Vacancy Place

Can new mall managers ward off signs of death of Santa Fe Place?

Surrounded by swords, candles and incense, John Gardner grips an e-cigarette. Gardner’s normally hyper disposition—energy he used to be able to expend working outside as a kid, in the Army as a young man or as a machinist after that—is calmed by the nicotine-delivery device.

“True and blue now since I’ve been on this,” he says of kicking cigarettes, five years and counting. “And, you know, I’m really hyper. And this keeps me chilled out. And if you sit here for 11 hours, you’ve got to do something.”

On a recent Friday, as he does nearly every Friday, Gardner, 61, was watching over the Heart of the Lotus Gift Bazaar, a gift shop with merchandise that also includes knives, crossbows and Buddhist books at Santa Fe Place.

The lights are dim and Gardner had been squinting over an iPad, which he often uses to play games alone in the lonely dwindling hours of the mall. Not a customer visited the shop for at least a half hour as the clock ticked toward closing time, when a female voice would echo through the tile walkways of Santa Fe Place, warning the few shoppers left that at 9 pm, the building would go dark.

Gardner and his wife purchased the shop from the previous owners two years ago. He commutes nearly every day from his home in Albuquerque. One of his two adult daughters usually gives him the day off on Saturdays, but occasionally they have a commitment.

“They say, ‘Well, Dad, we’ll give you a day off in three or four days from now.’ So I end up working 10 days, 11 days straight,” he says. “I just can’t afford to hire somebody to be here all the time. Not until we start getting more people.”

“We” means the 570,000-square-foot mall formerly known as Villa Linda. Situated on 57 acres that include 3,261 parking stalls off Cerrillos and Rodeo Road, it’s Santa Fe’s biggest mall. But many wonder whether it’s the most vibrant. Across town, at the DeVargas Center, different activities—notably movies and sit-down restaurants—make patrons stick around longer.

Gardner is one of many merchants at the mall hoping for change. It’s something they’ve been promised for years. In the last five years, at least three different companies have run the day-to-day operations of the mall. One of them, Trademark Property Co., went on a press tour promising a wholesale remodel at an institution that many remember fondly as a community gathering space in Santa Fe since 1985, built “in an era when beautiful malls were being built,” says Heather Herring, of the Texas-based MG Herring Group, whose father was responsible for the mall’s construction.

“We’re not going to tear the mall down,” Tommy Miller, president of Trademark, told the Albuquerque Journal in June of 2010, after his firm had acquired the mall with the help of a private equity fund. “But we’ll do a major renovation in the interior and some on the outside to bring the outdoors in.”

Four years later, there’s a camping tent and gear in a display window advertising a spring sale. But there are few signs of outdoors in Santa Fe Place. On the perimeter of the food court, the palms of a plant have a slight droop on one side of the pot. On the other side, the plant, seemingly in a fight with itself, perks up toward the vigas —the wooden beams that prompted one nearby vendor to remark that the food court area “looks like 1970.”

With just three restaurants—San Martin, a New Mexican restaurant; Rice Village, with its Japanese and Chinese fare; and the only Dairy Queen in town—it’s hardly even a court.

Around 7 pm, as the sunlight fades, it also stops piercing through the skylights that help brighten the food court. Farolito-looking light fixtures dangling from wooden beams replace the sun’s role with a bright yellow light. It bounces against the pastel colors of the floor and that of the walls, along with the brown latillas on the ceiling, creating an orange hue.

When one firm bought the mall in 2004, a company it hired told The Albuquerque Journal the interior would be splashed with “Georgia O’Keeffe colors.” Officials also told The Santa Fe New Mexican the building resembled a “fortress.” Both characterizations hold true now, especially the latter, with many caged off, dark storefronts along the main walkway of the mall that make one wonder whether management officials have ever considered leasing out those vacant spaces to the Santa Fe County Jail.

Felicia Halford, a salesperson at Piercing Pagoda kiosk, says the business just let go an assistant manager because sales are so low.

“When it was first built, it always seemed like it was really busy and there was a lot of people,” she says, “and this was the place to come and hang out and meet people shopping….they had two movie theaters [and a] food court. I don’t know why, but they had more sports shops. They had game shops. They had a toy store, different clothes.

“We’d always come—just come shopping, just to go to the mall. Now, it’s like the last place.”

At night, janitors mop the largely empty food court. The Spider Jump—a bungee device that parents pay $6 for their 30- to 110-pound child to strap into a harness and fly into the air with the help of elastic bands strapped to poles—closes down early. But the Venetian carousel spins into the night.

Brendan Maas, 34, a recent shopper, recalls that when he was a kid, the carousel in the food court was “huge”—“at least two, three times the size that it is now.”

