At Downtown Plaza, it's come to this: The circus clown has to go.
In one of the first visible signs that sagging Downtown Plaza is finally getting ready for a face-lift, Andy Swan, a.k.a. Zippy the Clown, has been given his eviction notice.
For the past 18 months, Swan, a professional clown, has occupied a mall storefront rent-free. Under a somewhat eccentric arrangement with Westfield, the mall's former owner, Swan crammed a former clothing store with 9,000-plus pieces of elephant memorabilia. It's not a retail outlet but a collective display, part of his quest for a Guinness world record.
Now JMA Ventures, the San Francisco developer that bought the struggling mall earlier this summer for a reported $22 million, has told Swan it's time to pack up his pachyderms.
Booting the elephant man is one of a handful of small, visible steps JMA has taken since it took possession of the mall in August.
In its first 100 days, JMA has added new digital signage, installed free Wi-Fi, put in new food court furniture, turned the water fountains back on and reopened the south mall, where Santa Claus is stationed. It has repositioned its security officers and hired new marketing and operations managers. And it's running a free holiday shuttle through the K Street tunnel into Old Sacramento.
"We're doing the little things to rebuild trust with the community," said JMA President Todd Chapman.
Less visibly, the company has been "working feverishly" in recent months to start defining what Downtown Plaza's longer-term makeover will look like, said Chapman. That's the harder, bigger-picture task.
On Friday, JMA, the city, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and the Urban Land Institute kicked off a months-long series of planning sessions that will culminate next summer with a "vision and transformation plan" for Downtown Plaza. No one is saying yet what that vision will be. But there's renewed enthusiasm among city development officials about Downtown Plaza's potential.
"They're engaging the community and city in a very proactive way. They recognize that to be successful they need to be very thoughtful and really think through the best position for the center," said Assistant City Manager John Dangberg. "It's a high-priority project and asset for them, which you couldn't say about the previous owner."
Among some mall employees and tenants, rumors have swirled about potentially glitzy changes, such as topping the open-air mall with a third story or erecting a fancy rooftop roller coaster, visible from nearby Interstate 5.
But at a recent real estate breakfast meeting in Sacramento, Chapman said it's too early to speculate about how his firm might alter the physical shape of Downtown Plaza, which occupies a four-block stretch of K Street between Third and Seventh streets. Noting that some portions of the mall are obsolete, he added that all of JMA's consultants are "struck by the opportunity" the mall presents. "None has said, 'Let's get out the bulldozers and (take) the place down.' "
Although, he added, "there will be some of that."
In an interview Friday, Chapman declined to state what tenant changes, if any, are being considered. Currently the mall has 20 vacancies.
Battered by the recession and an exodus of upscale retailers, Downtown Plaza's sales slid hard over the past decade as more and more storefronts went dark.
For some existing tenants, change can't come fast enough.
Bryan Nichols, the 26-year-old owner of ZuhG Life, which sells CDs, T-shirts and art by some of Sacramento's local artists and musicians, said traffic is "really, really slow" on the mall's second floor, where he's next to a candy shop. "My store barely breaks even and it's been that way for two years."
But, "They treat me well," said Nichols, who also books the musical acts that play in the outdoor rotunda areas. He recently added an open-mike comedy night outside his store on Tuesday evenings.
Even downstairs, traffic is sparse.
"You can see the problem. It's too quiet," said Qazi Kashif, assistant manager of Zoo Fashions, gesturing toward the light flow of holiday shoppers outside his store.
Kashif, whose store carries primarily young men's fashions, said many customers repeat the same complaints: With its open-air design, the drafty mall is too hot in the summer and too cold in winter. Another frequent gripe: Customers don't like having to pay for parking spots in the city-run parking garage.
For years, shoppers and state workers, who often stroll the mall at lunch, have lamented the declining mix of shopping and dining choices.
"It's very sad to see the empty storefronts," said Sue Smrekar, who was holiday shopping at Downtown Plaza on a recent weekday. The Elk Grove mother of four teens said she drives in about twice a month, just for the two Macy's stores. The new owners, she said, "need to bring in companies that will bring life into this mall. Macy's draws you here. But it's not enough to keep you here."
In recent years, as big-name tenants steadily departed, mall owner Westfield filled the empty spots with offerings not typically found in regional shopping malls, such as small local retailers and even a car dealership.
And then there was Swan. The North Highlands resident said he approached Westfield after hearing it was looking for "creative" tenants. He got his empty storefront in exchange for promises of attracting free publicity and "scores of people" to the mall once he landed in the Guinness record book for the world's largest private elephant collection a milestone he has yet to achieve.
Swan said this week that he holds no grudges that he and his elephant menagerie have been evicted.
"I really appreciate them letting me in here in the first place," Swan said, standing amid his 30-year collection, with pink balloon elephant ears on his head and a plastic elephant tail clipped to his posterior.
He's got another two weeks until Dec. 31 to pack up and vacate.
To fill his space and the mall's other empty storefronts will take far longer. Despite years of pent-up eagerness for changes at the ailing Downtown Plaza, no one's in a hurry to slap together any quick fixes.
"We've waited a long while for that center to get some momentum," said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. "Waiting a little bit longer for a plan that details what the ultimate investment or strategy is is absolutely acceptable."