School District Goes Shopping For New Campus
Some people react almost viscerally to the suggestion of combining schools with shopping centers, and with some reason. Education and retail are fundamentally different activities. Schools — at least our mental picture of them — are protective and cloistered, while shopping centers are bustling places wide open to the entire public. Like chocolate and onions, the two just do not seem to go together.
Why, then, should these two very different uses be combined? Land economics is one good reason. Urban school districts, such as Pomona Unified in eastern Los Angeles County, have a growing demand for new school facilities and a shrinking inventory of buildable sites. Aging regional malls with land assemblages of 50 acres or more, obsolete buildings and dwindling customer bases look like good quarries for school sites. And for a failing mall in a secondary market, a new life as a school may well be a "higher and better use."
The Village at Indian Hill started life in the 1960s as Moreno Valley Center, one of the earlier enclosed malls in the country. Successive attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to enlarge and modernize the mall were largely futile, as local residents found newer and fancier places to shop. By the mid 1990s, the center, patronizingly renamed "Plaza Azteca," was half empty and had become a liability to its largely Spanish-speaking, working class neighborhood.
With one-third of its 31,000 school children in temporary classrooms, Pomona is one of many communities in greater Los Angeles with a big deficit in school facilities. Sensing a school-facilities windfall, the district leased 300,000 square feet of the 550,000-square-foot Plaza Azteca mall in 1995. The district eventually bought the entire mall in 1999, after much of the initial work on education facilities was complete.
An interesting twist about the Village at Indian Hills is that this 550,000-square-foot facility operates as a mixed-use school site, teacher-training facility and shopping center. The retail portion of the mall has shrunk to about 250,000 square feet. Pomona Unified has built a new freestanding elementary school, while remodeling a former Zody's department store — an archetypal big box — into a pair of elementary-school villages and teacher-training space. To do so, the architects reinforced the building with steel to meet the state's stringent building code for schools, while adding numerous skylights throughout the project.
As a whole, the Village houses about 1,500 children in three elementary schools and one small, magnet high school with 120 students. Eventually, 2,000 students will have seats in Village classrooms. The facility has attracted a slew of teacher-training facilities, including a 2,500-square-foot space operated by Jet Propulsion Laboratory for training science teachers. The Village provides office space for the district's Child Development, Head Start and vocational training programs. The neighborhood also benefits: A mall that was in danger of becoming an eyesore now becomes architecturally interesting — at least in parts — and has become a central institution in the neighborhood, rather than an urban no man's land.
Notwithstanding the value of the urban planning and architecture, money is the most interesting part of the Village at Indian Hills. In 1999, Pomona Unified spent a paltry $6.4 million to acquire the entire mall. According to the district's own numbers, that is less than the $8 million to $10 million needed to build a single elementary school, and a fraction of the $40 million needed to build a large high school. So far, school officials have spent at least $10.5 million to create the three elementary schools and the small high school, and may spend another $20 to $40 million to build a middle school and other facilities in the future.
The other "beauty part" about money is Pomona Unified's new role as shopping-center landlord. In 1996, the district created the Pomona Valley Educational Foundation to manage the commercial space. Although the school district has declined to release current figures on rental income, our seat-of-the-pants estimate is that the center could yield about $2.5 million when fully occupied, based on 1999 rent levels. (The center, which now contains an eight-screen multi-plex, has only one vacancy.) The many grants that the Village has received from the likes of Sodexho Marriott and others help make twhe Village's operations self-sustaining, according to A.J. Wilson, the foundation's executive director. The Village further benefits from $2.4 million of "in-kind" services contributed by corporations and other benefactors.
Pomona Unified is feeling confident enough about the program at the Village at Indian Hill to propose two similar projects. A group of four buildings, currently used as the Credit Union Center California, would become an elementary school and "overflow" facility for a nearby high school. Even more intriguing is the proposal known as Village at Ganesha Hills, a 20-acre site that would include several schools, 100,000 square feet of commercial space, an urgent-care facility, and a child-care center. About 80 townhouses, both for sale and for rent, would be set built as affordable housing for teachers and administrators.
What makes this work, I strongly suspect, is that the school is in charge and can dictate to the commercial tenants — not the other way around. Also, the site is a proven retail location, despite its poor performance in recent years. On the other hand, proposals like the Belmont High School in downtown Los Angeles, where Los Angeles Unified had proposed building a retail strip along one edge, seem far riskier, because the retail is located along a minor street with no history of retail and little shopping nearby. In such cases, retail is both unnecessary and foolhardy.
For many districts, putting retail and schools together may be forever unpalatable. But growing districts seeking something that they can afford on the pricey menu of school facilities may just acquire the taste for these combinations.