“It took up more room in the food court, right?” he recalls. “And they had levels, and they had walls and stuff. You didn’t have half as many chairs. Somebody probably got their master’s degree in business, first time out, decided, ‘Oh well, let’s make more room for the chairs.’ But there aren’t many people coming.”

Kari is a stylist at Mastercuts, near the food court, where she’s been working since August. She’s worked at malls in Albuquerque and calls Santa Fe Place the slowest mall she’s ever seen. She wonders about the empty space the pizza joint Sbarro used to occupy before its parent company filed for bankruptcy. When she was a kid, the food court was bustling with a theater and game room.

Shondiin Coho, store manager at Journeys, has been working at the hip shoe shop on and off for some six years.

“And I’ve seen them go through management after management after management, and all of them promised they were going to do this and do that,” he says. “Honestly it’s gotten worse and worse. So I don’t know. All we can do is wait and see, man.”

Sporting a Yankees baseball hat, Coho leans over the counter and contends that his store and Victoria’s Secret are some of the better performers in the mall. They’re the only two of their kind in Santa Fe. But business is slow, he says, noting he did a walkthrough of the mall and guessed nearly half of the non-anchor tenant spaces are empty. Current management refused to verify the rate, but observers like Coho all agree that the mall isn’t the vibrant space it used to be.

Coho has lived in Santa Fe nearly all his life.

“We had a bigger food court” in the mall, he says. “There used to be a Walgreens attached to us. Like, I just think there [was] more to give than there is now. Like now, it’s like people come for that special item, and they come in and they get it and they go out.”

Coho says the mall would be more lively with “stuff to do,” such as the return of an arcade.

“It used to be, like, the spot back when I was growing up. Every weekend: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’ll be at the mall.’ ‘I’ll meet you at the mall.’”

In September, Spinoso Real Estate Group, a Syracuse, NY, real estate services firm, quietly took over management of the mall. In stark contrast to Trademark’s headline-seeking announcements, Spinoso has so far not sought press attention—indeed, no news outlet has reported on the management shift. Officials there say changes are in the works, but won’t be specific. They requested that SFR wait to publish a story.

“We have not made any announcements at this point,” says Dawn Harmon, general manager of Santa Fe Place. “But within probably, I would say, the next 30 to 60 days, we will have information that we can get out to the public.”

Lance Ferrell, the mall marketing manager, writes in an email that Spinoso has actually been the leasing agent since “mid-2012” and that it “assumed management responsibilities in September 2013.”

Nationwide, malls are struggling. Many cite the popularity of online shopping and entertainment among the reasons. Santa Fe Place also saw competition with the construction of a stand-alone Kohl’s department store and a Walmart Super Center nearby. But the industry is pushing back against the death-of-the-mall narrative.

Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, says as the industry pulls out of the recession, there’s been investment in current properties rather than a push to build new malls. With those reinvestments come new ideas of the role of the mall.

“You can’t just be a channel for the distribution of goods,” he says. “We need to create experiences. And that’s what you’re going to see really starting to take hold with these shopping centers and these malls. Is that it is going to be very [experience] driven in that we are now seeing a much more eclectic and diverse tenant mix.”

Jolene Mauer had been the marketing manager for Santa Fe Place until she left that job for a post in the New Mexico Tourism Department in March 2013. She had worked at the mall since 2009 and recalls three different management companies during her tenure there.

“I came to work one day, and there were a bunch of new people there, and they said, ‘You don’t work for Trademark anymore. Starting tomorrow, you work for Cushman & Wakefield,’” she says. “It came out of nowhere. It came out of left field.”

Ten years ago, Georgia-based Gregory Greenfield and Associates mall operator bought the then Villa Linda Mall from Goldman Sachs, according to news reports, and said it would sink $10 million into the aging property and also gave the mall its new Santa Fe Place moniker. But three years later, the Australian investment and advisory firm Babcock & Brown acquired Greenfield. Eventually the Texas-based Trademark Property Co. took over mall management in 2010—after the bankruptcy Mervyn’s store, one of four anchor tenants, made it leave the mall.

Mauer claims that Trademark was attempting to purchase Santa Fe Place, but the deal fell through and its management duties of the mall were replaced by Cushman & Wakefield, a New York City-based firm that calls itself one of the largest private real estate service companies in the world.

Current ownership is difficult to trace. Spinoso officials say the mall is owned by a trust established by the Fort Worth, Texas-based Hudson Advisors LLC —a global management company with over $95 billion worth of assets. Various county, state and federal records say the name of the trust that owns the mall is LSREF Summer Reo Trust 2009.

Beyond that, there’s no way of telling which individuals or institutions profit from the property—and how much profit they pull in.

“We don’t comment on our investments, so I’m going to have to hang up now,” says Marc Lipshy, who is listed on various documents as the vice president of the trust. “Appreciate you reaching out though.”

