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Boulevard of dreams: An iconic mall's next act

 

 

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Roland Sansone strides past the sunlit food court in the Boulevard Mall, hands in his pockets. In his dark sports coat and tailored white shirt, Sansone looks less like a businessman than a high-roller embarking upon another stint at the gaming tables. And, in a way, Sansone is gambling.

“Hey Roland, how’s business?” a kiosk manager calls out, his hand extended for a shake. Sansone stops to talk, asks about recent sales, gives the manager a reassuring pat on the back.

Sansone’s gamble is on real estate — to be specific, on this aging, troubled mall in central Las Vegas. In 2013, Sansone paid $54.5 million to buy the Boulevard Mall, a sprawling, 50-year-old shopping complex that was once the state’s largest (until the renovation of the nearby Fashion Show Mall in 2003). But if anyone has luck on his side, it’s Sansone. Actually, it’s much more than luck. He may seem like a gambler, but friends, family and others use different descriptors when referring to the businessman: driven, dedicated, visionary and just plain stubborn.

He’ll need those traits and more. A decade ago, the Boulevard’s former operators reeled on the verge of bankruptcy, and the property had slowly fallen into disrepair. Retailers were fleeing, lights were cracked and broken, the mall sound system didn’t work, security was lax, walls were crumbling, and paint was peeling everywhere.

Then, in 2008, amid the recession, the Dillard’s store closed. The mammoth department store was one of the 57-acre mall’s anchor properties, and its failure sent shock waves across eastern Las Vegas. When that happened, even the most loyal Boulevard Mall patrons began anticipating the day when the venerable behemoth of a shopping center would shut its doors for good. Before that could happen, though, Sansone provided the cash and personal vision — not to mention $25 million in renovation funds — to begin righting the listing property.

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There were doubters. Malls, critics said, were a sucker’s bet. And they had a point. Across the U.S., once-thriving shopping malls are boarded up and decaying, with anchor stores deserting in droves as American consumers continue to seek new avenues for both shopping and socializing. By the year 2035, market analysts predict, as many as half of the nation’s 1,000 remaining shopping malls are expected to fail. There’s even a website that tracks mall closures, deadmalls.com, which chronicles how many so-called ghost malls have been repurposed as community colleges, corporate headquarters or even churches.

The decline of the age-old shopping venue developers call the “classic gray box” has been blamed on numerous factors: For one, the nation simply built too many shopping malls — some 1,500 enclosed complexes were constructed between 1956 and 2005. Eventually, big-box stores such as Walmart, Kmart and Target chipped away at malls’ already-flagging customer base. And then, along with rising rents came the coup de grace: the Internet. Many consumers now choose to log on to Amazon rather than fight the mall crowds. The result: Not a single new American mall has been built since 2006.

U.S. shopping malls — which in their heyday once played scene to the wanderings and social rites of passage of countless American youth — are now, quite simply, dying. But to think of Sansone as a mere mall developer misses his deeper intentions.

“I didn’t buy this mall to put in another shoe store,” he says. “I bought it to help change a community.”

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Breaking the mold

Sansone has a vision for an urban mall that breaks the mold. He wants his mall to cater to its immediate community, which is predominantly Latino. The native Chilean — whose father was Italian and mother Austrian — knows that while middle-class whites have largely deserted the mall concept, Hispanics continue to embrace the shopping mall as a family gathering place, a venue to shop, exercise, eat and take in live entertainment. And here’s the kicker: Middle-class Latinos have money to spend, and then some. Economists estimate that Hispanic consumer buying power has reached $1.5 trillion a year in the U.S.

Latino-oriented malls have been a success elsewhere. “The trend is one-stop shopping where Hispanic families spend the day eating and seeing movies and browsing,” says Daniel Legaspi, the leasing and marketing director of The Legaspi Company, which has repurposed malls for the Latino market in Georgia, California, Arizona and Texas. “People don’t just go pick up things and run errands. These malls are more of a gathering place.”

