Forgotten retail spaces will get much more attention as part of one of the city’s new economic development strategies.
City officials plan to take stock of vacancies in local stores and then select one or more properties for a demonstration project, possibly downtown or in the former East Hills Mall.
Part of the idea is to keep track of zoning and policy changes during an upcoming update to the city’s master plan.
The initiative was passed on Wednesday with a 4-0 vote from the city council along with dozens of other strategies at a time of renewed interest in redeveloping unused former retail properties, in some cases for housing.
Proponents see other possible reuses, including offices, entertainment, sales, employee training, and mixed uses.
“I think there are many ways that this older, large retail space can go a lot of different ways,” said Ward 4 councilor Bob Smith, whose family is converting former downtown retail properties into apartments to help overcome the city’s historically strained rental market to use. He voted for the new economic plan.
“FUNCTIONAL OUT OF DATE”
Compatibility concerns and considerations for property owners could make efforts difficult, said Bakersfield commercial real estate agent and investor Anthony Olivieri. It will be important to approach projects individually rather than a “one size fits all” approach, he said via email. He added that a number of basic rules could work.
Olivieri predicted that details could prove problematic due to differences that sometimes crop up with mixed uses. But he agreed that the town’s success would be of great benefit to the community.
“There is no doubt that something needs to happen in malls where either the market has changed dramatically and they are a little out of date,” he wrote, “or they are functionally out of date due to changes in the retail environment and the demands of retailers.”
The strategy document adopted by the Council proposes defining potential retail properties as those with long-term vacancy rates of 15 percent or more, especially those whose anchors have been closed or replaced by lower usage.
It requires a market valuation to select possible real estate re-uses. Tax money is to be invested in the infrastructure in priority areas. Financial analysis will determine which projects to market to developers. To further support the effort, changes to zoning and other land use guidelines will be proposed as part of the master plan update.
The plan specifically mentions the possibility of a conversion of the East Hills Mall, which was sold to private developers in June. Demolition has started, but the intended reuse has not yet been completed.
City officials cited other projects in the same vein: the Amazon distribution center entering the former Kmart and Big Lots on Wilson Road west of Highway 99; the Eastchester rental towers of the Smiths by Sage Equities; and Bitwise Industries’ technology and coworking hub with two buildings across from the Padre Hotel, itself a redevelopment project that benefited from a city loan.
Bakersfield Economic and Community Development Director Paul SaldaÃ±a said it has not yet been decided where, but the pilot could be a mixed-use development where the city is contacting a property owner about possible re-uses.
Many commercial properties around Bakersfield have been vacant for years. Declining malls stand out, SaldaÃ±a said, because they already struggled with consumer shifts before the pandemic sparked more online shopping.
Ward 2 City Councilor Andrae Gonzales reiterated its support for the reuse of retail buildings, especially in the downtown area. The area has a number of underutilized structures, he said via email.
“At the same time, the need for living space (both affordable and market-driven) continues to grow,” he wrote. “We need to encourage adaptive reuse.”
The advisor who presented the strategic plan to the council, Roger Dale of Natelson Dale Group in Yorba Linda, said the changing retail landscape likely means the retail repurposing process will go on for years and it might make sense now to be proactive.
“The idea is to be one step ahead of the curve in places that could become excess land in the future and be ready to use that land in ways that benefit property owners and the community,” he said.