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It’s a story known to many cities these days: a once-busy strip mall loses anchor tenants and the vast spaces sit empty for years before getting filled – if at all. Meanwhile, fewer people stop by, the center gets old and sluggish, and that drives out more tenants. The story is unfolding more often as Sports Chalets, Sports Authoritys, Haggen supermarkets and others that once filled those large spaces exit for ones smaller, or shut altogether. But the Palmdale Place strip mall along Palmdale Boulevard on the city’s west side is one of the lucky ones. A community college has leased more than 50,000 square feet there so it can reuse the long-vacant former Albertsons supermarket and adjoining medical offices as a satellite campus that will bring several thousands of students to the mall by next spring. Lancaster’s Antelope Valley College expects construction will soon start, pending state and city approvals, to convert 2301 E. Palmdale Blvd. into its new Palmdale campus. With nearly three times the space of its current site, the campus is expected to serve about 3,200 students to start, 5,000 in five years and eventually 7,000 if total enrollment swells to 30,000 by 2030 as projected. And if the school needs more space, it could potentially lease an additional 40,000 square feet at the strip mall at what was once the center’s other anchor – a home and garden center that burned down years ago. Both spaces have been vacant since 2011. Ed Knudson, president of the college, said reusing and converting the 45,000-square-foot interior of the former supermarket into classrooms and laboratories and the 5,100-square-feet of medical exam rooms into offices is estimated to cost about $12.5 million. That’s much less than the estimated $45 million it would cost to buy land, install utilities, lay out parking and new roads and construct the same size building. “We’re getting this same space for $12 million,” Knudson said. “For us in this circumstance, it works really, really well. It puts us in a geographic area that we need to increase service to, and it’s at a price we can afford.” New story In the city’s early heydays, Palmdale Place and other strip malls like it along the boulevard all had big supermarkets as anchors, said Mayor Jim Ledford. But as new housing boomed on the east side of the city, all the supermarkets on the west side – where Palmdale Place is – moved east, he said, attracting other big retailers. That left many of the west-side strip malls with large, vacant spaces, no anchors and eventually, less foot traffic. “Downtown (Palmdale) didn’t have the residential population to support them,” Ledford said. “People are shopping closer to where they live.” Palmdale Place was one of them, he said, and is “certainly not what it used to be.” So when he had heard that Antelope Valley College had leased the former supermarket, Ledford said he was elated. The small mom and pops in the center stand to be significantly helped by the infusion of thousands of students, he added. “Economics are starting to come back,” Ledford said. “The retooling of those centers is now appropriate. It’s an evolution.” The reuse of big spaces once filled by retailers that fell victim to changing consumer tastes and shopping habits is a trend, say commercial real estate brokers and developers. The void is being filled by nontraditional tenants, or what Sandy Sigal, founder and chief executive of Woodland Hills retail center developer NewMark Merrill Cos., calls pseudo-retailers, or pseudo-servicers. These urgent care facilities; charter, trade and traffic schools and community colleges are taking over vacated Sports Chalets, Best Buys and grocery stores. “All those (nontraditional) uses…do well in the retail environment because there’s amenities and food (nearby),” Sigal said. But they can also create challenges, he added. “Consumers spend money, but with these services, people spend longer times there, and tie up parking spaces, and (sometimes) don’t do any shopping.” If there’s enough parking in the strip mall where these servicers take space the situation can be OK, Sigal said. Otherwise, the service providers may hurt rather than help. Still, he said, “it’s a lot better than having something vacant for a while.” Adaptive reuse Antelope Valley College had been on the hunt for two years for a new Palmdale campus site to replace the existing one. At 18,000 square feet, the campus at 1529 E. Palmdale Blvd. is getting less able to handle the 2,200 or so students there now, according to Knudson. Knudson, who has been with the college three years, said the existing building had been offices for small businesses before the school converted the second and third floors into classrooms. But now there is stress on the building as thousands of students try to move in and out of elevators, through narrow hallways, in and out of the building and try and park their cars. “It was never built with this in mind,” Knudson said. “It’s almost impossible to make the adjustments inside of it to meet the needs we have, and it would be extremely expensive.” Instead, the former supermarket space will allow for 17 classrooms; wet and dry laboratories; a computer lab; lecture halls and common areas all on one floor, he said. The medical exam rooms and offices of a former Molina Healthcare Inc. clinic will be converted into faculty and student services offices and a bookstore. In addition to allowing it to grow, reusing the former supermarket’s large space will also save the college money on rent. The rent at its current site, negotiated back in 2004 when the real estate market there was hotter, is $3.53 a square foot. The new space will be $1.50, Knudson said. That’s less than its neighbors at the new site because it’s leasing a much larger space, said Susan Champion, the leasing manager for The Abbey Co. in Garden Grove, which owns the strip mall. Those very large spaces – generally – lease at lower rates per foot, she said, plus the college is giving her justification to increase rents a bit for new tenants, she added, so its rent is a bit lower. “We had charged a lower rent because of the lower traffic, but with the college coming in, there is now a very large upside to tenants coming in,” she said. “They will have built-in traffic as if we brought in another big-box tenant. This is an advantage, so lease rates do go up.” Since the school signed the lease, Champion has closed a lease on one new tenant – AV Flower Market and More – which has taken 560 square feet, and she is negotiating with others to take parts of 12,000 square feet of new retail space the company has cut up from a larger building. In addition to providing new student foot traffic to come, the college’s decision to move into the center has helped trigger improvements to the strip mall. Abbey will build parking to make up for losing some parking space to a new sidewalk that has be installed through the parking lot to get students from the buildings to the street. That is just one of the requirements handed down from the California Architects Board to the college for its reuse of the former retail space, Champion said. The board also required extensive testing of the density and depth of the supermarket’s walls, rebar, concrete and floor to ensure they meet earthquake codes. Plus, the roof, heating and air conditioning will have to be modified or upgraded for the college, she added. And other requirements may emerge when the department finishes its final approval stages. Champion said the school’s reuse of the former supermarket and medical offices is just the latest local example of the trend. Two other large spaces in the strip mall are now occupied by a Los Angeles County mental health counseling agency and a housing agency, while a former, supermarket-sized Thrifty Drug Store in another Abbey-owned retail center in Lancaster was converted into offices for the Antelope Valley Partners for Health. Abbey is also negotiating with a nonprofit agency to take over a former Lucky Supermarket, Champion said. “When you do reuse those big boxes, it’s not just an open space, there’s a lot of work that has to go into it,” she said.

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