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RIVERSIDE, CA-The 52-year-old Riverside Plaza has shed its role as an outdated mall and has emerged as a new lifestyle center after owner Westminster Funds of Lake Forest, IL sorted out a tangle of tenant bankruptcies, a former lender’s foreclosure and other obstacles to redevelop the center into a modern retail venue. Westminster has expanded the former 400,000-sf center to 475,000 sf and has completed a makeover that now features a main street lined with palm trees, entertainment, dining, specialty retailers, drug and grocery anchors, a theater and a trolley that runs through the property to transport shoppers.

The latest and final element of the redevelopment is 35,000 sf of new retail and restaurant space, helping to produce what Westminster calls “a community center with a lifestyle flair.” This final phase of the redevelopment culminates a process in which Westminster scraped the site down to the dirt and re-graded from curb to curb, with the exception of a former Harris department store, which is now a Gottschalk’s.

In addition to the new Gottshalk’s, the center on Central Avenue between the 91 Freeway and Magnolia Avenue now features Borders Books, Regal Cinemas, Vons, Trader Joe’s, Sav-on, Panera Bread and California Pizza Kitchen. The new center and the new design by City of Orange-based Architects Orange, culminate six years of planning, negotiating and development that went into re-creating the retail venue.

Carol Scott, general manager for Riverside Plaza, says that the center now provides the kind of shopping venue that Inland Empire communities are demanding as a result of population growth, shifting demographics and changing times. “Satisfying demand in Riverside is requiring the redevelopment of existing projects due to the dwindling supply of open space,” Scott observes.

Westminster’s re-imagining of Riverside Plaza began in 1998 when the company bought the property from a lender who had foreclosed on the previous owner. The retail center had originally been built in 1955 as a 400,000-sf open air mall that housed 50 retail stores, anchored by a Harris department store, a Mayfair Market and Montgomery Wards.

The owners enclosed the center in the late 1980′s and added a food court, along with minor modifications to accommodate the changing tenant mix. By the time the Westminster Funds bought the property out of foreclosure in 1998, the new owners realized that the old mall could not compete with regional malls in the trade area.

In addition to formulating a new vision for the property, Westminster spent years overcoming potential barriers to the proposed revitalization. These barriers included negotiations with major existing tenants such as SavOn, Trader Joes, Vons, the Harris department store and Montgomery Ward, most of which had long-term leases or were separate fee owners.

For example, SavOn had an additional 65 years on an existing lease at very low rents. The existence and then bankruptcy and closing of Montgomery Ward were compounded by questions regarding the ownership of the land underlying the Montgomery Ward building. Furthermore, the parcel included two parking structures that hindered site-planning and created safety concerns.

Ultimately, the Westminster Funds obtained the Montgomery Ward lease and fee interest in the underlying real estate and reached agreements with SavOn, Trader Joe’s and Vons on their proposed reconfigurations. Then it was on to the redevelopment plan, part of which depended on signing a movie theater for the center.

But that presented problems too because, at the time, major theater chains were all filing bankruptcy. The entertainment anchor void was ultimately filled when Westminster attracted Signature Cinema, a West Coast theater chain that later was acquired by Regal Entertainment Group.

Even though demand was strong from national value-oriented chains and big box users that wanted to be at the mall, Westminster Funds held out for a higher-end tenant mix that, in addition to Regal, attracted California Pizza Kitchen, Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, an updated El Torito concept restaurant and Borders Books among others.

Westminster considers the “finishing touch” to the project to be the Two-Car Trolley, manufactured by Montreal, Quebec-based Wattman Trains & Trams. The Trolley “completes the picture of the old-time Main Street experience” at the plaza, Scott says. The trolley runs between the west side of the property and the eastern end of Main Street, powered by batteries and accessible by wheelchair, to transport shoppers.

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