On a recent afternoon, Sansone sits in the food court and discusses his vision for just such a place, a community hub that features more than just retail stores. In his plans, there will also be offices for health providers such as doctors, dentists, optometrists and even ob-gyns. There are plans for a pharmacy, Latino-themed restaurants, day-care facilities, valet parking and movie theaters that play Spanish-language films along with other popular fare. The developer has already bucked tradition by installing a large Goodwill store for budget Latino shoppers. His friends said he was crazy.

To counter that, he notes confidently that business among major retailers is on the rise — a fact offered as proof that he knows this demographic. “Listen, Gucci and Armani aren’t going to make it here,” he says. “Nobody at this mall is going to buy a shirt for $150. Maybe $29, and only if it’s good, quality cotton.”

He talks about a recent lease inked with Sea Quest Aquarium, a 31,000-square-foot aquatic attraction set to open later this year, and a new restaurant that offers an all-you-can-eat special for less than $8. “Most Latino families do not have one child, they have more,” he says. “Hispanic families are multigenerational, they’re more sociable, and on nights and weekends, they want a place to go to be together.” He gestures toward the dozens of Hispanic customers milling about the mall on a weekday afternoon. “That’s why we’re installing new Wi-Fi, more benches for grandparents to sit on. We’ve spent more than a million dollars on landscaping alone.”

His estimated client base is up to 80 percent Latino, but Sansone wants his new mall to attract millennials from the nearby UNLV campus as well, and a portion of the 42 million tourists who visit the city each year. He points out that most Uber rides from the Strip cost only about $7 each. And as casinos move toward pay parking, he added, his expansive lots will be free of charge.

“I want between three and five percent of those visitors to come to my mall,” he said. “Because I have something they can’t find anywhere else in town.”

At least one new tenant is happy with the changes. “We share a vision with this mall — a very diverse family focus, and Hispanics are a major part of our demographic,” says Laura Kroth, marketing director for the California-based John’s Incredible Pizza, which has numerous locations, including one near Disneyland. John’s Incredible Pizza opened in the Boulevard in January. “So far, sales at the Boulevard

Mall have been through-the-roof busy. They’re giving the Disneyland store a run for its money.”

Some officials call Sansone the Tony Hsieh of the city’s east side — a developer who has brought the same can-do attitude the online shoe shop magnate has introduced to Downtown. But Chris Giunchigliani thinks the developer is something more.

“Unlike Hsieh, Roland is bringing change without gentrifying the area and running people off,” says the Clark County commissioner, whose district includes the Boulevard Mall. “His vision demonstrates a respect for the neighborhood, for the people who live there.”

Long way to go

The Boulevard Mall opened its doors in 1968 as the city’s first enclosed shopping center, and for years became the premier destination for most Las Vegans. The buzz belied its darker origins: The Boulevard Mall was built in part by mob money — more precisely, by the gangster known as “Mr. Las Vegas.” Moe Barney Dalitz was an organized crime boss and casino owner who teamed up with investor Irwin Molasky to found the Paradise Development Company, which helped change the face of the city. The firm built not just the Boulevard Mall and adjacent Paradise Palms neighborhood, but also Sunrise Hospital, the Las Vegas Country Club and the convention center.

That long-ago grand opening is now a faded black-and-white photograph torn around the edges. More than 45 years later, the picture isn’t pretty. In the early 2000s, whites had begun to abandon the surrounding neighborhood, and the shopping center became as much a realm for petty thieves and street gangs as it was a gathering spot for middle-class shoppers. In 2004, gang members attacked a youth as he sat with his girlfriend in the food court, beating him to death with several chairs.

Even before the killing and its negative publicity, mall operator General Growth Properties, one of the nation’s biggest shopping center owners, was struggling. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and operation of the mall was assumed by Rouse Properties Inc., which immediately faced a critical decision.

“They could try and save the mall or let it go down the toilet,” says Timo Kuusela, now the Boulevard Mall’s vice-president and general manager. The company, he adds, tried to modify its loan terms with the bank by showing that the property was an underperformer, not worth what their predecessor had paid for it. During that time, numerous tenants left, including Dillard’s. “The ownership didn’t care what happened,” Kuusela says. “But their strategy didn’t work out. In the end, they gave the property back to the bank. And they gave it back damaged.”

