San Bernardino is soliciting proposals for the former Carousel Mall

By on June 24, 2019

Two years after it was shuttered forever, city officials want to level the building and replace it with a  mixed-use project that will remake downtown. All interested developers are welcome to apply for the job.

Nearly two years after it closed, replacing the Carousel Mall is at the top of San Bernardino’s “to do” list.

The city, which owns most of the abandoned property next to Interstate 215, is asking for proposals from regional, national and international developers. City officials want to replace the mall with a combination of entertainment, retail, residential and office development.

In May, city staff put out requests for plans that will level the buildings on the 43-acre site next to Interstate 215 and replace them with a project that will become the heart of downtown San Bernardino.

Those proposals are to include much of the original street system that surrounded the mall, along with plazas and courtyards that will draw in shoppers, according to staff.

Developers were given 45 days to submit a proposal. Following a review period, city staff will recommend three potential projects for consideration.

San Bernardino owns most of the Carousel Mall site. El Corte Ingles S.A., a retail company in Madrid, Spain, owns the building on the property’s east end that was Harris’ department store, a downtown landmark until it shut down in 1999, and later Harris-Gottschalks.

Currently, there is nothing more important to San Bernardino’s future than reviving its downtown, and “reviving its downtown” has become synonymous with leveling Carousel Mall and replacing it with something similar to L.A. Live or the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego.

“I was born and raised in San Bernardino, so I remember when the mall worked,” Mayor John Valdivia said. “Then I came back from college and it had fallen apart. But we have to bring back our downtown. It’s my number one priority, and I’m going to make sure it gets done.”

When San Bernardino pulled the plug on Carousel Mall in July 2017, it ended a 20-year effort by several owners to revive the property. Converting some of the mall to office space, an approach that has worked at other struggling malls, did attract some office tenants and generate foot traffic, but not enough to save the property. 

Being next door to Theater Square, which is anchored by the Regal San Bernardino & RPX, a multi-theater complex, also didn’t help.

Reviving Carousel Mall became more difficult when San Bernardino declared bankruptcy in 2012, a process that took five years to complete.

“I wish people would stop calling it a mall, because it hasn’t been a mall in years,” said Judi Penman, president and chief executive officer of the San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce in September 2017, two months after the mall shut down. “The media calls it a mall, but it’s really an office facility that doesn’t work. Nothing that’s been tried there has worked.”

Known as Central Mall when it opened in 1972, Carousel Mall performed well at first but began to struggle in the early 1990s. The property became a refuge for gang members, and by 2003 it had lost its three anchor tenants: Harris-Gottschalks, Montgomery Ward and JC Penney, not one of which was replaced.

Carousel Mall also had to deal with competition from the other department store mall in downtown San Bernardino, Inland Center Mall, and the advent of online shopping. By the time it closed it was down to 14 specialty tenants and was a virtual ghost town. 

Immediately after it shut down the mall was boarded up and fenced off.  Today the boards remain in place but the fence has been removed, allowing some people who work downtown to take advantage of the mall’s otherwise unused parking lot, said Michael Huntley, San Bernardino’s director of community and economic development.

About 12,000 to 15,000 government employees – local, state and federal – work in or near downtown San Bernardino, a good starting point for revitalizing the city’s historic downtown, Huntley said.

“We need restaurants, because there aren’t enough places to eat downtown,” Huntley said. “We also need to find a good entertainment component because that will be an important part of attracting people downtown. We just aren’t sure what that will be yet.”

Valdivia and Huntley both declined to discuss how much the downtown revitalization might cost or how long it could take to complete.

A mixed-use project like the one San Bernardino is pursuing is a good idea because that model has worked well in other cities, said Colin Strange, the chamber’s business services director.

“The indoor mall of the 1970s is losing a lot of its appeal,” Strange said. “People want a bigger experience. They don’t want to just shop, they want to be entertained. So I think it’s probably a good idea that the city is going in that direction.”