During the height of the economic collapse last winter, I took a trip to one of the most threatened malls in California: Bakersfield’s East Hills Mall. It doesn’t take a genius to see why this place is having a hard time, because it has practically everything stacked against it:
- Its anchors are/were Gottschalks (which was, at this point, a few weeks shy of announcing that they were going out of business), Mervyn’s (whose stores had all just shuttered), and Harris, who were acquired several years ago by Gottschalks. The Harris store at East Hills Mall was shuttered a few years ago. This leaves only a United Artists Theatre as a major anchor tenant in the center.
- It’s located in California’s Central Valley, one of the regions of the nation most heavily impacted by the precipitous drop in housing prices from 2007-2009
- It’s located on the *EAST* side of Bakersfield, which is a higher-crime and lower-income part of town.
- East Hills Mall isn’t a terribly large mall overall.
First, just a few notes about Bakersfield itself. Bakersfield is one of the largest cities in California’s central valley, located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles and due west of the Mojave Desert. The region has long been known for its oil production and agriculture, and was one of the prime spots for migrants from the Dust Bowl during the depression. As a result, the region has long held the honor of being California’s most conservative city, due to the influence of Evangelicalism and country music (Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were both from here, and Bakersfield is sometimes referred to as the Nashville of the west). In recent years, however, Bakersfield’s identity has been transforming from its Okie past as new residents–mainly from the Los Angeles area–have come to the area in search of cheaper housing. In addition, a significant number of immigrants from locations as diverse as Mexico, Phillippines, and many countries in the middle east and northern Africa. Bakersfield has even become known as something of a destination for Basque food, which isn’t easy to find just anywhere. Despite the city’s considerable growth, however, it does not remain much of a cultural hotbed, and has significant issues with poverty and crime (as well as a nasty history of racism), and its hot, dusty climate is one of the least favorable in California. With a population of around 330,000 in the city proper and approximately 800,000 in the entire metropolitan area, Bakersfield is the third largest inland metropolitan area in California after Sacramento and Fresno.
The East Hills Mall is one of only two enclosed malls serving the Bakersfield metropolitan area, and is the far smaller of the two. Unfortunately, there’s also almost nothing about the history of this unloved mall floating around on the internet. Judging by the architecture, it appears that the 415,000 square foot mall was probably built sometime in the late 1980s. Although we know Harris and Gottschalks were former anchors, I’m not entirely sure if the third anchor was originally a Mervyn’s–something about the architecture of the store tells me it may have been a Target originally (and there is a Target on the outlots of the parcel) but I’m not entirely sure if the timeline matches up for Target to have been in California at the time. I also wouldn’t be shocked if one of these anchors had at one point been a Montgomery Ward or a Robinson’s-May, but I am really guessing here. It does appear that the mall’s decline began a long time ago–late ’90s-ish, and was sold in 2003 to a developer who had a plan to modernize and expand the center, especially to cater to the growing suburban area in the city’s northeast hills. Bakersvillians, help us out!
When I visited in early January 2009, there was a robust plan to redevelop the center, bringing in new tenants and adding more of an entertainment and dining focus. A year later, the anchorless East Hills Mall filed for bankruptcy, its hopes dashed by the low likelihood of a housing rebound in this somewhat depressed corner of California. While the mall remains open, it serves as little more than a lobby for the movie theatres and a handful of local merchants who have been able to survive with so little foot traffic. The bankruptcy itself may also force even more dramatic changes–such as the (possibly likely) outcome that the mall will be demolished and completely replaced. Given its condition, that may not be a terrible option.