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Richmond Won’t Be Getting a Shiny New Asian Food Court After All

99 Ranch Market isn’t coming to the long-beleaguered Hilltop Mall — which won’t, in fact, be a mall at all any longer

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The parking lot at Hilltop Mall sits empty on March 17, 2020
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Disappointing news for East Bay residents who’ve been waiting for news of the glitzy, “Asian-centric” revamp that’s been promised Richmond’s long-beleaguered Hilltop Mall: No, a sparkling new outpost of the popular Taiwanese-American supermarket chain 99 Ranch Market won’t be coming to save the day. The mall, which has been closed since the start of the coronavirus crisis, won’t be getting a slew of exciting new Asian restaurants. In fact, it’ll no longer be a shopping mall at all.

Instead, the SF Business Times reports, LBG Real Estate, the developers who bought the 1.3 million square-foot mall in 2017, have now rebranded it as a potential life sciences and biotech center called the “East Bay Science and Technology Center” — essentially, a big office park for companies in those sectors — and are now trying to find a buyer for the property.

“When Covid happened that of course dramatically accelerated the reduction and need for retail space and the increase in need for life science, biotech and office space in East Bay locations,” LBG managing partner Doug Beiswenger tells the Business Times.

Asian grocery aficionados may recall that in 2018, those same developers had announced grand plans for the Hilltop Mall. In addition to rebranding it as “the Shops at Hilltop,” LBG had promised an “all-inclusive Asian-centric shopping and entertainment destination.” anchored by a second-floor location of 99 Ranch, a hugely popular SoCal-based supermarket chain known for its wide selection of Asian produce and freezers packed with every imaginable kind of dumpling and bao — all offerings that would appeal to the area’s growing Asian population, as a company representative told the Mercury News at the time.

Many 99 Ranch locations are located within a self-contained, almost exclusively Asian-oriented mall — the Pacific East Mall, further south in Richmond, is a classic example. Early LBG plans indicated that at least a part of the new Shops at Hilltop would follow that format. The Richmond Standard reported that the mall would include at least four Chinese restaurants, all housed in a space called “Fusion Delight”: a dim sum spot, a boba shop, a Yunnan noodle shop, and a dumpling restaurant called Classic Dumplings, which was pegged as a kind of off-brand Din Tai Fung. Beyond that, there would be a 3,000-square-foot sushi restaurant and a 3,400-square-foot karaoke lounge.

Based on a video released by LBG last year, the whole space was going to get quite a fancy facelift:

Now, it appears that all of those plans have been nixed, in part due the challenges of COVID-19, which has made at least a few of those concepts — the karaoke lounge, for example — untenable for the immediate future, along with the very prospect of opening an indoor mall. But the Business Times notes that, even though the 99 Ranch was originally slated to open by late 2019, “LBG has not undertaken any capital improvements at the site.” The whole project, it appears, just never got off the ground.

Beiswenger, the LBG managing partner, tells Eater SF that it’s possible that the new, biotech-centered “East Bay Science and Technology Center” might still have a smaller retail component — maybe 100,000 square feet of retail, he says. And he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that, even after all this, 99 Ranch might still open a supermarket at the former mall at some point. To that point, Beiswenger notes that in addition to trying to sell the property outright, LBG is also open to leasing all or part of it.

As for the fate of the Hilltop Mall itself, Beiswenger says, “This was a mall that was not doing well for years. The retailers inside the mall simply were not going to make it, and they vacated.”

Opened in 1976, the mall was once the crown jewel of Richmond’s burgeoning Hilltop District — a source of fond memories for Richmond residents who grew up during the mall’s heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But for the better of the past decade, the Hilltop Mall’s role in the Bay Area business landscape has been a more depressing one: It’s just another dying shopping mall, memorialized as such in countless news articles and blog posts, even as it remained nominally open for business. Accounts going as far back as 2014 described a mall full of shops that saw virtually no sales except on weekends and would often be all but empty even on a Saturday afternoon.

The COVID-19 crisis only accelerated the mall’s decline, as the mall has had to remain closed, per state guidelines, and has seen its occupancy rate drop from 50 percent to just 16 percent, an LBG spokesperson told the Business Times. Now only a single tenant — a Walmart — remains.

Update: August 26, 2020: 3:51 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from the real estate developer.