Shoppers hopeful for mall remodel


Cody Casares / The Advocate

Few shoppers browse through the nearly empty Hilltop Mall on March 17. The number of shoppers at Hilltop Mall has steadily declined as storefronts become vacant despite Richmond Mayor Tom Butt’s projection of future economic infusion.

By Robert Clinton, Sport Editor

For years, rumors have swirled surrounding the prospect that one of the East Bay’s most iconic shopping centers, Hilltop Mall, may follow a growing national trend and lower the security gates on its fading retail establishments for good.

In an attempt to dispel the uncertainty Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who lists commencing a strategy to ensure a productive future for Hilltop Mall as one of his accomplishments on, spoke about the future of the property in his 2017 state of the city address.

In his presentation the mayor said major mixed-use development is still a goal for the site and that Macy’s (one of the mall’s original retailers) is still invested in Richmond’s future.

“Stores come and go all of the time and if the mall was closing I would know about it,” Sports Affair Manager Dawn Sepulveda said. “I’ve been here for 18 years.”

Sports Affair is the last remaining non-chain store at the mall.

“We are fixtures here,” she said. “Everyone knows Marty (Katz the store’s owner) takes care of the business and I handle everything in the store.”

The holding company marketing the sale, C-III Realty Services does not currently have the property listed for sale on its website.

This month, anchor chain, JCPenney listed its Hilltop location as one of the 138 stores it will be closing in a bid toward financial restructuring.

Built in 1976, Hilltop, like many other malls across America, served dual purposes for its community.

Aside from offering hundreds of jobs for expanding suburban communities, these malls also offered one stop shopping opportunities with expansive parking and entertainment opportunities.

The blue collar city once supported by the Ford Motor Company, wartime shipyards and Standard Oil now Chevron, continued to increase its post-WWII era population giving the original land developer and Bay Area mall builder A. Alfred Taubman an idea.

On land that initially served as an oil tanker field for then Standard Oil, the developer constructed the 1.1 million sq. ft. shopping center anchored by Richmond department store staples Macy’s, JCPenney and Capwell’s.

The new site was just 4.2 miles from Macy’s downtown location on the corner of Macdonald Avenue and Harbor Way.

Hilltop’s opening was rife with community excitement, from its movie theaters and ice skating rink, to its spiral walkway overlooking its then fully operational fountain.

As downtown Richmond’s retail opportunities diminished, Hilltop thrived. With nearly 150 shops like  KB Toys, Radio Shack and retail giants like original tenant Capwell’s, area residents could have all of their needs met under one roof.

Capwell’s left the mall in 1996 after merging with Macy’s, a moment many in the community point to as the beginning of the mall’s decline.

Today, the once spouting fountain is just a placid pool, the ice rink disappeared in the late 80s and the last movie was shown at the location in 1997.

As Macy’s moved into the old Capwell’s building, the department store sized vacancy gave the mall the realistic feel of being a shell of its former self.

That 150,00 sq. ft. of commercial space would remain empty for 11 years until retail giant Wal-Mart joined the collection of stores in 2006.

“I think that it’s time to re-make the mall altogether,” Richmond resident and culinary arts major Erika Marks said. “I heard they were planning to develop it like Emeryville’s Bay Street so if it was something like that it would be good for our community.”

The disappearance of the American mall may be imminent as more anchor chain stores close signature locations across the country. Still the memory of what that first mall experience was like will be a tangible experience that is easy to return to.

“When I came here from El Salvador in 2004 and saw Hilltop I thought wow, I had never seen something like this and they had so many good things,” business management major Marisela Avila said.

“As time went by and all the stores went away, now they have nothing. When they rebuild it they should try to make it something special like it was.”