Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall: Can community ownership stop gentrification?

If you walk around the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall these days, especially during the week, you can see that many of its businesses are struggling. 

“There is no traffic in this mall. This is not how a mall right now should be looking,” says Malik Muhammad, who has owned and operated Malik’s Books at the Crenshaw Mall since the early 1990s.

Malik Muhammad standing inside his bookstore at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall. He’s been at this location since the early 1990s. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb.

Just like other traditional indoor shopping centers, this mall has been on a steady decline for a while, a decline accelerated by the pandemic. In the last several years, the Crenshaw Mall has lost some of its anchor tenants like Sears and Walmart. 

Now it’s for sale and potential buyers’ development plans include things like luxury housing and office space. It’s the same old gentrification script, Muhammad says, of developing South LA without keeping its residents in mind.

“When someone comes in from the outside and [has] a completely different agenda, it might not be what’s best for the neighborhood,” Muhammad says. “It might be a plan to gentrify, uproot and push [us] out. … We need to develop our own communities.”

Empty kiosks sit inside the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, May 3, 2021. Like many other indoor malls in LA County, this shopping center has been hard hit by the pandemic. Photo by Amy Ta.

A handful of people are seen in the distance, on the first floor, of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, May 3, 2021. Photo by Amy Ta. 

Enter Downtown Crenshaw Rising, a community effort to buy the mall, redevelop it, and let the neighborhood profit from its economic revitalization. 

“We heard that the plan was to build luxury condos and townhouses here. We knew that we had to draw a line in the sand and really stop that type of gentrification from happening,” says Niki Okuk, a local entrepreneur and board president with Downtown Crenshaw.

And it’s not just talk. Downtown Crenshaw has put pressure on other developers to withdraw their bids, including a $110 million bid from LIVWRK and DFH Partners, and put in several offers for the mall itself, raising more than $30 million in financing, says Damien Goodmon, who sits on the Downtown Crenshaw Rising board.

Activists with Downtown Crenshaw Rising host a community rally outside a shuttered Walmart at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall. The group wants to purchase this massive shopping center, redevelop it, and let residents profit from its economic revitalization. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb.

“This is a place that has had a lack of economic opportunity for the existing Black and Brown residents,” says Goodmon, whose activism also includes the Crenshaw Subway Coalition. “How do you solve all those challenges in one massive project? That's the question and I think we're answering it.”

Downtown Crenshaw has a lot of ideas for what this place should look like: a six-acre park for cultural events and entertainment, a housing plan where 80% of all units are affordable housing, a senior center, and a day care center, among other things.

But first the mall’s ownership team would need to accept the bid, and so far, it hasn’t. 

Capri Retail Services, which manages the property, declined an interview request for this story. It also refused to answer questions about the mall’s occupancy rate, which current tenants say keeps falling. In a statement provided to KCRW, Capri’s CEO Rachel Freeman says the company is “working with [its] tenant community on a case-by-case basis to support them.”

Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall features TJ Maxx, Forever 21, Cinemark Theaters, and Macy’s. It used to have a Sears department store. May 3, 2021. Photo by Amy Ta. 

But as the sale of the mall drags on, some Crenshaw residents fear the activists will just push away development that the neighborhood badly needs. 

“I'm extremely concerned that the bigger message that Downtown Crenshaw is trying to push will derail this project,” says Gina Fields, chairperson for the Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council. 

Fields says she’s seen development plans go belly up in her community too many times. The lot where the newly built Kaiser Permanente sits, across the street from the mall, sat vacant for a quarter century. Fields says that Crenshaw can’t afford for that to happen with the mall.

“We all support the idealism of Downtown Crenshaw. We would hope that they would have the money and the ability to buy the mall. We've just seen no proof of it. The reality is: We need something there. We need places to shop. And we need someone who can come in and actually make that happen. And the mall is too big and too important to our community to end up with nothing.”

Downtown Crenshaw says it has the money to buy the mall — that it raised more than $30 million for its most recent bid. May 3, 2021. Photo by Amy Ta. 

Downtown Crenshaw says it does have the money needed to buy the mall. Goodmon says the group raised more than $30 million for its most recent bid, and that they’ve offered the most money for the property, though KCRW has been unable to independently verify that information. 

There are also some big names behind the Downtown Crenshaw proposal, including SmithGroup, which designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. 

All of this is attractive to Kim Prince, who runs Hotville Chicken just outside the mall’s main buildings.

“I'm grateful that the community has raised its voice and said their piece about what they want to see because they live here. They work here, they play here, they worship here, they get educated here. … It doesn't have to come in and change so drastically. The community isn’t gonna stand for that.”

“I'm grateful that the community has raised its voice and said their piece about what they want to see because they live here,” says Kim Prince, the owner and operator of Hotville Chicken adjacent to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb. 

Hotville Chicken sits next to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, May 3, 2021. Its owner, Kim Prince, says she’s grateful residents have shared what they want to see happen to the mall. Photo by Amy Ta. 

The mall’s owners are currently reviewing a third round of bids for the property. Downtown Crenshaw is one of them. Goodmon says if his organization’s plan isn’t chosen, they’re prepared to keep fighting.