Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield has decided to transform the former Sears building at its Westfield Topanga & The Village shopping center in Woodland Hills into a dining and entertainment district. The redevelopment, at an estimated cost of $250 million, will include a grand entryway, restaurants, entertainment venues, retail boutiques and public spaces, according to the retail developer. The Paris-based company will begin work this month on the overhaul of the 160,000-square-foot former Sears department store, which has sat dormant since May 2015. “We believe adding this kind of entertainment use to Topanga is really important. Topanga is one of the top flagship malls in the country, and when you look at our peer group, most of them have an entertainment component,” Westfield Executive Vice President of U.S. Development Larry Green said in an interview with the Business Journal. “We believe it’ll create energy and traffic and another reason to come to Topanga that is complementary to our flagship retail offerings.” The new district will feature an upscale, chef-driven food hall, sleek lounges and cocktail bars, a movie theater, bowling alley, virtual reality installation and landscaped indoor and outdoor public spaces and plazas. Green said the district will create a much needed “front door” for Westfield Topanga, with a triple-height entryway featuring floating panes of glass and transparent lattices. “When you drive by (today) … there is no expression of all the excitement that’s going on within the building. Creating this great glass façade and allowing this building to express itself to the surrounding community I think is going to really make a nice attraction for our visitors,” he added. Another plus is increased walkability between the Topanga mall and The Village, Westfield’s open-air shopping center that sits on the other side of Victory Boulevard. No tenants for the district have been disclosed. Green said Westfield will begin announcing tenants around mid-March. Shops and restaurants elsewhere in the mall are expected to remain open for business throughout the construction process. The new addition is scheduled for completion in late 2021. Entertainment in demand According to Deborah Cours, marketing professor at California State University – Northridge, installing upscale dining and recreation on the lot of a shuttered department store is an on-the-nose representation of the shift underway in retail consumerism. “Big box is struggling,” she said, referencing the mass closures by Sears, Macy’s and J.C. Penney last year. “Where you’re seeing growth is entertainment. … With the internet, Amazon makes things so easy that retailers and developers have to figure out: What’s the value proposition? What can you offer that a person doesn’t get from just shopping?” Cours pointed to Glendale developer Rick Caruso’s Americana and The Grove shopping centers in Glendale and Los Angeles, respectively, as well as AEG’s L.A. Live center downtown, as examples of modern shopping center done right with posh restaurants, movie theaters and nightlife offerings. “That’s what’s successful now,” she said. According to Green, “This is a shift that’s been occurring for quite some time. … People are drawn to great experiences and are spending more time going out to entertainment. We think this (project) is a continuation of that shift and adding an element that just has not been represented at Topanga.” He said Westfield’s Century City mall has enjoyed increased traffic since its $160 million renovation of a 1980s-era food court and movie theater into an upscale dining terrace and 15-screen AMC cinema back in 2007. He expects similar results at Topanga. Despite the dismal narrative surrounding department stores these days, Green said Westfield’s other big box tenants – Costco, Target and Walmart, among others – are doing just fine, and that the Sears vacancy simply presented an opportunity to try something new and in-demand at the West Valley mall. “There is an industrywide challenge with that. A lot of legacy department stores like Sears are struggling to connect with consumers today,” Green said. “We’re open to a lot of different uses, including residential and office and retail and entertainment uses like we’re exploring (at Topanga). But given the strength of our locations and the markets that we serve, we haven’t had the kind of issues others have had trying to repurpose those boxes. … It’s about putting on the ground things the consumer wants. That’s what we’re doing at Topanga.” West Valley rising Commercial real estate broker Todd Nathanson, president of Illi Commercial Real Estate in Encino, said he sees the Sears redevelopment as a “major wake-up call” for a West Valley region that “has been tired for many, many years.” He said Woodland Hills already boasts most of the infrastructure necessary for it to bloom as the West Valley’s hub of nightlife, shopping and entertainment – office buildings abound in the Warner Center neighborhood, as does a robust employment base which serves as a captive audience. Combine those factors with a dense, relatively wealthy residential population and several upcoming transportation projects and it’s not so surprising that Woodland Hills has emerged as an attractive, next-up market. “I see a lot of healthy potential for retail initially and I think that’ll spill over to many other real estate categories,” Nathanson said. “I will be looking for the properties adjacent. I’m very bullish on the West San Fernando Valley.” CSUN’s Cours echoed Nathanson but added that she has heard some typical pushback from the NIMBY contingent worried about increased road traffic around their homes. Nathanson said a little congestion would hardly deter developers. “You always worry about the infrastructure and what type of impact it’s going to have on the arteries that serve these establishments, but … I think that retailing has become a science and these developers know precisely what they’re getting themselves into,” he explained. Westfield clearly sees potential in the Woodland Hills region. Unrelated to the Topanga project, the company announced last year a $1.5 billion investment to redevelop the nearby 34-acre Westfield Promenade property as a live/work/play concept, known as the Promenade 2035 plan. It would bring about 1,400 multi-family residential units, almost 250,000 square feet of shopping, 630,000 square feet of office space and a 570-key hotel room, as well as a fully enclosed 7,500 seat sporting arena – the ultimate expression of entertainment.