For his part, Sansone has a history with the mall that dates back to its better days. He arrived in Las Vegas in 1977 to renovate homes and soon worked his way up the development ladder. In the 1990s, he owned a retail shoe store and pet shop at the mall. His three sons, Devon, Miles and Neil, grew up around the place.

“That mall was like a second home for us,” says Miles. “From way back when, we’ve always wanted it to be better than it used to be.” Now all three Sansone sons are working to help their father realize that vision.

“My father has always had a real knack for seeing a project even before it’s built,” Miles says. “Despite setbacks, he keeps working until that vision is reality. The mall is an example of that.”

 

‘Everyone wants to see it succeed’

In November 2013, his three sons at his side, Sansone took a stroll inside the mall he had just purchased. He inspected a neglected shopping venue and the cobwebs of consumers past. But he didn’t blink.

“‘We’re going to fix this place,’” he recalls saying at the time. “‘We’re going to make a difference in this community.’”

Money, of course, breeds such confidence. But it doesn’t make you a shrewd businessman; that you have to work at. So Sansone got to work. Today, he greets both merchants and customers, listening to their concerns like a candidate running for office. He’s quiet on the outside, but extremely driven underneath, the kind of entrepreneur who answers his phone on the first ring. As he makes the rounds, merchants remind him what the mall needs: The 140 retail spaces should include a Gap store or a Forever 21 to appeal to a younger demographic. The mall also needs a signature coffeehouse and more restaurants.

Sansone wants those things more than anyone. He also wants to create outdoor spaces for live music and cultural events. He wants more entrances so people don’t have to walk too far from their cars, especially in the summer heat. Meanwhile, the developer frets over seemingly small things like paint color and landscaping. Some areas have been replanted numerous times to get the look right. No detail is too small. Even palm trees — a detail that reveals his stubborn commitment to giving this aging mall a second life with some style.

“I hate palm trees. They’re not indigenous to Clark County,” says Giunchigliani, who consults on issues where local government must get involved. “But Roland insisted on them. He liked their clean lines, the way they fit into his concept of jazzy renewal. I normally wouldn’t have gone for it, but I supported him on that.”

Sansone has refinished the mall’s entire outdoor façade, which hadn’t been touched since the 1960s. And he’s converting the 200,000-square-foot old Dillard’s building into several smaller retail spaces, with offices on the second floor. As construction teams converged on the site, Sansone met with the county fire officials to review his structural engineering plans. “He gets impatient with the process,” says Giunchigliani. “He put them all in a room together so that they could understand his vision.” Sansone and his sons have also attended community planning meetings, and have met with police about safety measures such as installing more lighting in the parking lot.

But tensions remain with one of the mall’s three major remaining anchor stores, which Sansone declined to name. Store officials used their veto power to nix the addition of a Starbucks coffee shop and have been slow to make repairs to their property, he says. Yet Sansone knows most mall merchants work hard for every dollar and wants to see the mall the developer calls “Downtown Disney” grow and improve. He often stops to visit with this favorite tenants, like 26-year-old Chris Dunne, who manages a Zuminez youth clothing store outlet. Dunne knows all about the bad old days at the Boulevard Mall.

“It used to be a ghetto mall,” he says. “It was risky to hang out here because you knew you might get shot. Now this is a family mall. And everyone wants to see it succeed.”

There’s just one thing Sansone asks: Don’t refer to the mall or its shoppers as working-class or blue-collar. The terms, he believes, suggest second-class status. Instead, he calls his customers urban shoppers, people who deserve his respect.

He tells a story about a customer who drove up to the valet area in a beat-up old car. “I mean, that car was ready for the junkyard,” Sansone says with a laugh.

The driver got out and proudly handed over his keys. The man’s attitude said something important to the developer who hopes to reinvent the Boulevard Mall. “No matter what he drove, here was a customer who wanted to be treated like somebody special,” Sansone says. “And so that’s what we did.”