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Will Shoppers Bounce Back from the Pandemic?

Call it the grand re-opening.For many of North Los Angeles’ most resilient shopping malls, this year’s second quarter represented a return to operations under a new normal of eased mask regulations after more than a year of COVID-related regulations, closures and partial openings.At the onset of the year, Todd Nathanson of Illi Commercial, which manages Valley shopping centers and brokers leases, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about this year, anticipating growth and revenue increase with each quarter.

Ultimately, Nathanson said of last year’s COVID-19-impacted retail scene, “In my 35 years, I have never seen anything like this.” Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Tritant, chief executive of European mall owner Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, shocked the industry in February when he announced that his company would be shedding itself of its U.S. assets.

“We are assessing all potential options. At the end of the day, exposure to the U.S. will be minimal, if not zero,” Tritant said during a press conference.The reason for the wait on selling larger properties was to give the market some time to rebound from the pandemic, Tritant said, telling reporters there was “no investment market in 2021.”By April, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield killed its plans for a major expansion at Westfield Valencia Town Center, No. 8 on the Business Journal’s list of Retail Centers, with the renovation of its Patios Connection to include a 101,000-square-foot Costco Warehouse.For now, such North L.A. retail sites as Westfield Topanga (No. 1 on the list) and Village at Westfield Topanga (No. 19) in Woodland Hills; and Westfield Fashion Square (9) in Sherman Oaks will continue under new local leadership. Earlier this year, Molly Unger replaced longtime Westfield executive Larry Green, who left after last year’s tumult (COVID closures, protest demonstrations looting) at its Warner Center destinations to form his own company L. Green Investment and Development in Calabasas. In April, those Westfield malls reopened.A few weeks later, indoor mall Westfield Topanga removed masking and social distance requirements for shoppers coming to its expanded retail and restaurant offerings as the state’s business restrictions were largely lifted on June 15.

“(Stores and restaurants) get to operate like they did pre-COVID and that’s really the biggest change for us,” Unger, vice president of shopping center management and general manager, said in an interview.Despite the pandemic, new businesses have signed leases to set up storefronts at Westfield Topanga, according to Unger. Versace, Golden Goose, Aritzia, One Medical and Madison Reed Color Bar all opened during the slowdown while retailers Ferragamo and Levi’s expanded their footprints.“This year, we lost more (businesses) than you would expect in our normal year. But, on the resurgence of this, we’re seeing an incredible sense of energy from new leases,” Unger said.Property upgradesNewMark Merill Cos.

owns or manages a portfolio of more than 85 shopping centers valued at more than $2 billion in California, Colorado and Illinois.Sandy Sigal, chief executive of the Woodland Hills company, plugged away, successfully keeping his enterprise sailing by negotiating with tenants and keeping his centers well-sanitized and COVID-compliant. Sigal’s holdings include Janss Marketplace (No. 14) in Thousand Oaks.During the pandemic, NewMark Merill invested thousands of dollars at Janss Marketplace to expand restaurant patios and refresh walls with murals.The expenditures largely worked. Sigal observed that grocery stores, home goods and hobby shops best navigated last year’s stop-and-go economic fits as rent collections at his properties remained “pretty good” through last summer — overcoming 35 percent lows to 100 percent highs, which he chalks up to the CARES Act stimulus package and PPP money propping up businesses.Meanwhile, Comcast-owned Universal CityWalk (No. 24) stood dormant, reopening along with the Universal Studios Hollywood as other theme parks opened throughout Southern California. On March 12, a soft reopening at Universal was initially centered around an outdoor dining and shopping event called “Taste of Universal,” with costumed characters circulating throughout the 415-acre park as patrons partook in the park’s roughly 70 restaurants.  Universal eventually hired back several hundred employees who had been furloughed since the park closed last spring. By mid-April, after more than a year of closure, Universal Studios Hollywood opened in full force alongside its CityWalk restaurant and retail strip.  “It has been a very challenging year and we are overjoyed to have arrived at this moment,” Universal Studios Hollywood President Karen Irwin said in a statement.

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.
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