Simi Town Center to get major facelift

by Ventura County Now

July 26th, 2011

Six years after it opened, the new owners of the Simi Valley Town Center are planning a multimillion dollar renovation of the open-air shopping mall, including possible tear-downs and reconstruction, and adding a top-flight park with an ice-skating rink to attract shoppers to the faltering plaza.

Construction at the 612,000-square-foot mall north of Highway 118 overlooking the city is scheduled to begin next year, developer Donald Provost told the Simi Valley City Council last week.

The center will have its grand reopening in 2013, said Provost, founding principal of Colorado-based Alberta Development Partners.

"The slogan we use at our firm is 'creating permanence,' " Provost said during a presentation depicting a mixed-use development in suburban Denver that his company opened in 2009. "Creating assets that stand the test of time, and can live for 50, 60, 70 years, not just 10 or 20 years.

"You'll see a lot of photos of people because that's what town centers in great places are all about — people," Provost said. "And creating the environment for these people to congregate and adopt as their own."

Provost gave the council an overview of the plans his group has for the struggling town center, which his partner, Chicago-based Walton Street Capital, LLC bought in December for an undisclosed price.

The recorded deed showed the property was encumbered with more than $112 million in debt.

When it opened in 2005, the center was valued at $350 million.

The former owners, Ohio-based Forest City Enterprises, cited several factors in putting the mall up for sale.

They included the economic downturn that began in 2007 and more retail competition in the region, including the renovated shopping center in Thousand Oaks, The Oaks.

Provost provided the council with few details of the planned overhaul, saying they are still being worked out by designers.

But some of the center's new features have been settled on, he said. They include:

n Construction of a large community park, including an ice-skating rink, for various events such as arts fairs and tree-lighting ceremonies.

"Great public spaces are very important and I don't think Simi really has that one great public space today," Provost told the council.

n Enhanced landscaping and signage at the center's entrance and perimeter "to set a different welcoming tone" for shoppers.

n A large pop-jet fountain.

"We're not going to change the architecture per se," Provost said in an interview Thursday. "But I think there needs to be a significant repositioning effort, which will probably involve some new construction. It could be new construction ground up, some tear down of some of the stuff that's there and new buildings built in their place."

He said the cost of the redesign will be in the eight figures.

Describing the current financial state of the town center as "difficult," Provost said the goal of the renovation is to "create long-term value for us as the investor and create long-term value for the resident."

Simi Valley Economic Development Director Brian Gabler said from the city's perspective, the goals will be to provide a "gathering place for the community, shopping opportunities for the community that don't currently exist, job opportunities and generation of sales tax revenue."

Provost said since buying the town center, his group has stabilized the erosion of tenants.

At the same time, the developer is continuing to negotiate deals with potential new anchor tenants, hopeful it can consolidate the center's two Macy's into one.

The mall is currently 86 percent occupied with 93 tenants, said Megan Campbell, senior marketing associate for Alberta Development.

Tenants include Abercrombie & Fitch, California Pizza Kitchen and Coldwater Creek.

Dennis Torres, Pepperdine University's director of real estate operations, has doubts the redesign will restore the town center's revenues to 2005 levels, calling it a potentially "high-risk venture."

Torres said commercial real estate vacancies remain high and that while retail sales are up overall, according to reports, "if you take out the price of gasoline and food, retail is actually down."

Furthermore, he said, he believes hyper inflation will kick in about 2015, shrinking consumers' spendable dollars.

The town center will also continue to face competition from ever-growing Internet retailers, he said.

"So I think brick and mortar retail in the next five years is still going to be tough," Torres said. "Who knows where it will go after that?"

by: Mike Harris Ventura County Star