SB Publisher Advocates Downtown Turnaround As Priority In City Makeover

(April 13) Wallace Allen, the publisher of a San Bernardino newspaper for more than a quarter of a century, offered up what he considers to be a viable strategy for rejuvenating the dilapidating downtown section of the county seat.
San Bernardino is the county’s oldest city, having been founded in 1810 as an east-lying adjunct to San Gabriel Mission to minister to the native Guachama and Gabrieleno Indians. It officially incorporated as a city in 1854. From the inception of San Bernardino County, it has been the center of county government and throughout much of the county’s 160-year history, San Bernardino was the predominant community, socially, commercially, politically and culturally. More than a quarter of a century ago, however, its position as the hub of county commerce began to erode and its luster in nearly every other venue has dimmed. The shuttering of Norton Air Force Base in 1994 hastened the city’s decline and over the last two decades the local economy has crashed and burned. In 2012, after years of deficit spending, the city filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy protection. The city has yet to emerge from that status, although the judge hearing the case, Meredith Jury, has set a May 30 deadline for the city to deliver to her its bankruptcy exit plan.
Allen, who founded his newspaper, The Westside Story, in 1987 and has published it weekly ever since, has been a firsthand witness to San Bernardino’s sorry decline.  As one of the few downtown-based entrepreneurs who has managed to sustain his operation and even thrive, he is able to speak with some degree of authority about what is ailing the city and its economy. And he has some ideas about what steps city officials might proactively take in righting the listing financial ship.  This week he spoke with the Sentinel at length about his vision.
Those officials need not venture far to start, Allen said. From the steps of City Hall, one could throw a rock and hit the first object that would be his first order of business. His reference is to the Hotel & Convention Center at 295 North E Street, which is adjacent to San Bernardino City Hall to the south and just west of the Vanir Tower.
“I am told the hotel is owned by a Saudi prince,” Allen said. “Someone got energetic about it a while ago and began to look into it, but no one could find out which Saudi prince, exactly, was the owner. It has just been sitting there, with the convention center as its basement, doing nothing for a decade or more now.  It is located in a place of very high visibility in this city. Everyone just accepts that as the status quo. Meanwhile, you have code enforcement going into neighborhoods that are way off the beaten track, citing one homeowner after another for neglecting their yards or letting the stucco on the side of their houses fall into disrepair.
“Those houses are not in the limelight,” Allen continued. “They are in residential areas where very few if any outsiders ever travel. When someone from out of this area who has investment power comes to San Bernardino, the place he is most likely to come to and get his lasting impression from is downtown. That is San Bernardino’s window to the world. I think our civic leaders have lost sight of that. It is downtown where we should be training our code enforcement forces. And the first place we would start, if I was the decision maker, would be the hotel and convention center. I would use every resource we have at our command, legal, code enforcement and otherwise and based on the length of time it has just been sitting there blighting, we would seize possession of the hotel and make an impressive transformation, or at least start the transformation.”
And how, exactly, would Allen transform the hotel?
“My vision is high end office/professional uses on the first floor,” he said. “Something that would make a real statement and would draw the type of clientele that would broaden the appeal of not just downtown but San Bernardino in general. The two top stories would be residential, permanent residences, with penthouses on the top floor.  The floors in between would remain as the premier downtown hotel.  The way I conceive of this is it would be comparable to what you see in other major cities, San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, something that isn’t unique, but is distinctive, and which puts our best foot forward when we have visitors from outside the area who are maybe looking to relocate a business or are just passing through for one reason or another but might in the future have a reason to branch out elsewhere, invest or start up something. First impressions are always important.”
Allen then turned to a second rapidly deteriorating downtown landmark: The Carousel Mall.
