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HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA-The site of the current Huntington Center shopping mall is at the center of a political storm, as the City Council prepares to decide on November 20 if the city will exercise eminent domain to acquire the property.

Built in the early 1960s, the center is mostly vacant now, with only Montgomery Wards, Burlington Coat Factory and Mervyn’s as the remaining tenants. Wards owns its site, consisting of 13 acres, while the other two are lessees.

City planning director Howard Zelefsky says that Mervyn’s would like to stay in the mall once it is renovated. However the mall’s developer, Irvine-based Ezralow Retail Properties, would like to see Wards and Burlington out of the picture if an eminent domain takeover is approved. And that is the point of political contention.

According to a published report, City Council member Pam Julien accepted at least $1,500 in contributions for her recent re-election campaign from Ezralow. She won and denies any wrong doing, noting that the contributions came from employees of Ezralow’s

Burlington and Wards, who stand to lose their stores, want Julein and mayor Dave Garofalo, who has done advertising business with the mall’s owner, to abstain from any future voting on the mall project. This raises the possibility that the council may be one vote short of the five-member majority needed to take the property by eminent domain. However, Zelefsky is not concerned about that possibility.

“Even if there’s a true conflict, the law allows for drawing straws on who gets to vote,” he says. If the council votes to take the property by eminent domain and barring any legal challenges by Wards, the new open-air mall designed with an Italian village theme, would total one-million sf–the same size as the current Huntington Center.

“It seems to be a very innovative plan,” Zelefsky says. “We like their plan. It’s between the Westminster Mall and South Coast Plaza, so it would have to be a little bit different. It has a great location at Beach Boulevard and the 405 Freeway. It has 300,000 cars pass by it every day, and the site has good visibility.” Burlington owns property directly across the street from the mall, where its store was located before deciding to move into the space vacated by the Broadway store some years ago.

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