Wednesday, April 20, 2016 | 2 a.m.
When the Boulevard mall opened nearly five decades ago, newspapers heaped praise on the “shopping paradise,” saying it had more “charm and grace” than any other gathering spot in town.
A few years ago, after suburban sprawl, increased competition, violent crime, the recession and neglect took a heavy toll, the mall felt like a sinking boat that was on fire, general manager Timo Kuusela says.
“Every tenant had an exit strategy,” he said. “I had an exit strategy. All of my staff had an exit strategy. ... Nobody wanted to be here.”
Once the premier shopping hub in Las Vegas, Boulevard now has new owners who have spent millions trying to pump in more life and commerce, amid reports focused on the death of American malls. They’ve spruced up Boulevard’s aesthetics, recruited business operators to fill long-empty spaces and lured more shoppers, all in the hopes of making it an entertainment, dining and shopping destination.
The mall, 2 miles east of the Strip, still is a ways off from its former glory and won’t overtake such top-flight competitors as Fashion Show anytime soon. But by all accounts, Boulevard is improving under the new ownership.
Matt Gargiulo, owner of collectible-toy store the Pop Shack, said he booked a 50 to 60 percent increase in sales the past few months. Ana Martinez, manager of Rachel’s Cosmetics, said sales were up maybe 10 percent in the past six months. Consignment shoe store Urban Necessities, which opened in 2014, booked more than $1 million in sales during its first year and nearly $2 million over the past four months, owner Jaysse Lopez said.
Shopper Pamela Poston said Boulevard was low on morale and seemed “scary, almost,” when she moved to the valley six years ago. Today, parking lots are more cramped and the mall is “beautiful” outside, she said.
“I’ve seen some really cool changes,” Poston said.
Developer Roland Sansone, founder of Henderson-based Sansone Cos., bought the bulk of the 1.2 milion-square-foot mall with a partner in 2013 for $54.5 million. They acquired 56 of its 75 acres, as mall occupants Sears and Macy's own their properties.
Sansone moved to the valley in the late 1970s and knows all too well that locals have dismissed Boulevard as a has-been mall in a dicey part of town. But he’s on a mission to make it a place at which to hang out and spend money, not just for nearby residents but for people in the suburbs.
He renovated parts of the exterior with a colorful, Art Deco-style façade; added lighting, landscaping, music, valet parking, and big-screen TVs in the food court; and filled the ground floor of the former Dillard’s department store, which had been empty for years, with two businesses not normally seen in enclosed shopping malls, thrift-store operator Goodwill of Southern Nevada and pizza-and-games chain John’s Incredible Pizza Co.
Olivia’s Latin Cuisine & Bar opened last month as the only sit-down restaurant in the main portion of the mall; SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium is set to open in the third quarter; and Asian grocery 99 Ranch Market now occupies a former Circuit City store. Sansone also is in talks with a movie-theater operator, according to Kuusela.
Boulevard was 75 percent leased when Sansone bought it, listing broker Charles Moore, of CBRE Group, said at the time. It was 90 percent occupied as of last month, Kuusela said. The new landlord is helped in no small part by offering relatively cheap rent and paying to help build out his retail space.
Two years ago, Sansone unveiled plans for a $25 million overhaul of the mall on Maryland Parkway at Desert Inn Road. He has spent about $21 million, with more on the way.
“This guy is an aggressive son of a gun,” John’s Incredible Pizza founder John Parlet said.
Parlet said he looked off and on for five years, maybe more, to expand to Las Vegas, but nothing panned out. Then Sansone’s group called, pitching Boulevard, and the landlord flew to meet with Parlet at his store in Buena Park, Calif.
Parlet, whose restaurants offer pizza buffets, arcade games, bumper cars and other attractions, opened a 60,000-square-foot store at Boulevard in late December. It’s getting 10,000 customers per week “easily” and is among the best company-wide for foot traffic and sales, said Parlet, who has 11 John’s Incredible locations.
