Major makeover is in store for Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza

Long-awaited work to modernize Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Los Angeles and jettison its static 1980s vibe will begin by the end of the year, the mall’s owners said Thursday.

First up is a $30-million major upgrade, which owners Capri Capital Partners unveiled to community leaders Thursday. The overhaul will be followed by a more ambitious development program intended to add housing, a hotel and an office building. Tree-lined sidewalks would link the 43-acre property with a new light-rail station that the city is building.

The expansion plan must wend its way through the city’s approval process before work could begin, but Capri is ready to go on the $30-million improvement.

“It’s critical this mall go from a C level to an A,” said Ken Lombard, a partner at Capri who will be overseeing the development.

Capri promised an upgrade when it bought the mall for $136 million in 2006 and has made some improvements, but the pending changes will be the most significant since the enclosed mall was completed in 1988, Lombard said.

The sparkling clean mall is almost fully occupied with retail tenants. Like other malls, it has department stores and a food court. The sweet smell of baking pretzels envelops shoppers near Auntie Anne’s. But the sterile setting is also distinctly dated, like a sealed-in suburban mall from Anywhere USA dropped into the middle of an urban neighborhood with barely a nod to the world outside.

“It’s been an island, with walls and fences to protect it from the community,” said Quintin Primo III, chief executive of Capri. “We want it to be an integral part of the community.”

As part of the first phase, Capri will tear out some of the interior walls and pillars to improve visibility and enhance a sense of openness. Skylights and recessed light fixtures will be altered to eliminate dark parts of the mall.

The Magic Theatres have grown tired since they opened in 1995 with great fanfare. Basketball great turned developer Earvin “Magic” Johnson is no longer involved with the 12-screen multiplex. Lombard, who is a former partner of Johnson’s, plans to improve the theaters and add digital and 3-D projection technology.

Fine-dining restaurateur Brad Johnson — who opened the Roxbury, Georgia and the Sunset Room in Los Angeles — has agreed to launch a restaurant next to the nonprofit Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Lombard said. Capri is in negotiations with an office supply chain to open a freestanding store outside the enclosed mall.

“We want to bring more food, merchandise and fashion, and create a center that attracts a healthier mix of tenants that respond better to the community,” architect Tipton Housewright said.

His firm, Omniplan, also designed the makeover of the former Fox Hills Mall — rebranded last year as Westfield Culver City — and the redo of Santa Monica Place now underway. Each of those projects cost well over $100 million, while the second phase of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza makeover could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Capri said.

The proposals garnered an enthusiastic response.

“The plans to upgrade Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza represent a tremendous investment in the community at a time when it really counts,” Councilman Bernard C. Parks said. “I am thrilled that the team is not only making an immediate investment to boost the mall to Class-A status, but also continuing to move forward with their long-term plans to transform the mall into a community center for the Crenshaw District.”

Capri’s strategy is to continue to make the mall more a part of the neighborhood. It includes a sizable Los Angeles Police Department substation, a post office and store-like offices for Southern California Gas, Time Warner Cable and the MTA. The mall has multiple banks, an educational center for seniors and an armed forces recruiting center. It plays host to a weekly farmers market and live musical performances twice a month.

The mall’s anchors are Sears, Macy’s and one of the few urban Wal-Marts in California. All stores are expected to remain open during renovations.

The activity at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza stands in contrast to Marlton Square, a planned mixed-use complex across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the west. The 22-acre redevelopment project of stores, restaurants and residences was approved by the City Council years ago, but work stopped in January 2008 after the developer experienced financial woes.

City officials are trying to regain control of the full property, and Capri hopes to be the next developer to step in if the city approves, Lombard said. “It’s an important parcel that needs to be developed for the overall improvement of the Crenshaw corridor.”

As a minority-owned firm, Capri has useful insights about how to make a real estate project prosper in a part of the city most mainstream developers have avoided for decades, Lombard said.

“We want to crack the code,” he said, “and show others how they can be successful in a diverse minority community.”