“Who owns it?” Allen asked rhetorically. He then noted that the city holds title to practically all of the commercial center, with the exception of the Harris/Gottschalks building, owned by El Corte Inglés S.A., a Spanish department store operating firm, and the J.C. Penney’s store, now owned by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
Construction on the Carousel Mall began in 1971, at a location that had been the site of the old Harris Store since 1927. In 1972, it opened as the Central City Mall, anchored by Harris, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Wards, and including 49 other stores. At its peak in the mid 1980s it boasted more than 100 tenants. In the late 1980s it was renovated, and a carousel was installed in the bottom floor, at which point it was rechristened the Carousel Mall. But its fortunes waned with those of the rest of San Bernardino over the years, and by the late 1990s, it began to decline. The first major blow came when Gottschalks, which had bought out Harris, elected to close at that location in 1998 and relocated in the Inland Center. Three years later, in 2001, Montgomery Ward went out of business. At that point, J.C. Penney was the sole anchor. In 2003, J.C. Penney closed. The mall was sold in 2006. Lynwood-based developer Placo San Bernardino LLC, purchased  a major portion of the mall in 2008 for $23.5 million, with serious designs on reinvigorating it and obtaining short term financing to undertake improvements, signaling it was on a crash schedule to do just that.  But that same year, CinemaStar shuttered its theater on the mall’s grounds.
In May 2010, with its plan stalled, Placo was failing to make its payments to Center Bank, which had provided a $16.5 million loan for the planned renovation.
The  city of San Bernardino’s economic development agency swooped in and bought the property’s note and deed trust from Center Bank for slightly over $13.1 million.  At that point, the city, based on backroom discussions with county officials, had visions of filling large portions of the mall with county offices. But those plans have fallen through and the gargantuan mall stands now, a neglected and obvious eyesore, a testament to San Bernardino’s economic collapse.
“The city’s ownership of that mall is a red flag to any possible investor,” Allen said. “Obviously, if it was a prime commercial venue, a corporation would already be operating it with a half dozen major tenets and fifty or sixty smaller ones. So, who is going to risk getting involved? No serious investor, who after all is going to want to see a return on putting up that kind of money, is going to risk getting involved. So, what possibility is left?”
Allen then answered the question he had posed.
“If I was in charge over there, I would send an emissary to every college and university within 30 or 40 miles – Cal State San Bernardino, San Bernardino Valley College, Loma Linda University, Redlands University, UCR, Chaffey College, the Claremont Colleges, the University of LaVerne – and I would offer them free classroom space in the mall for them to locate their satellite campuses for the next three or four years. I would allot half of the mall for classrooms and reserve the other half for every conceivable type of business that caters to college students. This would be the perfect marriage between multiple entities. The city has more space than it can possibly deal with and no realistic prospect of bringing in any significant number of tenants without first engaging in major reconstruction and renovations. The schools need classroom space and outreach programs. We have a population that needs to be educated and provided with skills so they are employable and have earning potential. Why not bring all of those different needs and resources together?”
Allen, who fits within the mold of a social liberal in may respects, nonetheless reflected an attitude rising out of his own status as an entrepreneur, decrying the lack of imagination and initiative of local governmental officials and what he freely referred to as “bureaucrats” who have control over the public sector and appear paralyzed in their response to San Bernardino’s economic challenges. That paralysis, Allen said, is an outgrowth of the bureaucrats’ comfort level.
“There is a lot of talk about how serious the problems are and how things need to be turned around and there is a periodic panic over doing something, but everyone with the power or position to actually act has a good paying job and a paycheck, so it really isn’t a big deal for them,” Allen said. “They’re still riding the gravy train and nothing gets done. There is no real incentive for them to empower the ones out on the streets who are struggling, or to reignite hope or passion in the ones who have been beaten down so long that they have given up.”
What is needed, Allen said, is for those who have been fortunate enough to be entrusted with government positions and authority to recognize that they are not entitled to the advantage they have been given. Rather, he said, they should utilize the privilege that has been extended to them to serve their constituents and the citizens from whom their authority originates.

Leave a Reply