Parlet knows the area’s reputation. A lot of people told him he shouldn’t open a store there, he said, and the “biggest challenge” has been getting people from such places as Henderson and Summerlin to realize that Boulevard “is not what it used to be.”
Alyn Reeves, chief operating officer of Goodwill of Southern Nevada, has lived in the valley for five years, but hadn't stepped inside Boulevard until he looked into opening the organization's store there. He lives in Summerlin, he said, and doesn’t usually go to that part of town.
Goodwill officials had been looking at the Maryland Parkway corridor for a few years to open an outpost, but they thought about Boulevard only after Sansone contacted the group. The nonprofit opened a 28,000-square-foot store in Boulevard in October, the largest in Goodwill’s 40-year local history.
Sales and foot traffic have been “better than expected,” Reeves said without providing numbers, but donation volume has been lower than hoped for. The store does not have a drive-thru donation area, and many people donate to Goodwill when running errands near home, he said, not when they go to the mall to shop.
Still, it was the first Goodwill nationally to open in a major, enclosed shopping mall, according to Reeves. And coupled with next-door neighbor John’s Incredible Pizza, their area near the south end of the mall now is “very busy, especially on the weekends,” he said.
Gargiulo, of Pop Shack, has lived in Las Vegas for about 30 years. He remembers when Boulevard was the premier shopping spot in town, and when it “went downhill.”
He opened the store about nine months ago. Weekends in particular “have been phenomenal for me,” and he has seen a “massive increase in foot traffic,” he said.
The main reasons he picked Boulevard were the cheap rent ($1,500 per month for his store) and Sansone’s renovations to the property as a whole. Gargiulo said he knows someone, for instance, who pays $8,000 a month to operate a kiosk at Fashion Show.
Lopez, of Urban Necessities, didn't disclose his rent at Boulevard but said it's "fair" and that for the same price, he'd probably only be able to operate a vending machine at Fashion Show.
Representatives for Fashion Show, owned by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
Despite the low rent, Gargiulo said, if Boulevard “would have been left alone the way it was, there’s no way” he would have signed a lease at the mall.
“This mall had a bad reputation for a while,” he said.
In 2004, Las Vegas’ economy was roaring and the housing market was white-hot. But Boulevard, left behind in the center of town as developers and residents streamed to the outer rings, was marred by violence.
That March, 29-year-old Bobby Williams was shot and killed in a parking lot at Boulevard after leaving a sporting-goods store. Five months later, gang members attacked 17-year-old Lee Masangkay in Boulevard’s food court, punching and kicking him and hitting him with plastic and metal chairs. He died three days later from blunt-force head trauma, reports said.
Other crimes at Boulevard that year through August included six robberies, four assaults, three domestic batteries and one battery with a deadly weapon, the Las Vegas Sun reported at the time, adding that the mall “sits in a neighborhood that is known for blight and crime.” A nearby apartment complex, for instance, had been “a problem for years, attracting drug peddlers, gang members and prostitutes.”
Sansone said Metro Police told him that Boulevard “was not a good place” 12 years ago. It’s much different today, he says. Sansone’s group has spent $400,000 to $500,000 on lighting, cameras and other security-related equipment, and, he says, he feels “as safe here as I would anywhere in Las Vegas.”
According to Metro Officer Jesse Roybal, a department spokesman, there have been two robberies and three simple assaults reported at Boulevard’s main address since Jan. 1, 2015.
“Slowly but surely, we’ll overcome that stigma,” Parlet, of John’s Incredible Pizza, said of crime.
When Boulevard opened, in March 1968, it was viewed as a beacon of commerce. Then-Gov. Paul Laxalt took part in its ribbon-cutting ceremony; the Sun ran a front-page story, under the headline “Shopping Paradise Unveiled,” that said thousands of “shoppers and spectators eagerly thronged the Boulevard Shopping Center”; and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, under the headline “Boulevard Mall Rides New Prosperity Wave,” wrote that “the finest, most thoughtfully planned area in southern Nevada is the new Boulevard Shopping Center on Maryland Parkway,” and that the mall would give Las Vegas “a fresh, new, metropolitan character.”
