Sacramento's Downtown Plaza may soon get a new owner. Will it get a new look, too?
JMA Ventures, an investment firm that's built exclusive timeshares in San Francisco and owns ski resorts in Tahoe, is under contract to buy the struggling shopping mall in the heart of downtown, say sources who are not authorized to speak publicly.
City leaders cheered the prospect, having long since soured on the current owner, Westfield Group. Still, the potential sale prompts big questions.
Westfield, a huge international shopping center owner and builder, struggled in a tough economy to make the plaza work. In contrast, San Francisco- and Tahoe-based JMA Ventures has a slim retail résumé but brings a knack for stylish revamps of under-performing properties.
The company recently bought Homewood Mountain Resort ski area in Tahoe, where it plans a $500 million makeover with condominiums and chalets. JMA teamed with Fairmont Hotels to develop upscale vacation residences in San Francisco's historic Ghirardelli Square. And it plans to build a rustic riverside hotel in Truckee.
"They specialize in turning things into high-end hospitality, residential or leisure," said Garrick Brown of the Cassidy Turley commercial real estate brokerage. "I wouldn't be shocked if they are thinking of adding a high-end hotel somewhere on that property."
In a tight retail market and tough economy, any buyer will have to be well-financed, creative, patient and connected in the retail world, downtown developers and retail real estate brokers said.
JMA, which is privately held, does not list shopping centers in its portfolio of properties on its website. The company previously developed and marketed retail portions of Ghirardelli Square but lost control of those properties in 2010 to its lender, according to the San Francisco Business Times.
Last year, according to published reports, it pulled out of a $70 million deal to buy Santa Clara's Great America amusement park near the site of a new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers.
JMA and Westfield declined comment this week.
Downtown Plaza has been losing customers, tenants and luster for years. Sales revenue for the 18-year-old center plummeted from $82 million in 2004 to $35 million last year, Westfield financial reports show. That doesn't count the two Macy's stores, which are managed and owned separately.
Westfield's balance sheets value the plaza, minus Macy's, at $55 million. That's down from $207 million five years ago, and less than a tenth of Westfield's Roseville Galleria's listed value of $583 million.
With the plaza's fortunes fading, Mayor Kevin Johnson pointedly challenged Westfield three years ago to fix the mall or sell it. Westfield put the property on the market more than a year ago.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, Johnson said he is hopeful for a turnaround at the center.
"Downtown Plaza has incredible potential to transform K Street, downtown, and the city as a whole," he wrote. "I'm excited and optimistic that we're moving closer to making it the game-changer we know it can be."
Downtown Plaza was last revamped in 1993 at a cost of $157 million. An Urban Land Institute planning group last year said the fortresslike mall should be turned inside out, so that stores face J and L streets, as well as K Street. The mayor concurred.
"It needs to connect with the rest of the downtown grid, and be a lot more friendly and inviting," Johnson said last year.
Some suggest a complete rethinking of the site's use, arguing there aren't enough people living or coming downtown to support a suburban-style shopping mall. That might mean mixing stores with housing, offices, recreation and entertainment venues.
Other ideas floated for repurposing the site have included a university, a sports and entertainment arena, factory outlets and big-box stores. There has been talk of allowing cars again through the center of the site on K Street.
Kunal Merchant, head of the mayor's Think Big Sacramento group, said whatever happens at Downtown Plaza must be complementary with development efforts on K Street Mall and the nearby railyard, and not duplicate what suburban malls offer.
"It has to be catalytic," Merchant said. "It has to be unique to the region. Nobody is going to drive by a Gap to go to Gap. If we build the same stuff they can get in the suburbs, they aren't going to come."
That could play to JMA's strength, said Bob Dean, managing director at the Newmark Grubb Knight Frank commercial real estate brokerage in Roseville.
"We can expect, if it is JMA, they are going to change things up like they are doing at Homewood," he said.
Dean said market demand should decide the site's fate, not City Hall. "Let the buyer do what it thinks it should do to succeed."
In Tahoe, JMA Ventures has proposed a dramatic expansion of the Homewood Mountain Resort, a relatively modest facility with spectacular views of the lake. JMA proposes to turn it into an all-season resort with an amphitheater for summer concerts, bike trails and boating facilities.
JMA founder Art Chapman, who has a home at Tahoe, told The Bee last year that Homewood will get faster ski lifts and upscale amenities with "true alpine architecture."
The company is also a partner in the group that owns the now-combined Squaw Valley USA and Alpine Meadows ski complex. In addition, it rents and sells homes at the Northstar ski area that it purchased from the Ritz-Carlton.
JMA owns two waterfront establishments in San Francisco, the Epic Roadhouse and the Waterbar, and another on the shores of Lake Tahoe, the West Shore Cafe.
Its newest asset, purchased last month, is a small office building in Austin, Texas, rumored to hold a huge client, Apple Computers. JMA declines in its promotional materials to name the client, other than describing it as "one of the largest publicly traded technology companies in the world."