A company official later called back and said an announcement was forthcoming regarding Santa Fe Place, but she wouldn’t specify.

“When Trademark became the property management company, you know they had big plans,” Mauer notes. “They had architects looking at stuff. They had all these drawings [on] how you know the new mall was going to look. You know, they did a press release. They talked to the press. They said, ‘We’re doing this! We’re doing that! We’re doing this!’ And then the money just never materialized. And none of that happened.”

David Giron, owner of Pro Fix Jewelers, hopes that Spinoso can turn the mall around.

Wearing a visor magnifier which helps him to work on small items, Giron explains that he’s so optimistic about Spinoso that he decided to move into a new 3,000 square-foot place in the mall—an upgrade from the previous space of about 1,000 square feet and a small kiosk before that three years ago.

KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” plays on the radio while John —who’s “been a watch guy 45 years”—bends over components of an 18-carat gold woman’s watch that dates back to 1952. The shop fixes old jewelry and watches as well as selling its own items. Some items are sold on consignment. Giron boasts that it’s locally owned and that owners of a broken piece of jewelry can watch repairmen fix it with their own eyes—his most recent example being a woman who requested she see her $80,000 ring be repaired.

Despite his success, Giron was no fan of the previous management companies.

“They just started jacking up the prices,” he says, “and people couldn’t afford it.”

“But these guys have been really good, and they’ve worked with us and just really working with the tenants more, you know, and they’re trying to get new places in,” he says of Spinoso. “They’re going out to get new businesses here.”

Giron says business has doubled for the shop in its new space. He signed a year lease but says he’ll later sign a permanent lease for the space.

“That’s why I moved in this spot,” he says. “Because I knew they’re getting things going. They’re really go-getters....They have all kinds of executives. People coming, getting things straight.”

David Jack, a sales associate of the Sunglass Hut, a kiosk just outside Giron’s new shop, is less optimistic.

“I think they need more family events,” he says. “That’s your target. If you bring a family, you have the adult and the kids. Right? So it caters to every single demographic and you can sell from the oldest to the youngest.”

The Santa Fe University Art and Design student was having a good sales day—there was a nearby booth where kids took photos with the Easter Bunny. The relatively heavy foot traffic that day is a part what he calls a “fickle” volume in the mall. Nearby are several vacant retail spaces.

“It’s strange,” he says. “Like I’m working days where I don’t sell anything and then the next day…four sales. That’s not good at all, man. If you’re selling sunglasses for $124 a piece and your goal is like $3,000, you’ve got to start slinging shades. You’ve got to start hustling.”

Noemi and Cesar Acosta, a young couple who own the Total Mobile kiosk right by the food court, say that many people they know just shop in Albuquerque. That’s a sentiment echoed by Coho, the Journeys manager, who says he knows many of his regulars are opting for Duke City because they’ll return items purchased in Albuquerque stores at the Santa Fe shop.

Like John Gardner, the mall is somewhat of a second home for the Acostas. They’re from Albuquerque and say rent prices at one of those malls might be much higher, perhaps $2,500, but that more people would stop at the phone-repair booth, which also sells cellular accessories. Their current monthly rent for the space ranges from $1,000 to $1,700, they say. Many of their customers are from out of town.

“[The kiosk] does bring in a lot [from the] outside, you know, from the cities around us,” says Noemi Acosta, “which is good. But I’ve noticed that a lot of local people don’t come from Santa Fe. I think because they already know what they’re going to find here. And they just go to the store…if they come and they actually come and walk, but for most people, they just go straight for what they want and leave.”

They also say they try to convince potential customers to shop at the mall to support local businesses and the tax base instead of online.

Maas says he came to the mall so his child could try out furniture items he was thinking about buying. He notes plenty of people seem to be shopping online.

“It just feels like, you know, this used to be a central community hub,” says Maas, a lifelong Santa Fe resident. “And I guess because the way the culture has moved, more services are online and that kind of thing. It’s a little sad to me to see it empty all the time. You see stores usually cycling out every six months or so. How do you overcome that? I don’t know. I think that just malls in general are just falling out. They’ve got to change their format entirely if they want to make it interesting. And I don’t know what it is.”

Gardner, the owner of the Heart of the Lotus Gift Bazaar, says he doesn’t have the answer of how to draw more people to Santa Fe Place. He’s been a machinist nearly all his life, and he’s got his eye on the day when he can retire—perhaps his daughters can take over the store.

“We’re in limbo,” he says. “We don’t know. But I want to see it get bigger and I want to see more people. I want to take more days off. I’d love to see that. I’m sure everybody else does too. I mean the corporates, pttsh. Talk to them. It’s just a write off. But us small guys, you know, there ain’t a whole bunch of us.”

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