Final bones of 50-year-old Laguna Hills mall are coming down

Feb 28 , 2023 Southern California

By Erika I. Ritchie, The Orange County Register

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The last bones of the 50-year-old Laguna Hills Mall are coming down as developers prepare to create a new community on a prime 68-acre property that will eventually accommodate a hotel, entertainment, apartments, office spaces and a community park.

Only one skeletal structure remains near the 5 Freeway and El Toro Road, and that’s the shell of the former Macy’s building. Still, that is expected to be down by April. A few buildings along the outer perimeter will remain, including In-N-Out Burger, BJ’s Restaurants and Brewhouse and King’s Fish House. Nordstrom Rack will also stay until its new location is built under a new movie theater near the 2.8-acre park.

Workers clear the site of the former Laguna Hills Mall in preparation for a new mixed-use project called the Village at Laguna Hills in Laguna Hills, CA, on Monday, February 27, 2023. Plans include up to 465,000 square feet of office, a 100 to 150-room hotel, 1,500 residential apartments, and retail and outdoor space. There is also plans to reserve a portion of the apartment units for affordable housing. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Laguna Hills Mall opened in 1973 as part of the build-out of the inland South County cities. The shuttering of the southern area’s first mall fits a trend seen across Southern California and the nation where developers are turning retail-oriented shopping destinations into urban uses that still include some shopping, but are more focused on creating a new community space with housing, office spaces, entertainment options and outdoor spaces.

Demolition began in the fall and is now nearly complete, said Laguna Hills Councilmember Don Caskey, a retired architect who, in his lifetime, worked on multiple large developments, including updates at UC Riverside. The former J.C. Penney’s came down about two months ago.

“They’re very close,” he said of the demo work, adding that he is the council’s liaison with the developer, Merlone Geier. “When (Macy’s) goes down, it will go down fast. They let the Macy’s building go last, so people who were set up in there with shops could have a Christmas season.”

The new community is dubbed Village at Laguna Hills; it replaces the earlier Five Lagunas, which proposed to redesign the mall’s interior, along with adding outdoor dining, a promenade and a high-end movie theater. In April, nearly six years after an initial ground breaking, the City Council voted 3-2 to give Merlone Geier the necessary entitlements to move forward with Village at Laguna Hills.

Merlone Geier officials could not be reached for an update.

The large rubble piles are being trucked off-site and largely will be recycled into other uses such as roadways and other buildings, said Caskey, adding that at least 90% of building materials can now be recycled.

Buildings that could be part of construction’s first phase are the hotel – expected to be higher-end property – and apartments. In all, plans call for about 1,500 apartments in five separate buildings, Caskey said. There are also plans for 500,000 square feet of office space, but that “won’t be built overnight,” he said.

Everything will be phased. And, Caskey said the parcels, in the end, might be sold to other developers who will tackle things like housing and the hotel, as is common. And, whether the present amount of office space will be built is also questionable, Caskey said, given the trend now of fewer people working in traditional office settings.

“The world changes radically in a short period of time,” Caskey said. “What you’re shown now might be different. It will be a dance between the developer and the city.”

If all goes well in the first phase, Caskey said he was told by developers it could likely be completed in about five to six years.

“Development, if done right, is a good thing,” he said. “It brings renewal.”