The American shopping mall may be dead — or at the very least on life support — but a handful of real estate investment companies aren’t ready to sing a requiem just yet. Instead, they’re bucking the trend — snatching up shopping malls around the country at bargain basement prices and trying to turn them around.

Dallas, TX-based Cypress Equities — which bought a majority stake in Burbank Town Center from the mall’s current owner, Irvine-based Crown Realty and Development, for a reported $250 million last April — is one such company.

Cypress CEO’s Chris Maguire explained his strategy of buying failing shopping malls around the country for dimes-on-the-dollar to Bloomberg News: “They need capital, but there’s cash flowing, so you just sit and wait.”

The purchase of the Town Center mall wasn’t Cypress’s first foray into the Burbank area. The company bought Glendale’s Marketplace in 2013 and, in 2016, it added Pasadena’s Paseo to its roster. It’s been on a cross-country buying spree since 2014, when their private equity arm — Cypress Acquisition Partners Retail Fund — held a private equity offering.

Investors were invited to buy shares in the fund in return for a stake in Cypress’s future profits. The offering was a success. CAPRF collected $400 million from backers described in the fund’s SEC filings as “a diverse group of investors including public and corporate pensions; sovereign wealth funds; endowments; foundations; family offices; and fund of funds investors.”

One hundred sixty million dollars of the investor money — 40 percent — was specifically earmarked for shopping mall acquisitions. Cypress Equities currently owns 28 retail centers in 14 states.

What does Cypress’s ownership of the mall mean for Burbank?

In the short term, if you believe the company’s press, it means “a thriving, sustainable community in the heart of Burbank.” Not to mention a much, much fancier mall.

At the moment, Cypress Equities Real Estate Management (the retail management and property development wing of Cypress Equities, which was formerly known as Arrow Retail), is waiting for Burbank’s Planning Department to okay plans for a $55-million dollar facelift aimed at transforming the mall from a drab retail mausoleum to an airy, light-filled indoor/outdoor restaurant, shopping and family entertainment space.

The company is also partnering with Crown to re-purpose the abandoned IKEA space and the property around it into a mega-complex of apartments, condos, stores, offices, a hotel, a farmers market space and even a skating rink (maybe).

According to “I Heart Burbank,” the PR website for the project, plans include:

Extensive remodeling and renovation of the mall and “opening” of the Magnolia Street entrance
765 apartments on the former IKEA site
70 condo units where the Corner Bakery is now
An open-air pedestrian plaza
An additional 259 rental units at the current Office Depot site.
A hotel and additional retail spaces

These last two, it notes, are “subject to future market conditions.”

On the City of Burbank Planning Board’s website, plans submitted by the owners give us a few more details.

The 259 unit apartment building on the Office Depot site will be seven stories high.
A 15 story building will house house 70 condo units where Corner Bakery sits now.
That 7-story mixed use building will also include 37,420 sq. ft. of retail/restaurant space and the old IKEA parking lot will make way for a pedestrian walk that will connect the two sides of the street.
From the architectural drawings it appears as if that 7-story, 200 room hotel with 10,000 sq. ft. of restaurant space will sit where the Chevy’s and Barnes and Noble are now.
The developers are asking for permission to “make Improvements” to N. San Fernando Boulevard (which presumably means closing it to traffic for the pedestrian mall)

The project’s construction has been designed to take place in a series of “phases,” with the Office Depot site “maintain(ing) its current retail use for some time to come” because it has a long-term lease on the site.

Like the other developments pending in Burbank, even if this one is approved by the Planning Department, the Burbank City Council would still need to give it the green light.

And after that?

There’s no reason to believe the mall’s out-of-state owners are in Burbank for the long haul. If history — not to mention their own business model — is any judge, Cypress will stick around just long enough for market forces to make the mall and the adjacent mega-development attractive to suitors. Then they’ll sell it off to the highest bidder for a sizable profit and get out.

Clues can be found by examining their 2014 private equity offering. Commercial Real Estate Direct noted, “(Cypress Equities is) expected to complete its acquisition phase in about three years and hold its assets until about four years afterwards.”

Presumably, then, if all goes according to plan, Cypress will complete the Burbank Town Center project (or whichever elements of it still make financial sense by the time it’s approved) and then they’ll dump it. It’s what they did with The Streets of Woodfield, the mall they bought in suburban Chicago.

In 2012, using a $100 million dollar loan, Cypress paid $118 million for The Streets of Woodfield, in Schaumburg, Illinois. The mall is one of the biggest retail centers in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. Cypress made a few minor improvements to the mall (the property had been completely renovated a decade earlier), repainting the parking garage and asking the city of Schaumburg for permission to add some additional signage. And then, in 2015, they sold it to New York-based Blackstone Group.

The flip netted Cypress more than $60 million, a 53 percent profit in return for its investment three years earlier. Not too shabby.

In the case of Burbank, provided the commercial real estate market remains strong, there’s no reason to believe the scenario would be any different. Cypress would take its profits and get out — which wouldn’t necessarily be bad for Burbank. Putting the multi-use development component aside for a moment, many residents would look at the mall renovation as a win for our city.

But as we examine this project in its entirety, and other development projects currently in the pipeline — but especially those ambitious enough to promise a complete re-invention of our downtown — we must do so while keeping in mind what might happen in a worst-case scenario.

Many experts warn that Los Angeles real estate, both residential and commercial, is experiencing another bubble. If investing in our downtown starts to become a losing proposition, can we count on an investment company, beholden to Wall Street, to take the project to completion, even if that means throwing good money after bad?

Who knows? And, frankly, Burbank might be willing to take such a risk. But we shouldn’t do so blindly. Thoughtful development means looking at all the options and weighing the good and the bad before making decisions that will change our city for a long time to come.

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