“There is no gathering place in the city with as much charm and grace,” the paper wrote.
The mall expanded and changed hands over the years, but also lost its standing with shoppers and retailers amid heightened competition and Las Vegas’ suburban sprawl. Fashion Show, for instance, opened in 1981 just 2 miles away on the Strip and draws locals and tourists alike.
Boulevard’s value also plunged. British investors bought the mall in 1978 for $31.5 million, or $115 million in today’s money. Sansone’s group bought it for less than half of that inflation-adjusted total — from lenders who listed the mall at a price of “best offer.”
Sansone has said the mall looked “like a prison” when he bought it — there was a backlog of repairs, and most of the landscaping had died — and general manager Kuusela has said prior owners spent practically no money or effort to sign more tenants.
The former Dillard’s store, for one, vacant since 2008, “looked like a bomb had gone off and people had disappeared,” Sansone has said.
He gutted the two-level building before he lined up any tenants, spending more than $2 million to prepare it for possible users, he said last spring. Building out the John’s Incredible Pizza store was poised to take an additional $9.5 million, and Sansone has said he contributed "a substantial amount” to that.
High-end malls such as Fashion Show and the Forum Shops at Caesars are packed with shoppers and tenants. But with online retailers and open-air centers such as Town Square and Downtown Summerlin luring shoppers, media reports have focused on the death of American malls, especially lower-end properties. The website deadmalls.com even tracks the demise (“Welcome to Retail History!!”).
When conditions “deteriorate markedly, a mall can enter a ‘death spiral’” — retailers leave because of sliding sales totals, which results in fewer shoppers, which further fuels the cycle of decreased sales and occupancy “until the mall becomes obsolete,” says real estate research firm Green Street Advisors.
The United States is “undoubtedly over-malled,” says Green Street, and closures “would be a welcomed outcome for the industry.”
Despite some headway, Boulevard remains a work in progress. Gargiulo said some retailers, mainly kiosks, close before the mall does, an apparent violation of their lease. Sansone's exterior Art Deco renovations are squeezed between the Macy's and Sears buildings, which appear to have changed little, if any, since the late 1960s. Also, foot traffic in Boulevard can be slow.
Roshaan Kemp, of Las Vegas, visited the mall recently for the second time, and the 22-year-old said she liked it because it's "very quiet" and has fewer people crowding the corridors than other malls.
Moreover, the second floor of Dillard’s still is empty. Sansone negotiated with call-center operator Sutherland Global Services to take that space, and at one point, he said, the company planned to open by summer 2015. But he never signed a lease with Sutherland, which ended up taking the vacant, former Citigroup offices at Sahara Avenue and Durango Drive.
Efforts to get comment from Macy's about its store were unsuccessful Tuesday. Sears spokesman Howard Riefs said in an email that last year, the retailer “painted the exterior, performed stucco and sidewalk planter repairs, and installed new signs to update the exterior of our store” at Boulevard.
Kuusela, meanwhile, said in an email that retailers have provisions requiring them to be open during mall hours, and they can be fined up to $100 per hour when they aren't operating. Habitual offenders, and retailers that don't pay their fines, "are generally removed from the mall," but "we feel a balance needs to be maintained between strict enforcement and working with the tenants when they have a family emergency or other issue."
Kiosks typically are run by sole proprietors, Kuusela said, "so those types of issues come up time to time."
Still, as Boulevard regains its footing, at least some store owners figure their rents will rise as more businesses open. Gargiulo, for one, knows that Sansone’s group has spent too much money to watch it fail.
“I don’t care how much money you have,” he said. “You can’t afford to lose that kind of money.”
Las Vegas Sun librarian Rebecca Clifford-Cruz contributed to this report