Village of Laguna Hills will transform an aging mall into a housing, entertainment and business hub – Orange County Register

Once a shopping and entertainment destination for southern Orange County, the Laguna Hills Mall will become a neighborhood with homes and a park, offices and restaurants, and yes, still a few places to shop.

The interior of the mall closed four years ago as its owners prepared to renovate amid departing retail businesses, but even those plans have had to be revised as even fewer shoppers jump in the car, click instead to proceed to checkout.

So now the village of Laguna Hills is the plan for the 68-acre property off Highway 5 — the city council this week signed the vision to join the trend seen in the area of ​​revamping brick-and-mortar malls. of mortar with mixtures -use features.

The now closed Laguna Hills Mall building and parking lot in Laguna Hills on Thursday, March 10, 2022. There are plans to redevelop the property. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Village at Laguna Hills will be owner Merlone Geier’s second attempt to replace the mall with an urban village that will retain some retail and dining from the original site. In 2016, the developer opened Five Lagunas, a project that proposed to redesign the interior of the mall and add outdoor restaurants, a boardwalk, a high-end movie theater and more.

But with the departure of giants Macy’s and JCPenney, “it gave us the idea to re-imagine the whole site,” said Stephen Logan, vice president of development at Merlone Geier.

“We thought 900,000 square feet, as we saw retail changing, was a little too much,” he said.

The company halted construction in 2017 and returned to the drawing board.

“We had control over the whole site and felt that in the long run we didn’t want to build our plan that was approved to have empty stores, given the landscape we were in,” Logan said. .

The renamed Laguna Hills Village has reduced the commercial footprint and incorporated more apartments, a 2.6 acre village park, commercial offices and an upscale hotel. The old shopping center and most of the surrounding buildings will be demolished.

Only In-N-Out Burger, BJ’s Restaurants and Brewhouse and King’s Fish House will remain. The Nordstrom Rack will be moved under a new movie theater that will border the park.

Councilor Don Sedgwick said the mixed-use project, with its combination of housing, retail, entertainment and park space, “really is the best use of this land”.

With interest now shifting away from traditional shopping, he sees it more towards comprehensive entertainment experiences. Owning and operating a fashion jewelry retailer himself between the 1980s and 2000s, Sedgwick said he began sensing the shifting interest in typical suburban malls as early as the 1990s.

“So it was no surprise when Merlone Geier pulled the plug on Five Lagunas, which was going to be a very exciting mall, but they couldn’t rent it out,” he said.

Creating a new type of destination incorporating “more of an entertainment type hub, where shopping might not even be your primary reason for going there, but rather an experiential mall, that’s what’s in vogue right now,” he said.

A development deal with Merlone Geier promises the city millions in community benefit fees, as well as a commitment to build the park, 210,000 square feet of retail space, the 100-150-room hotel and at least four of the five proposed apartment complexes.

Of the 1,500 homes on offer, Merlone Geier will make 200 affordable, at half-and-half prices, for low- and middle-income individuals or families.

These units will help the city meet some of its state-required housing needs, though some residents and council members wondered if there was an opportunity with this project to do more. At a city council meeting on Tuesday, Mayor Dave Wheeler also bristled at the economic impact of the project’s shrinking commercial footprint and increasing the number of apartments, saying “the design is based on the economics of COVID”.

Sedgwick noted that plans could change over the next 15 years, during which time construction will take place. While the number of apartments is capped at 1,500, perhaps if trends change retail space could be expanded, he said.

“There is built-in flexibility,” he said.

Logan said the company does not plan to change the number or price of affordable units, nor does it expect trends to shift so drastically to retail that the plan would be changed.

“We will be ready if that happens, but at the moment we don’t plan for that,” he said.

Any proposed changes to the project plan would be referred to city council for discussion, said Larry Longenecker, the city’s director of community development.

Increased traffic along the already busy El Toro Road has been a concern of Laguna Hills residents and some council members from the start.

But Sedgwick said the community is eager to see something replace mall property that has been destroyed for nearly a decade.

“They’re tired of seeing a big parking lot on the side of the freeway,” he said, “and really need something that’s going to be a vibrant hub for the community to enjoy.”

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