Richmond’s big dreams for vacant Hilltop Mall; will plans finally pan out?

Katie Lauer

RICHMOND – The worst type of mall is a dead mall.

But this years-long, morbid reality has not yet galvanized Richmond officials and developers to settle on a clear vision to resurrect the former Hilltop Mall — a once-buzzing community jewel that started financially faltering years before shuttering in April of 2021.

After the 1.1-million-square-foot mall opened its doors in September 1976, decades of patrons reveled in its name-brand retailers, indoor ice skating rink and dual movie theaters — all tucked within Richmond’s northern borders with San Pablo, Pinole and El Sobrante.

These days, a 24 Hour Fitness and Walmart are the last lingering operators at “The Shops at Hilltop,” echoing how the pandemic accelerated the demise of legacy shopping centers across the nation.

Questions abound as to whether or not the 143-acre mall site can realistically be transformed into a space that serves the modern needs of residents living nearby and across West Contra Costa County. It could be an attractive regional project, given its convenient location smack dab between Interstate 80 and San Pablo Avenue.

Past proposals to rebrand the complex have repeatedly failed, including a suburban village of more than 9,600 housing units, a 99 Ranch Market supermarket, and even a life sciences and biotech space that could welcome commercial tenants without becoming too industrialized.

Frustrated Richmond residents envy the success of Bay Street Emeryville, where noteworthy storefronts and beloved restaurants have taken off near dense residential buildings; they long for new, experience-driven attractions, such as rooftop community spaces with Bay Area views, public concerts and even senior services.

Additionally, Richmond officials are banking that a hefty portion of the project’s land use will be zoned to support hundreds — if not thousands — of new residents at Hilltop, especially as the state has mandated the city to build at least 3,600 new housing units by 2031.

Mayor Eduardo Martinez said he believes “that Hilltop can become something that will put Richmond on the map. We just have to make sure that we can envision something that will do that.”

That’s where the Hilltop Horizon Specific Plan comes into play.

For the past two years, Lina Velasco, director of community development, said city planners have been talking with the mall’s teams about transitioning the site from a low-intensity, auto-oriented retail center into a high-intensity, mixed-use development.

Velasco doesn’t expect the mall’s owner — Prologis, a San Francisco-based real estate company that purchased the property in 2021 for $117 million — to submit a project application until land uses and site plans are finalized throughout 2024, which would then kick off necessary environmental and technical studies.

But the latest draft plans shared by the mall’s developer, Signature Development Group, are largely dominated by hundreds of new townhomes, apartments, duplexes and single-family homes. In a departure from earlier plans for a large employment center, current concept mockups feature retail spaces and data centers for roughly a quarter of the mall site, which is subdivided by new streets cutting through the middle of the property.

But rather than simply let the mall’s owner and developer have the final say on what is ultimately built at Hilltop, Velasco said the city’s elected officials can use their authority to craft policies about what is allowed — or even required — to be built there.

Katie Lauer Business,Technology,Commercial Real Estate,development,housing-development

2023-12-11 14:15:24 , Silicon Valley

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