The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza has had its ups and downs in its near 70-year history.
When it opened in 1947, it was universally hailed as a futuristic model for urban shopping. Its then sleekly designed anchor stores, retail shops and restaurants would draw shoppers from within and without the community, provide jobs for area residents and boost the overall economy of the area.
In the next two decades, shopping malls became the rage. While the majority of them were located in suburban communities, big city malls such as City-Center in Indianapolis, Faneuil Hall in Boston, South Street Seaport in New York City, and Harbour Place in Baltimore got high marks for revitalizing flagging, eye-sore neighborhoods.
During this same period, the mall hit a downslide. White flight, the Watts Riots, the surge of full service big-box stores in suburban communities and the demise of many small retailers, took its toll on the mall.
The mall got its first overhaul in the mid-1980s, and for a time saw a brief upswing in shopping activity. But the L.A. riots in 1992 hit hard and accelerated a downward spiral for the mall. That reinforced the notion among many that the mall was in a dangerous neighborhood and its stores were filled with limited and shoddy goods.
Adding to the negative image, was the total absence of amenities such as a quality restaurant to draw middle-income and upscale buyers. The mall was now plainly a place to be avoided.
But some did not write the mall off as a hopeless case and saw it as a potential economic energizer for South L.A. The first turnaround came in 1995 with the opening of the Magic Johnson Theaters. This signaled to investors that an urban mall could indeed be a profitable venture for those willing to take the chance.
That was especially important at the time given the perilous state of malls in the country. Research studies found that since 2010, at least two dozen enclosed shopping centers around the country have closed, and an additional 75 were in danger of failing.
To ensure the success of the revamped Crenshaw mall, the key would be to make it not just a desirable place to shop, but a point of community pride and a showpiece for urban renewal and revitalization.
The mall’s owners, Capri Urban Investors, understood the daunting challenge. They announced a big, ambitious plan to shell out $30 million to give the mall a facelift and add new stores, restaurants and re-jumpstart the Magic Johnson theaters with new ownership.
The even more ambitious plan called for transforming the mall into a futuristic mixed-use urban center with offices, a hotel and condominiums. The mall would get an added boost with the opening of the Crenshaw light rail line in 2019.
If everything panned out according to the blueprints, the mall could serve as a shining example for other urban centers nationally of how to turn businesses in underserved, mostly black and Latino communities into a showpiece for development.
The challenges were there, though. One is the changing demographics of the Crenshaw area. Hispanics now make up a significant percent of the area’s residents, and will make up a big percentage of the mall’s shoppers. What this will mean for the types of stores and merchandise that will locate and relocate to the mall is still an open question.
The other was getting middle-income shoppers back. During the years when the mall was perceived as a place to be avoided, middle and upper income black business persons and professionals who lived in affluent Windsor Hills, View Park, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park did what many whites did. They went elsewhere to do their shopping.
The elsewhere was Century City, the Grove, the Westside Pavillion, the South Bay Mall, and the Santa Monica Mall. It will be a tough sell to get many of them back.
The key to that is a safe shopping environment, adequate parking, quality stores and merchandise, and the restaurants and entertainment venues that have been the staple of other successful shopping centers.
Another challenge is employment. According to projections by the Community Redevelopment Agency of the city of Los Angeles, the mall’s renovation is expected to create 1,350 construction jobs and 2,600 permanent jobs. The task is to ensure that the bulk of those jobs are held by residents of the Crenshaw and Baldwin Hills communities.
This is especially important because of the chronic higher unemployment rates among blacks and Hispanics. Being a major area employer would also encourage greater local buying. This would reinforce the sense in the community that the mall is indeed “our mall.”
A modern, upscale, business and consumer friendly mall will refute the ancient stereotype of inner-city neighborhoods as crime infested, impoverished wastelands. Dispelling that stereotype could do much to convince other investors and businesses that plopping dollars into South L.A. can be an economic win-win proposition.
If the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza can deliver on the promise of its past and the future, it could serve as the much-needed model for inner-city revitalization.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “Trump and the GOP: Race Baiting to the White House” (Amazon Kindle). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.