Torrance Council OKs Conversion : Old Towne, Battered by Bigger Malls, to Become Retail Strip

Times Staff Writer

After years of being overwhelmed by two of Southern California’s most successful malls--Del Amo Fashion Center and the Galleria at South Bay--owners of Torrance’s Old Towne Mall have decided that they will convert the financially troubled mall into a commercial strip.

“The Goliaths have absolutely crushed David in this instance,” said Robert LeMoine, chairman of the Westwood-based Hexagon Real Estate Fund, which is developing the project. “But we think we can breathe new life into David and rebuild him into a new and better shape.”

B.P.T. Torrance Associates, new owners of the 314,804-square-foot mall, were given unanimous City Council approval Tuesday to remove the interior walkway, create an indoor parking lot and redesign the exterior so that all the storefronts face Hawthorne Boulevard.

The shopping center, which will be reduced in overall area by 13,665 square feet, will don a new facade resembling a “European street scene” and will be renamed the Torrance Citiplex, LeMoine said. It will keep its movie complex and four discount chains.


Commercial real estate experts and city officials were not surprised at the move to down-scale and redesign the failing mall, which was hurt by not having a major department store to attract shoppers. A third of its stores are vacant.

The plan “seems like a recognition that it can’t compete with the other malls,” said Jeff Gibson, the city’s principal planner. “The mall as a use has not been as successful as we had anticipated.”

B.P.T., also of Westwood, is a subsidiary of the Burton Group, a London-based developer and operator of commercial retail stores. B.P.T. has about $200 million invested in commercial projects on the West Coast, including partial ownership of the Terrace at South Bay on Western Avenue in Rancho Palos Verdes, LeMoine said.

B.P.T. paid $6.7 million for the mall in November, 1988, according to real estate records. The conversion, which is expected to cost $40 million to $50 million, will begin in August or September and will be completed by December, 1990, LeMoine said. Shops are not expected to close during construction.


LeMoine said overwhelming competition from the two large malls was part of the reason for Old Towne Mall’s financial troubles, adding that the mall’s attempt at nostalgic early 1900s design is outdated and long overdue for a face lift.

Shop owners said that in recent months, patronage at many of the smaller stores inside the mall has decreased substantially, which has led to a high vacancy rate.

“This should be called the ghost town, not the old town,” said Sandra Rodriques, manager of Grampa’s Dental Services, which has been in the mall for 3 1/2 years.

Mall officials said 23 of the mall’s 67 stores are vacant.

The Old Towne Mall has high visibility from Hawthorne Boulevard. It opened in 1972 as an entertainment center with arts and crafts, games and rides, but eventually evolved into a more traditional mall.

LeMoine said the mall--whose theme incorporates an antique carrousel, park benches and cobblestone streets--will keep its major tenant stores, K Mart, Ross Dress for Less, the Federated Group and Marshall’s, and will continue to cater to Torrance’s middle-income shoppers.

But LeMoine added that the Torrance Citiplex wants a new variety of stores that will attract a diverse assortment of shoppers. For example, he said, the center will try to add video, record and book stores to attract younger buyers.

Although the plan calls for the addition of four separate buildings along Hawthorne Boulevard--ranging in size from 6,448 to 8,624 square feet--the overall leasable space will be reduced by 36,648 square feet, according to a city report. The number of stores will remain the same.


Two of the four additional buildings will most likely house a “major chain” video store and a Waldenbooks, LeMoine said.

The larger stores, such as Ross and Marshall’s clothing stores, will lose little or none of their leasable area, while many of the smaller tenant stores will face an area reduction of up to 5,000 square feet, LeMoine said.

The largest reduction will be the elimination of nearly 60,000 square feet of walkway and common areas along the interior of the building, about half of which will be converted into a commercial mini-storage facility. A 75-space indoor parking lot will occupy much of the remaining area, according to the report.

The antique carrousel, which has been a centerpiece for the mall since it opened, will be relocated to a new open-air food court near the theater complex, where it will be more visible, LeMoine said.

A two-lane road will run from the parking lot along Hawthorne Boulevard to the indoor parking lot.

Steve Soboroff, a Santa Monica-based developer for Oshman’s Sporting Goods and Circuit City, said Old Towne Mall has failed partly because it does not have a major department store to attract customers to the smaller shops.

“The Galleria has Nordstrom, the May Co. and Mervyn’s. Del Amo has everyone,” he said. “Old Towne has no anchor. Anchorless malls don’t make it.”

Department stores bring in the lion’s share of revenues generated by malls. In 1985, for example, department stores represented only 3.3% of retail units in 15 Southern California shopping centers but generated 60.3% of the total taxable retail sales, according to Los Angeles Times market research.


The Torrance Citiplex is not likely to add a major department store because most department stores are already in Del Amo and the Galleria, LeMoine said.

In the past, the Old Towne Mall has not been able to bring in a substantial percentage of the shopper traffic generated by the two major malls, which are about two miles apart on Hawthorne Boulevard. But LeMoine said the mall’s face lift and new mix of stores will address that problem.

The eight-lane boulevard, one of the two main routes from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the San Diego Freeway, carries an estimated 45,000 cars a day.

Steve Deming, a senior sales consultant for Coldwell Banker, said Old Towne Mall is also limited by its size, which is tiny in comparison to Del Amo, the largest enclosed mall in the United States

“I don’t think they will ever compete” with a 2.6-million-square-foot mall, Deming said. “What they have to do is create their own personality.”

Deming said the Old Towne Mall’s best strategy is to add more upscale shops and “get the most rent for what you have.”

While the renovation has the approval of almost all tenants, several store owners told the council Tuesday that they feared the new owners may not make an effort to include smaller tenants in the mall remake.

LeLand Van Andler, owner of LeLand’s Costumes and president of the Old Towne Mall Merchant’s Assn., said the previous owners, Old Towne Mall Associates, first came up with the idea to convert the mall to a commercial strip in December, 1987.

He said the associates then attempted to force out many of the smaller tenants by letting business decrease. He said they did this by allowing leases to expire, leaving many stores vacant and failing to promote other small stores.

Van Andler, who has been in business for 14 years, said he and about 15 other store owners support the mall’s conversion but are concerned that B.P.T. Associates may use the same tactics.

Representatives of Old Towne Mall Associates could not be located for comment.

LeMoine said he is aware of the complaints by the smaller store owners and will not force out any tenants.