HANFORD – Hanford Mall officials and other retail experts say Hanford's restrictive zoning policies are hampering their ability to fill the mall's vacant spaces.
The rules don't allow furniture stores larger than 20,000 square feet, which rules out most large furniture-type stores. The rules also forbid medical, professional, dental or optometrist services.
They are designed to protect downtown by preventing certain kinds of businesses from locating in the popular 12th Avenue/Lacey Boulevard/Hanford Mall area or in the new Costco shopping center.
Lewis Smith, senior vice president of Fresno-based commercial real estate marketing firm Retail California, said that stores like Ashley Furniture HomeStore and Mor Furniture have expressed interest in filling the former Forever 21 space in the mall only to be told they can't come because of the restrictions.
Smith said it's increasingly a challenge to fill former departments store slots in indoor malls as brick-and-mortar retail competes against online shopping.
He said malls are increasingly looking at non-retail options such as doctors' offices and other uses.
"Retail zoning is becoming more flexible in most cities," he said. "We need to be able to allow furniture, dental and general office with a conditional use permit."
Mall executives expressed growing frustration with the restrictions.
"It certainly limits you," said Todd Siegel, retail vice president for Passco Companies, which owns the mall. "The retail environment has changed dramatically since the Great Recession. The pool of available tenants has decreased substantially. If you take that small pool and further limit it with zoning [restrictions], you're really hurting yourself."
"You hinder yourself with these archaic restrictions," Siegel added. "You're not going to tell retailers where they are going to go."
Howard Wong, managing director of retail for Passco, said Hanford's type of zoning restrictions only work when retailers "don't really have any other choice" of where to locate.
He said that's not the case with the Hanford area.
He said retailers can go to Fresno, Visalia, Selma or even Lemoore, depending on whether or not those cities' zoning policies are more development-friendly than Hanford's.
"The restrictions are really limiting the uses we really want to go after," said mall manager Joanne Doerter.
Randy Dodd, vice president of business development for Adventist Health Central California, said Adventist is interested in potentially locating some office-type functions, such as a potential call center, in the Hanford Mall.
Dodd said such uses aren't allowed because of the zoning restrictions.
Mayor David Ayers, who has been the strongest defender of zoning restrictions on the City Council, said the restrictions "have been in place since that mall was built."
Ayers said the mall is in a good commercial area and should be able to fill its spaces with the current restrictions in place.
"The mall has beachfront property, as far as I'm concerned," he said.
"I do believe in zoning, and that's where you try to allow certain things to go into certain areas," Ayers added. "I'm also kind of a downtown guy."
Councilman Martin Devine, the other strong defender of zoning restrictions on the council, couldn't be immediately reached Thursday for comment.
Martin has said in past interviews that downtown could be "decimated" by lifting the restrictions on the Costco shopping center and on the 12th Avenue/Lacey Boulevard/Hanford Mall area.
Sue Sorensen, who has recused herself from voting on the restrictions because of an alleged conflict of interest, also couldn't be immediately reached Thursday for comment.
Councilman Justin Mendes, the strongest defender on the council of allowing retail and professional businesses to go anywhere in Hanford that's zoned for general commercial use, said Sorensen's absence has forced a compromise between himself and Councilman Francisco Ramirez, both of who want to lift the restrictions, and Ayers and Devine, who want to keep them in place.
Mendes said he supported the compromise because without it, the city's long-planned zoning ordinance and general plan overhaul would have been held up, which would have thrown business development decisions throughout the city into limbo.
Mendes expressed surprise that Ayers and Devine – both of them registered Republicans – haven't been friendlier to allowing professional and retail business owners more freedom to locate where they see fit.
"The citizens of Hanford have to elect free-market capitalists to the council," Mendes said. "That's what it comes down to. This city is a conservative city, based off of voting records, and I hope that the conservative majority realizes the lack of a free-market economy in Hanford."
"I'm with Joanne [Doerter] 100 percent," Mendes added. "These zoning restrictions for years have hurt the mall."
Mendes blamed the ongoing restrictions on the persistence of a "good old boy" approach in Hanford.
"This is the definition of a good old boy network that says 'I was raised here, I've known so-and-so downtown business owner for 60 years, I'm not going to change my basic way of life,'" he said. "When that is the response the only way to defeat that is campaigning."