number of new housing units that they need in the area. As part of the 2020 assessment, Orange County needs to make room for approximately 183,000 new units, shared across all of its cities.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two pieces of legislation aimed at boosting housing development in the corridor, otherwise zoned for large retail and office buildings.
“Whether you want to call Orange County an urban suburb or suburban urbanization, it’s certainly changing,” said Elizabeth Hunsberg, co-founder and executive director of People for Housing Orange County. “We have an interesting mix of historic districts and tract housing from the 40s, 50s, 60s and even 70s, but I don’t see us building like this again. It will be interesting to see families in denser locations How do they develop?
Similar mall conversions elsewhere in Orange County are in various stages.
In Santa Ana, a 309-unit apartment complex is under construction on the parking lot of Mainplace Mall, part of a larger project that will include more apartments, restaurants, courtyards and a music venue.
Simon Property Group has said it is set to add residential zoning to its mall in Mission Viejo. In Brea, the company has proposed a 15.5-acre redevelopment of the mall that would include shops, a resort-style fitness center, apartments and a large central green space.
A proposal to redevelop the Village into an Orange Mall that would include retail as well as housing has met with strong opposition. Residents are expressing concern about residential buildings towering over nearby single-family homes.
In Westminster, DeHart said she and her neighbors who live in tract homes adjacent to the mall are not “NIMBYs”—an acronym for “Not in My Backyard.”
“It’s not him,” she said. “We’re asking valid questions, and we’re not getting answers.”
In Laguna Hills, the mall is being renovated along the lines of Caruso’s Los Angeles-area development, with 1,500 apartments, an upscale hotel, commercial office space and 250,000 square feet of large green space.
In recent days, a chain-link fence draped with a blue tarpaulin had been erected around the partially demolished main building, with the lettering “Laguna Hills Mall” barely legible.
A sign pasted on the fence showed a rendering of the new homes, saying “a bright future is coming soon.”
Residents have expressed the same concerns as DeHart and its neighbors – traffic, overcrowding. But Laguna Hills Mayor Janine Heft said change is needed.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia for what the mall used to be,” Heft said. “What we didn’t want was a curse, and that’s exactly what we had. We had this mall that hadn’t been maintained for years.
On a recent afternoon, much of the sprawling Westminster Mall was deserted. The only activity JCPenney had was an indoor playground.
Corrie Essex watched her 5-month-old son play on a blanket as rain came down on the glass roof.
She grew up in the San Fernando Valley and remembers listing Northridge Mall as one of her favorite places in an elementary school assignment. Her mom took her and her siblings out to get burgers and to the movies—a relatively inexpensive way to keep four kids busy.
“We’d be visiting all the time,” said Essex, 30, who lives in Huntington Beach. “It’s fun. Now, I hate malls. It’s just not the same.
Nothing is beautiful anymore.
But on a rainy day like this, it was a nice place to take her son. And, said her sister, Jessie Lane, 27, there’s little danger of spending the money — “there’s no budgie store we’d buy anything from.”
His mother, Rachel Lane, 57, said she likes the idea of adding housing to the mall.
But with the new exterior designs, he wondered, “Where are we going when it rains?”