Growing up in Orange County in the late 1970s, KL DeHart often wandered the Westminster Mall with her mother, checking out the latest fashions and seeing what movies were playing.
As a teenager, she spent many weekends there with friends playing pinball and skeeball at the arcade and shopping for trendy Chemin De Fer jeans.
Now, the mall is pocked with empty storefronts. At the remaining businesses, employees eagerly jump to help the few customers passing through.
What may rise in its place, if developers and city officials have their way, is a new kind of mall, one that will include lawns, walking trails and thousands of apartments.
“It was the hip place to be, and it’s really faded out, but it’s just sad to see it go,” said DeHart, a 55-year-old massage therapist who still lives near the mall, in the house she grew up in. She is among the residents worried that the new apartments will increase traffic while doing little to solve the region’s affordable housing crisis.
In Orange County, the San Fernando Valley and suburbs throughout America, the mall was a gathering spot where there were few other places to hang out. It was where kids stocked up on the latest fashions and roamed in packs after school, spawning the term “mall rat.”
The 1980s cult classic “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” began and ended at the mall where the teens worked. In the 1995 film “Clueless,” a Beverly Hills teen retreated to the mall, which she described as a “sanctuary,” after failing to persuade a teacher to boost her grade.
Now, teenagers text with their friends and make TikTok videos. Their parents are more likely to shop online than at a brick-and-mortar store.
At the same time, Orange County is desperate for housing, with rents and home prices escalating and state laws requiring cities to zone for new construction. In a region where there is little undeveloped land and neighbors are likely to push back at new housing, some see declining malls as ideal places to build.
The Westminster Mall is “probably one of the largest areas of developable space that still exists in our time in this area,” City Manager Christine Cordon told the City Council during a meeting last November.
Cordon remembers taking the bus to the mall decades ago to pick out CDs at Best Buy.
“You’re too young as a teenager to hang out in an actual nightclub, so back in the day, where would you go? The mall,” said Karen North, a USC professor who specializes in social media and psychology.
“It became this default place to go because it had something for everybody. You never knew who you were going to bump into, but you were always guaranteed there was something going on and there would be people around.”
As envisioned in a plan adopted by the City Council last year, the new mall would contain at least 600,000 square feet of retail space. It would include up to 3,000 residential units and up to 425 hotel rooms, surrounded by a park with 17 acres of green space.
Teenagers could still hang out there — it just wouldn’t be the echoey indoor turf that Alicia Silverstone claimed in “Clueless.”
Orange County is catching on to a trend that has already taken hold farther north in the Los Angeles area, led by developer Rick Caruso with his Americana at Brand and Palisades Village malls and residences.
“This is really our opportunity to create something that we can be absolutely proud of for the next generation to create those same fond memories that I have and that others have in a fashion that is consistent with what the times are now,” Cordon said.
Bill Shopoff said his company, which purchased the Macy’s store and the former Sears store in the Westminster Mall last year, hopes to draw people back with shops, a hotel, townhouses and apartments.
Upscale malls like South Coast Plaza are thriving because “they have entertainment, food, there’s a reason to go there,” said Shopoff, president and CEO of Shopoff Realty Investments. “I think we need to do that in Westminster to
create a sense of something.”
As for who will rent or purchase the homes in his preliminary plan, Shopoff is counting on a modern type of suburban dweller — one who would rather walk to restaurants and other amenities than live in a single-family home with a yard.
Experts say that new laws, along with increased pressure from the state to build more homes, have convinced some local officials who might have been resistant to rezoning commercial properties in the past.
Roughly every eight years, California cities are assigned a certain number of new housing units they’re required to zone for. As part of the 2020 assessment, Orange County needs to make space for about 183,000 new units, shared among all its cities.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two pieces of legislation aimed at spurring housing development in corridors otherwise zoned for large retail and office buildings.
“Whether you want to call Orange County urban suburbia or suburban urbanism, it’s definitely shifting,” said Elizabeth Hansburg, co-founder and executive director of People for Housing Orange County. “We have an interesting mix of historic districts and tract housing of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and even the ’70s, but I don’t see us building like that again. It’s going to be interesting to see how families evolve in denser spaces.”
Elsewhere in Orange County, similar mall conversions are at various stages.
In Santa Ana, a 309-unit apartment complex is under construction on the parking lot of the Mainplace Mall, part of a larger project that will include more apartments, restaurants, courtyards and a music venue.
Simon Property Group has said it is open to adding residential zoning to its mall in Mission Viejo. In Brea, the company has proposed redeveloping 15.5 acres of the mall to include shops, a resort-style fitness center, apartments and a large central green space.
A proposal to redevelop the Village at Orange mall to include housing along with retail has run into stiff opposition. Residents are voicing concerns about tall residential buildings looming above nearby single-family homes.
In Westminster, DeHart said that she and her neighbors who live in tract homes adjacent to the malls are not “NIMBYs” — an acronym for “Not In My Backyard.”
“That’s not what this is,” she said. “We’re asking legitimate questions, and we’re not getting answers.”
In Laguna Hills, the mall is being repurposed along the lines of Caruso’s Los Angeles-area developments, with up to 1,500 apartments, an upscale hotel, commercial office space and 250,000 square feet of stores surrounding a large green space.
On a recent day, a chain-link fence wrapped with a blue tarp surrounded the partly demolished main building, with the “Laguna Hills Mall” lettering barely legible.
A sign affixed to the fence featured a rendering of the new homes, asserting that “a brighter future is coming soon.”
Residents have voiced concerns similar to those of DeHart and her neighbors — traffic, overcrowding. But Laguna Hills Mayor Janine Heft said a change is needed.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia for what the mall used to be,” Heft said. “What we didn’t want was a blight, and that’s really what we had. We had this mall that hadn’t been kept up in years.”
On a recent afternoon, most of the sprawling Westminster Mall was deserted. The only activity was at an indoor playground near JCPenney.
Corrie Essex watched her 5-month-old son playing on a blanket as rain pounded on the glass ceiling.
She grew up in the San Fernando Valley and recalls listing the Northridge Mall as one of her favorite places in an elementary school assignment. Her mother took her and her siblings there to get burgers and go to the movies — a relatively inexpensive way to keep four kids occupied.
“We’d go all the time,” said Essex, 30, who now lives in Huntington Beach. “It was fun. Now, I hate the mall. It’s just not the same.
Nothing’s beautiful anymore.”
But on a rainy day like this one, it was a good place to take her son. And, noted her sister, 27-year-old Jessie Lane, there’s little danger of spending money — “it doesn’t have any bougie stores that we would want to buy anything from.”
Their mother, 57-year-old Rachel Lane, said she likes the idea of adding housing to malls.
But with the new outdoor designs, she wondered, “Where are we going to go when it rains?”