Richmond candidates clash on Hilltop Mall LED sign
on September 21, 2014
Mayoral and council candidates clashed during a debate Saturday over whether to green light a digital sign on the I-80 corridor that would tout the troubled Hilltop Mall business district.
Leaders in the Hilltop Mall district have urged the city to allow LED signs to promote the businesses there since 2007. The mall, plagued by high vacancy rates and declining customer traffic, went into receivership in 2012.
Local law prohibits digital signs in the area. A new ordinance to allow the sign is under review by the planning commission and could come before the City Council this year.
Mayoral candidates Tom Butt and Uche Uwahemu argued that a new sign would not save the mall.
“The top ten shopping malls or shopping centers in the Bay Area, none of them have an LED sign,” said Butt, who has been a vocal critic of allowing the LED sign.
“The LED sign can be effective if we have the right mall,” Uwahemu said. “(But) we don’t have the right mall here, that’s why we need to rebuild the mall.”
The Hilltop District Homeowners & Stakeholders Association hosted the candidate forum in a mall conference room Saturday. Questions included issues regarding the city’s immigrant community and general business development, but the bulk of the discussion centered on the mall and its surrounding business district. The mayoral seat and four City Council seats are up for election in November.
While Butt, Uwahemu and others downplayed the question of the sign, others told the audience of more than 60 people that it was crucial to allow the district to advertise itself in a competitive environment.
Council candidates Corky Booze, Jael Myrick and Jovanka Beckles, along with mayoral candidate Nat Bates, supported the new digital sign.
“Go down the Pacific East Mall, try to find a parking space,” Bates said, noting that an LED sign advertises that bustling mall on the other side of the city. “It works. Let people know where you are located. They will stop and they will shop.”
But council candidate Eduardo Martinez argued that a sign wouldn’t be enough to make a difference at Hilltop.
Council candidates Donna Powers, Henry Washington, Anthony Creer and Albert Martinez also supported the allowing the sign.
Powers said the sign would be funded by private money and bring around $200,000 annual revenue to the city as well as allow the city to promote community information. “[If] the city doesn’t get this within the next six to nine months,” Powers said, “it’s very likely that it will go right across the freeway to Pinole.”
Hilltop Mall was built in the 1970s and was the city’s biggest shopping center for decades. But it has fallen on hard times as newer shopping centers in nearby cities have siphoned away customers.
Washington said the I-80 corridor, which runs through the district, is a key artery for consumers, and that a lack of high-tech signage causes Richmond to lose out on potential business.
“I was just told, a quarter million people per day are travelling this corridor,” Washington said. “We need to do everything we can, to build up our image by letting them know that an optimistic thing is going on here in Richmond.”
Cesar Zepeda, President of Fairways Homeowner Association, argued that even if the mall needs to be torn down and redesigned, as some candidates suggested, it is still important to set up the LED sign.
“If you are on a boat, it’s going to sink, and if you cross your arms and sit in the middle of the boat, what happens? You sink. You did nothing,” Zepeda said. “If you at least try to swim, you at least have a chance.”
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