SB Council Gives Go-Ahead To 1st Phase of Fransen Co’s Downtown Rehab

The San Bernardino City Council this week heard the game plan AECOM, The Fransen Company and KB Homes have formulated over the last 15 months for the comprehensive redevelopment of the Carousel Mall. Expressing appreciation of what was previewed, the council gave approval to what will be the first phase of that undertaking, which is to entail the construction of 25,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space and the provision of 10,000 square feet of public open space.
What was originally known as the Central City Mall was built around the grand old Harris building in 1972. J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward joined it as major tenants, and the mall boasted 49 other stores or shops of varying sizes. Herman Harris, Philip Harris, Arthur Harris and Leopold Harris opened the Harris Department Store in San Bernardino in 1905. For two-thirds of the 20th Century it was the principal emporium of that city, remaining under Harris family ownership and management well into the 1970s. The Central City Mall was for a time a premier shopping location, temporarily besting its major rival in town, the Inland Center, which opened in 1966. 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. Two years later, in 2008, Lynwood-based developer Placo San Bernardino LLC, purchased a major portion of the mall 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, Cinema Star shuttered its theater on the mall’s grounds. Eventually, the city inherited the mall from Placo.
The Harris building was acquired in 1981 by Spanish retailer El Corte Inglés, S.A. El Corte Inglés, S.A., despite encouragement by San Bernardino, has made no real progress in returning the landmark to its former grandeur. The J.C. Penny’s Store was acquired by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. The city holds title to practically all of the rest of the center.
In 2014, the city entered into an exclusive negotiation agreement with AECOM, the Fransen Company and KB Homes to redevelop the Carousel Mall commercially, an agreement which included a commitment to intensify the adjacent Theater Square, one of the few successfully commercial operations downtown.
Vaughan Davies, a principal in AECOM, reiterated what he had told the city council in November 2015, which is that the “theater square” will be the hub around which the redevelopment of downtown will take place. “The Clifornia Theater and the Regal Cinemas are the anchor, the catalyst, the success story upon which we build,” he said. He then offered a more detailed preview of what he said would be the “revitalization” of San Bernardino’s central district, which is little more than a stone’s throw from City Hall and some four blocks away from the city’s historic 1927 courthouse, the county’s main administrative building and the 11-story Law and Justice Center completed in 2014.
What will be accomplished on the footprint now occupied by the Carousel Mall, Davies said, was something that could be compared in much of its detail to the Paseo Colorado in Pasadena or Santana Row in San Jose, He said there will be an extension of existing Court Street into the new development but that the primary access to the plaza will be foot traffic with “no streets going through” Davies said the plaza will embody “main street elements,” which he variously referred to as a “main street format” invoking an “urban plan plaza.” He said the carousel that currently occupies the ground floor of the existing mall will be relocated to the front of the town square portion of the project.
The initial effort in 2017 will focus, Davies said, on leveraging the success of the adjacent Regal Cinemas and California Theatre, and utilizing their regional drawing power to bring in restaurant and third party developers. This will be coupled with, Davies said, establishing town square street lights, utilities, signage and the extension of Third Street as a paseo, i.e. walkway.
The project will not go to an elevation higher than two stories, so to not detract from the visual prominence of the California Theatre, according to Davies. The intent is to court restaurants or food operations dealing in coffee, sandwiches, burgers, wings, Chinese food, pizza, tacos, fish tacos, ice cream, frozen yogurt or custard, smoothies and juice, salads or candy as well as an ATM or mini-branch of a bank at the ground level, he said. The second level would best be suited for, he said, cultural facilities such as museum, creative office space, a dance, exercise or Yoga studio or what he referred to as “flex space.”
In 2018, Davies said, it is hoped that lofts might be constructed, consisting of 60 units of apartments that would “wrap” the building and be placed in front of the existing garage.
At that point, Davies intimated, enough revenue is anticipated such that it will defray the cost of the demolition of the existing mall. Retail units would emerge as an element of the project at this point, he said
In 2019, Davies said it is expected that “the neighborhood will have matured enough to generate neighborhood retail.” In 2020, the intent was, he said, to add 35,000 square feet of retail operations, 275 townhomes and a charter school. The plan was to have each phase create the basis for the next phase to be funded “all the way through construction,” Davies said.
Adequate parking, he said, could be provided through the existing parking garage structures, although as the project moves toward build-out, more parking would be needed on the peak usage day of Saturday, he said.
Councilman Fred Shorett said that “This is not a pipe dream,” signaling his belief that it would progress toward completion in the fashion that Davies had laid out, which he said achieved fortuitous “timing, with the city coming out of the bankruptcy [which the city entered into in 2012]. I trust you guys implicitly to move forward on this project.”
Councilwoman Bessine Richards noted that as a child she had witnessed the development of the Carousel Mall. “I was excited to see it come and now I am excited to see it will be demolished.”
When he was asked how much that demolition would cost, the city’s development director, Mark Persico, said he could not be certain because of the presence of asbestos in the structure. “Asbestos issues are very expensive,” he said. He said the mall’s existing tenants will be moved out by the end of June.

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