Turning Old Strip Malls Into Housing


No longer are they vibrant centers of suburban commerce. Instead, they often are homes to 99-cent shops and low-rent liquor stores. Their signs are decaying, their sidewalks cracked.

Hundreds of these aging mid-size strip centers sit on prime real estate throughout the region, underutilized and bound for blight.

When a group of experts set out to inventory how many of these dinosaurs were in Orange County, they figured on finding a few hundred. But the team, based at the Planning Center in Costa Mesa, was startled to discover more than 700--nearly a third of them performing so poorly that they are destined to fall short of generating the funds needed for the most routine maintenance.


As the centers slowly die--their customers flocking to bigger, cleaner models--planners say they hold thousands of developable acres hostage as a housing shortage escalates.

“Orange County is projected to grow in the next 20 years by 600,000 residents,” said Richard Ramella, who oversaw the strip center inventory project with his partner, Randy Jackson. “A lot of people out there are saying there is no more room to accommodate them. Well, there is.”

Their solution: Convert those strip centers into little villages where homes would be nestled among the stores, with parking stacked above, so those vast, unattractive paved lots could be put to much better use, maybe even as pocket parks.

State projections show that sometime between 2010 and 2025, there will be no more vacant land to build on in Orange and Los Angeles counties. At the same time, more than half a million new residents are expected to arrive in Orange County. Already, there are more than three jobs created in the county for every home built.

Ramella and Jackson say retrofitting a few hundred of those strip centers could create homes for all the new people who will flood into the county in the next 20 years.

Sure, they admit that their idea is a bit out there. But the trend of failed commercial space being transformed into housing is already happening piecemeal throughout the Southland. Why not do it right, they ask.

“This is reinvesting in older parts of the county,” Ramella said of retrofitting strip malls with homes. “We’ve got to go back and reinvest. Otherwise, we will have to go someplace else.”

He and Jackson lament that too many families already are going someplace else. They are going to Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where there’s plenty of open land and homes are less expensive. They clog the freeways daily, logging unspeakable mileage in unbearable commutes.

But who wants to live in a converted strip center? Don’t people come to Orange County with dreams of private yards and tall fences that keep outsiders out?

Maybe not anymore.

“There is a unique change in demographics going on,” Jackson said. “The county was built on traditional families of Mom and Dad and 2-point-whatever kids. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

Where builders not long ago had the market segmented into four general groups, Jackson said, now there are about 60.

There are the young professionals, the large immigrant families, the college students, even the divorcees doubling up to split costs in their sunset years. These are all people who might enjoy the type of quaint urban aesthetic that the Planning Center says can be created out of strip malls.

To prove it, the center--a consulting firm that advises local and county governments and is working with Riverside County on its general plan--drafted conversions for a couple of sites. At the Target Center on Tustin Avenue in Orange, for example, they transformed a sprawling, asphalt-dominated mixed bag with some homes scattered nearby into a sort of nontraditional town center with trees, parks and homes.

Some May Consider the Idea Radical

Apartments and condos get built where the parking lots are now, and parking gets stacked in garages. Instead of segregating all the residential space in the back, it’s integrated into the commercial. In some cases, it’s built on top of it.

Of course, living above a Target store may still be too radical a concept for area home buyers. But a few years from now, who knows?

Mixing homes into areas that previously were reserved for commercial ventures is becoming common throughout the region.

In downtown Long Beach, a developer is building 350 residential lofts and apartments around parking garages and above shops that will replace the failed Long Beach Plaza mall. Burbank officials want to see 110 apartments among the office and shops in a downtown redevelopment project.

The Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. advocates building apartments in developed commercial areas to help ease the affordable housing crunch. And worn-down commercial properties have already been transformed into residential communities in San Diego County.

Brea, Huntington Beach, Anaheim and Garden Grove are among the Orange County cities that already have, on a much smaller scale, converted washed-out commercial projects into vibrant, mixed-use communities. In every case, city officials are delighted with the results.

“Lots of people said no one wants to live in townhouses right on the main drag, no one wants to live in dense housing next to downtown,” said Brea City Councilwoman Bev Perry. “They were wrong every time.

“If you drive around the county, because cities have gone after sales tax, you will see so many of these strip centers,” Perry said. “A lot of them are failing. . . . They are a great place to build the housing we need. The infrastructure is already there. They have water. They have sewers.”

Those quaint notions of Orange County as a quiet place of oversized lots where young homeowners mow lush lawns and listen to crickets at night are becoming outdated--and out of reach. Already, projects with densities of 30-plus homes to the acre are generating wait lists, even among the well-to-do.

Suburban Frontier Will Be Closing

That leaves planners to focus on putting what’s built now to the best uses. It’s not an easy shift for the public to catch up with.

“We were born and raised as a suburban county and now all of a sudden the frontier is going to be closing,” said Scott Bollens, chairman of the Urban and Regional Planning Department at UC Irvine.

“That will force us not only to grow differently; it is going to refocus the way we view our county. It will change from suburban psychology to a more urban psychology,” he said.

The Planning Center came up with its massive strip mall conversion proposal for a design competition. Admittedly, much of it lacks real world applicability. But Jackson and Ramella were so inspired by the project that they created an internal group in the firm to concentrate on the strip mall problem and propose workable ideas to convert them for their clients.

Still, some wonder if the concepts aren’t a tad naive.

Critics point out that even if a strip center is knocked down and rebuilt in another configuration, it is still a development sitting along an arterial highway, among all the other strip malls left standing.

“If you move to Beach Boulevard, how do you deal with what’s around you?” asks Rick Cole, city manager of Azusa and former Southern California director of the Local Government Commission. “Do you put up a giant wall on the street side so the noise and pollution and . . . ugliness of commercial strips is defended against?

“People buy more than shelter,” he said. “They buy the neighborhood environment. . . . Just plopping housing onto dying commercial sites is not enough. It might even backfire.”

Cole advocates thinking bigger. He envisions converting the Beach Boulevards out there into respectable, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares that would resemble those of the great European cities.

Few people dislike that idea.

But Ramella says too many people already are wedged between a fast-food joint and a gas station near a freeway offramp, and right now those are not nice places to be. He suggests that could change.

He talks about a photo he has of a boy who lives in a Garden Grove subdivision next to a supermarket. A wall separates the development from the market, and the boy is climbing up on a shopping cart so he can hoist himself over the wall. It makes no sense, Ramella said, that people living next to a supermarket can get there only by driving.

“We have to at least go back and clean these things up,” he said.


Creating a Village

A case study by a team of planners envisions turning parking lots and other poorly used space at strip malls into community centers that would include apartments, shops and offices.

The consultants say about 700 Orange County strip malls could be retrofitted this way.

Source: The Planning Center Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times