T. J. Maxx, the national discount retail chain, has begun construction at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, and plaza officials are hoping the store will be a major boost for a mall marred for years by empty shops.
"We expect it to be a big draw," plaza manager Joe Rouzan said of the 30,000-square-foot store, scheduled to open in November. "They're (T. J. Maxx) moving real fast. Just over the past weekend, the construction workers made a lot of progress."
Nine storefronts on the plaza's upper level--cleared for a theater complex that will be constructed outside the mall--will be utilized for the department store.
The addition of T. J. Maxx and two women's clothing stores scheduled to open within the next two months--Trapp's and Forever 21--will increase tenant occupancy from 70% to 85%, Rouzan said. The average for malls in Southern California is 85% to 90%.
Though a T. J. Maxx is open in Culver City, a few miles west of the Baldwin Hills mall, spokeswoman Jane Joyce said company officials decided that the Crenshaw Plaza area fit the store's demographic profile.
"We looked at a variety of things--household income, population density, number of families," she said. "Some people pointed out that we do have a store not very far away from the plaza. But we tend to cluster stores in areas that like our merchandise."
T. J. Maxx operates 44 stores in Southern California.
The mall has been struggling for four years to attract major retailers. The plaza, the first shopping center on the West Coast when it opened in the 1940s, is anchored by Robinsons-May, the Broadway and Sears.
Since the center was enclosed and refurbished, opening as the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in 1988, it has struggled with low occupancy rates, the recession and other problems.
After the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, Robinsons-May shut down for six months, hurting nearby stores that depended on its customers for business. Two stores, McLendon's Hats and Buster Brown shoes, closed during that time.
Last spring, controversy erupted after city officials accused developer Alexander Haagen of trying to cut the city out of the mall's future profits.
After the city threatened to sue, Haagen reinstated the city's stake in the mall.
Most recently, the eight-day Metropolitan Transportation Authority mechanics struck a blow to the mall; many customers and employees take the bus to get there.
But, Rouzan said, the new T. J. Maxx shows the mall is on the rebound.
And there are other signs as well: The Disney Store, which opened last year, has consistently reported the highest video sales of all Disney stores in the Southern California region, he noted, and Wilson's House of Suede and Leather has out-grossed its sister stores for the past three months.
Wilson manager Felicia Fredieu, whose store is on the upper level, opposite the T. J. Maxx site, said she is looking forward to the increased foot traffic it is expected to bring.
"It's really good news," she said. "The more stores in the mall, the better."