Nearly 400 housing units including affordable options, new retail and dining, and other improvements are all part of a Brea Mall mixed-use development project the City Council unanimously approved. 

Several malls throughout Orange County are being revitalized amid a decline in indoor retail centers and a need for more housing. Brea Mall is the latest to be approved for an improvement project, which would bring new use to the closed Sears building and adjacent parking lot. 

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A representative from Simon Property Group, the property owner and project applicant, stated in a presentation that the company wishes to transform the shopping mall into an “opportunity for people to live, work, shop, and recreate without having to use their cars.” 

Council members and some mallgoers are enthusiastic about seeing the Sears building take on a fresh purpose, but some said they have reservations about the amount of affordable housing allocated in the plans. 

The planned additions include a five-story apartment complex with 380 units and a three-floor parking garage, a luxury fitness center, new retail and dining, and nearly an acre of green space, according to a city staff report.

The project came before the City Council after the Planning Commission’s unanimous approval of items related to the plans in December. 

According to Jocelyn Gubler, Simon Group’s vice president of development, the project has been in the works since long before the early May council meeting at which council members approved the plans.  

Brea Mall’s grand opening was in 1977, with Sears as one of its main anchors. Indianapolis-based Simon Group purchased the Sears land following its 2018 closing with the intention of demolishing and revamping the area, according to a presentation at the council meeting.

The application for the new developments was initially submitted in 2019. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the middle of planning, the applicant and city staff were forced to postpone the consideration of the project and reevaluate what a regional mall would look like in a post-pandemic world.  

The project was picked back up in late 2021, and has included several opportunities for public input throughout the development process. Now, following the council’s approval, the long-anticipated changes are moving toward becoming a reality.

Brea Mall is only one example of an Orange County shopping center undergoing a makeover in the aftermath of the pandemic. Transitions to outdoor malls with residential units on the property appear to be a trend, especially in sunny and housing-short Southern California. 

According to published reports, plans call for housing and other additions at the Westminster Mall, Santa Ana’s MainPlace Mall, and the Laguna Hills Mall

Jason Killebrew, Brea’s community development director, explained in an interview why he believes these changes to several malls are coming now. 

“If you look at all of these new projects, they’re all open,” Killebrew said. “That was one of the lessons learned from the ‘70s and ‘80s. If we get 300 days of sunshine, why are we closing ourselves in?” 

He described the Brea project’s allocated green space as an “ode to Southern California.” 

“It capitalizes on our weather, on our environment. It’s creating this boxed-in, safe environment for people to hang out in,” Killebrew continued. “I think that the sky’s the limit.”

He mentioned that this green space will not only be helpful for organizations that wish to hold their events in the new community quarters, but it will also benefit the surrounding businesses that occupy the mall. 

“People will come to the mall for the event, and then they’ll stay to do something else before or after the event,” he said. “They’ll go to a restaurant, they’ll go shopping. So there’s the indirect benefit that the city gets from that green space as well.”

Some visitors frequent the Brea Mall from all over the county for a “day trip.” 

Orange resident Danielle Pyle often visits the mall with her 13-year-old daughter.

“We go to Brea Mall once a month, and when we do, we make a day of it,” Pyle said. “It’s a big deal. This is the best mall around here.”

Pyle is excited about the mall’s expansion and for the Sears area to finally be redone. However, she had hesitations regarding affordability in the housing plans. 

“I would be all for it if it was more affordable,” Pyle said. “Realistically, someone who works at the mall can’t afford to live there.”

“It sounds like a band-aid solution to the housing shortage,” she added.

California cities are expected to plan for a certain number of housing units per cycle, which is further broken down into levels of affordability. Brea needs to zone for 2,365 units for the 2021-2029 cycle, according to the city’s housing element.

These affordability levels are determined by the local area median income, as detailed in the housing element. Brea is expected to have 1,062 units in the ‘very low’ to low’ income levels, which encompasses households that earn 31% to 80% of the area median income, respectively.

The Brea Mall project will include 38 affordable units, according to a presentation at the council meeting. Of these, 23 will be in the affordability range for households that make 65% or less of the area median income and the remaining 15 will be for those with 120% or less of the median income. 

Pyle was not the only mallgoer who questioned the affordability. 

Elizabeth Villagomez, an Anaheim resident who used to work at the Nordstrom at Brea Mall, also vocalized the need for more affordable options.

“Not many young people can afford it, especially people who are working at the mall,” Villagomez said.

The council members also addressed the number of affordable units during the early May meeting.

Councilmember Steven Vargas stated that he would have liked to see more units designated as affordable in the plans to make it easier for mall employees to live there.

“The only way that [we] could prevent or reduce traffic is by keeping the workers local, so that they would live there, potentially,” Vargas said. 

“So I’m interested in more affordable housing… I am committed to make sure that we have affordable housing in Brea,” he stated. 

The project is scheduled to begin this summer with the demolition of the former Sears building and parking lot.

Mayor Marty Simonoff said in a recent phone interview that he anticipates the project will benefit the city and the community.

“The project will increase the Brea experience as to what’s available and how [residents and visitors] can shop, dine, visit, and do other things in the community,” Simonoff said. 


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