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This mall is among the eeriest in the Sacramento region. City leaders want a revamp

Woodland's mostly empty County Fair Mall suffers fate of many malls in U.S.

A once busy regional shopping mall saw its chain stores close in the recession. Now city officials are talking about tearing it down and redeveloping the site with housing. The manager wants to lease to local businesses.
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A once busy regional shopping mall saw its chain stores close in the recession. Now city officials are talking about tearing it down and redeveloping the site with housing. The manager wants to lease to local businesses.

Officials in Woodland say they have a plan for the city’s eerily quiet County Fair Mall – if only the owner would call them back.

They’d like to tear down most of the structure and redevelop the sprawling site with housing, shops and outdoor spaces – leaving only the existing JCPenney and Walmart grocery store as stand-alone enterprises.

Many in the Yolo County town agree it’s a good plan for a mall that’s half-empty and so devoid of customers that shopkeepers sleep or read by their cash registers. Some say the mall’s dark, empty spaces would make a good set for a zombie movie.

“There’s even bats at night,” said Corina Galicia, who with her husband runs Boss Cafe, a coffee shop that’s succeeded partly by delivering drinks to customers’ cars in the parking lot so they don’t have to come in.

“They text us to say, ‘We’re here,’ ” she said.

Things weren’t always this way.

Twenty-five years ago, County Fair was a regional mall with Target, Mervyn’s and Gottschalks stores. The latter two went out of business when their chains declared bankruptcy in last decade’s recession, and Target moved to a newer and much larger location near Interstate 5 in Woodland.

The smaller chain stores that occupied malls in the 1980s and 1990s also closed. Orange Julius disappeared from the County Fair Mall. So did Foot Locker, PacSun and RadioShack.

Now empty storefronts and local businesses such as hair salons and discount clothing shops occupy the mall. Payless ShoeSource is one of the only remaining chains.

It’s a story that has played out in malls across the nation since the mid-2000s as the recession, big-box stores and online shopping took huge tolls on more traditional brick-and-mortar retail.

Enclosed shopping malls, which in many cases had replaced America’s small-town main streets as shopping and gathering places, were hard hit. Up to a quarter of the 1,200 or so malls in the U.S. will close by 2022, Credit Suisse predicted in a June 2017 report.

Nationally, some shuttered malls have been repurposed as community college campuses or medical offices, but most have remained “dead malls.” The decaying shells of vacant malls have become the subject of documentary films and so-called “ruin porn” online.

In the Sacramento region, Downtown Plaza, which experienced a steep decline in the recession, was mostly demolished to make way for Sacramento’s new arena, Golden 1 Center. Country Club Plaza on Watt Avenue and Florin Mall in south Sacramento were turned into strip malls.

In Woodland, County Fair Mall was built in the mid-1980s beside what was then the main road between Davis and Woodland. It drew customers from up and down the rural Interstate 5 corridor, from communities such as Williams and Arbuckle that lacked their own shopping.

It also pulled business away from Woodland’s historic main street and older shopping centers closer to the city center. Then the mall, too, suffered from newer shopping options, including the Costco and Target built along I-5 as Woodland grew east toward Sacramento.

Today the County Fair Mall is a shell of its former self. Reviewers on Yelp frequently joke that it could star in a horror movie. “This place really does seem like the perfect setting for a zombie flick,” wrote one. During one recent visit, the proprietor of a jewelery kiosk dozed for about an hour behind his counter. Workers at other stores read magazines or chatted.

The mall is 30 percent leased, but only the Walmart Neighborhood Market and JCPenney store attract significant numbers of customers, said Woodland city planner Stephen Coyle. That’s why Coyle, the city’s deputy director of community development, and others suggest leaving those two stores in place but demolishing the remainder of the mall.

A developer could come in, buy the mall and build much-needed housing, including rental apartments and attached housing units that would be affordable for first-time buyers, Coyle said. Currently, the city’s housing stock available for purchase consists nearly entirely of detached single-family homes.

Ground-floor retail and communal outdoor spaces would round out the plan, in keeping with the “new urbanist” ideal of walkability, with housing and shopping in close proximity. A volunteer group from the Congress for New Urbanism helped put the plan together and held sessions to generate public input and include stakeholders in the process.

The proposal was presented to the Woodland City Council in October and greeted with broad praise. Mayor Angel Barajas asked the audience for a round of applause for those who created it. A full report is due in December.

Coyle said the plan could move forward almost immediately, except for one big problem. Frank Zeng, the Southern California investor who owns most of the mall – and has listed it for sale – doesn’t seem open to discussion. Zeng doesn’t return phone calls or emails, Coyle said.

“The owner refuses to have any communication with us,” he said.

“It’s waiting for the owner to make the next move,” he said. “It can happen as quickly as the owner’s willing to cooperate.”

Efforts to reach Zeng by The Sacramento Bee were unsuccessful.

Mall manager Victor Rodriquez said Zeng has appointed him to talk on his behalf. Zeng’s current plan, he said, is to lease mall spaces inexpensively to small, local startup businesses such as Boss Cafe. The going rents are about half what newer shopping centers are asking in Woodland, he said.

“Everything could change with a change of attitude,” Rodriguez said. “We have to stop thinking of the past and look to the future.”

Rodriquez said he was part of the planning process that resulted in the idea of tearing down the mall, which he thinks could be good, but he said that plan is five to 10 years away.

“It’s a really great visual for the future,” Rodriquez said.

In the meantime, even some relatively successful small businesses at the mall say they may be looking for newer quarters.

Jonathan Lomeli, who owns the King of Fades barbershop, said regular customers know where to find his business. He’s been in the mall for six years in what used to be a tuxedo store. But the mall’s lack of foot traffic is making him consider going elsewhere, Lomeli said.

Corina Galicia and her husband, Jose Collazo, have become known in Woodland for their good coffee and specialty drinks, such as a popular cucumber-lime refresher. Customers seek them out, especially for deliveries. Their reputation has spread through word of mouth and social media.

Galicia said she thinks the plan for the mall is a good one and hopes to see it happen someday. The mall was an inexpensive startup location, she said, but the couple hope to eventually upgrade.

“The goal is to save up for a trailer,” she said.

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree