The parking lot at Hilltop Mall is mostly empty, with the painted lines faded and peeling. When you enter, familiar and savory smells emanate from the grills at Great Khan’s Mongolian BBQ and hang in the air. The geometric floor tiles form the same dizzying patterns as they did decades ago. But now, instead of weaving through throngs of teenagers and families with strollers, it is an easy — and fast — walk from one of end of Hilltop to the other. More than half the stores in the building remain vacant. Security guards patrol almost-empty wings.
Hilltop Mall is in limbo, suspended somewhere between the bustling commercial and social center it once was and the vision of what it could become. Throughout the building, recently rebranded as the “Shops at Hilltop” by its new owners, those who remember it in its prime might describe the mood as both nostalgic and somber.
However, for legacy businesses established more than two decades ago, there is an excitement — a near-impatience — for the mall’s next act.
It’s been a little more than two months since LBG Real Estate Companies and Aviva Investors announced their purchase of the 1 million-square-foot mall in Richmond. Despite years of changes, including enduring new management and economic decline, many Hilltop owners are eager to see what’s next.
“At the moment, we don’t have any foot traffic, but the few stores left here are destination stores,” said Mike Tossi of Watch Gallery, an accessories and repair shop that opened 21 years ago in the mall.
But the problem, he explained, is that mall guests no longer hang out at Hilltop. “Customers just come here, get their stuff done and then they leave,” Tossi said.
He described a bleak atmosphere in recent years: “This mall has no soul. We’re hoping and praying that the new owners will bring some soul back.”
Tina Lee, owner of Surf City Squeeze, a juice and smoothie franchise, echoed the same sentiment. After meeting with the new owners on a recent Thursday morning, she’s excited. “There were a lot of rumors, like they were going to tear down the mall or put apartments inside. But no: They are making a lot of other changes like remodeling the inside for the next 18 months,” recounted Lee.
Surf City Squeeze was established in the mall more than 20 years ago and relies mostly on regular customers, who provide more than half its business, according to Lee.
The new developer’s most immediate goal is to bring the community back into the mall. In addition to aesthetic upgrades, like repainting interior and exterior walls and updating building entrances, the new owners are also looking to host events and create a space to gather.
Longer-term plans hope to breathe additional life into Hilltop: new businesses, including a movie theater and grocery store, which will reposition the mall not just as a shopping destination, but also a place for entertainment and dining. The hope is that Hilltop will attract both nearby residents and broader communities throughout the Bay Area.
Hilltop’s future reflects what developers and many residents hope for the rest of Richmond.
“The younger generation is moving out; they don’t want to stay. I hope that Richmond can build up and, if this mall does work out, that it will draw people to come back to Richmond,” said Simeone Chien of Photo Magic, a photography studio that opened in Hilltop in 1996.
Founded by her Taiwanese immigrant father, who passed away in May, it was once the premiere destination for teenagers, who would stand in long lines that curled around the shop. Back then, the student special package — $12 for 50 wallet-sized photos — was the business’ bread and butter, with kids eager to exchange photos with friends at school.
Now, with the advent of social media and selfies, Photo Magic relies mostly on families that regularly commemorate special occasions, like holidays, graduations and pregnancies.
Her biggest concerns as Hilltop prepares for a facelift is staying in the same location. “We’ve been here for over 18 years,” she said, adding that one of the first things people see when they enter is a hallway of photos.
In general, shop owners welcome the idea of someone wanting to invest in Hilltop. “I think it’s fantastic, because it’s the only time in the past 21 years that someone is actually trying to put money into it,” Tossi said.
His shop, which sits across the mall’s center court, site of an iconic circular ramp and golden art structure, was once the heart of all mall activity. Today, this part of the mall remains largely vacant and quiet, except for a handful of small kiosks and the gushing water fountain.
Tossi has witnessed first hand the mall’s decline and keeping his shop alive in Hilltop is largely personal.
“I live in the city of Richmond. I make my money here. My kids went to school here. I prefer to choose Richmond for all my trades,” Tossi said. “It was good to me. I have to be loyal to my city.”