Foothill Sentry: Why Is Sears Holding Orange Neighborhoods Hostage?

Title: Why Is Sears Holding Orange Neighborhoods Hostage?
Date: February 1, 2023
Author: Kathy Tavoularis

“Property rights are a cornerstone of the American way of life – foundational to the enduring system of ordered liberty from which our prosperity and quality of life flow.

But with rights come responsibilities. When those are ignored, the community suffers. That is the situation in Orange, where the indifference and neglect of an absentee venture capitalist is bringing blight and crime to the doorsteps of his longtime neighbors.

The Orange Mall, as it was known for decades, was the heart beat of north Orange. However, like shopping malls across the country, the online retail revolution has spurred the once-bustling Mall into a steady decline.

For the families living in the adjacent neighborhoods, the quality-of-life impacts have become increasingly worse since the April 2021 closure of the Sears store, the lone remaining anchor store from the mall’s opening in 1971.

Sears is owned by Transform co, which in turn is owned by ESL Investment, a hedge fund owned by Edward Lampert from Connecticut. During Lampert’s tenure as Sears president and CEO in the 2010s, the company lost half its value and closed half of its stores. Lampert controls the Sears property through a 90-year lease that continues through 2054.

The closure of Sears at the mall is the primary source of the growing blight that is impacting surrounding neighborhoods. Lampert has every right to take steps he deems necessary to ensure Sears’ profitability, but that does not relieve him of the responsibility to be a good neighbor.

Instead, Lampert has allowed the parking lot between the vacant store and the adjacent residential neighborhoods to become a mag net of derelict vehicles, criminal activity and homelessness. There is a constant barrage of calls for police and code enforcement services, including numerous attempts to break into the abandoned store, domestic violence calls, reckless driving incidents and calls to check on suspicious people, activity and vehicles. Human feces have been found in the parking lot.

And it is only getting worse.

I attended Taft Elementary and Peralta Junior High across the street from the mall. My first job, at 16, was at this Sears in the Orange Mall. Now, as the Councilmember representing this area on the Orange City Council, I under stand and share the frustration of residents who bombard City Hall with pleas for help. Lampert’s contempt is directed not only at his neighbors, but the City of Orange, which has remained a long time partner until recently, and even his landlords.

City staff – at all levels – have called Lampert and his investment fund numerous times in order to bring these issues to his attention and demand that he take steps to rectify them, but are met with a stone wall of silence from the Connecticut resident.

The longtime Orange family who owns the land has implored Lampert to clean up his act and behave as a responsible neighbor. Lampert sends them a lease payment every month, but otherwise
ignores them. Sears intends to collect lease payments from its tenants until 2054. Orange residents should not be required to live with this blight until then.

Every other stakeholder wants to revitalize the mall site. The Villages at Orange owner, and the owners of the other parcels that comprise the entire mall properties, are supportive of redeveloping the Mall as a thriving economic and community asset that complements surrounding neighborhoods and elevates our residents’ quality of life.

I applaud them for their effort, and offer my assistance to find a balanced approach that protects our neighborhoods while also stimulating economic growth. Unfortunately, Edward Lampert’s neglect of the Sears property and indifference to how these impacts are harming his neighbors are a huge obstacle to reinvigorating the mall site. He is effectively holding our community progress hostage while degrading the quality of life for those residents who, live, work or play near the mall.

Not only that, but his irresponsible behavior reflects badly on each of the property owners and businesses that go to lengths to be good neighbors.

As the City Councilmember of the district in which the Village shopping center is located, and as a 41-year Orange resident, I view this matter with the utmost seriousness and pledge continued action on behalf of residents The first step toward solving a problem is holding Sears and Mr. Lampert accountable. And it is past time we, as a community, call out and name the source of the blight taking root in Orange, at the Sears property: Edward Lam pert of Connecticut. Be the partner to Orange that Sears was for more than half a century. There is an opportunity for you to win, and the neighborhoods to win, and increase everyone’s property values and quality of life.”

Kathy Tavoularis represents District 3 on the Orange City Council.

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