Plans are in the works to convert the vacated BIG Kmart department store in Visalia, pictured here, into an office building. Photo by David Castellon

published on November 7, 2019 - 2:43 PM
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Since the BIG Kmart in Visalia closed late last year, many have wondered what might become of the storefront.

But if you believed the empty, 85,500-square-foot building in the Rancho Villo shopping center might become a department store again or be divided into smaller retail spaces, you’d be wrong.

Earlier this month, Visalia’s Community Development Department approved the site plan to convert the former retail store at 3247 W. Noble Ave. into office space.

The site plan approval was a vital hurdle because the purchase of the building depended on it, said Jim Sanders, vice president of development for Paynter Realty & Investments, the development group behind the project.

Though based in Tustin, the company, headed by David Paynter has an extensive history of retail development in the South Valley, including Park Place Promenade, Sequoia Plaza and Gateway Plaza in Visalia; the Marketplace at Hanford and the Marketplace at Hanford West; Plaza del Lago in Tulare; and Woodward Pavilion in Fresno.

All these and other developments by the company have been shopping centers or individual stores, while the new Visalia project represents a slight change for the company — an office building in a shopping center.

Sanders said no tenant has yet signed to lease all or part of the building, and whether the plan is to have a single tenant using the whole space, such as a call center, or whether it will be divided into several leased office spaces isn’t clear yet.

Devon Jones, Visalia’s economic development manager, said representatives from Sprint and T-Mobile had looked at the city’s vacated Kmart as a possible site for a joint customer call center if the two companies are successful in their merger plans, and indicated the storefront offered the space they needed, but there are reports their interests have since shifted to another vacated Kmart in Kingsburg.

Sanders did say the plan isn’t to renovate the Visalia building on spec. “We’ll get a tenant first.”

But before any drywall is torn out or any building permits are applied for, Paynter Realty & Investments first will buy the former Kmart for a sum Sanders didn’t disclose.

He added that he anticipates no problems getting the building permits, as the shopping center already is zoned for office use, along with retail, and even though the city delayed its site plan review, all the city officials wanted to go forward was for the developer to provide a potential floor plan of the renovated building before approving the site plan.

“It’s a well-maintained shopping center, a well-maintained building. Everyone I’ve talked to who has visited the site has been surprised how nice it looks, for it being a former Kmart, and the shopping center, as well.”

The site also has shops, restaurants and a SaveMart supermarket in the shopping center, which would benefit the employees of whatever business or businesses end up there, as would the plentiful parking left over from when the building was a Kmart, Sanders said.

“Parking is a big appeal to any office user.”

Sanders added, “I think the other occupants of the shopping center will be very pleased,” having the empty space filled and occupied by potential customers.

Converting the retail space to office use makes sense, he said, because the store was built off Highway 198 years before the highway was lowered below street level in the 1970s to also make it a catch basin for water if the city flooded.

That work improved traffic but made the Kmart and the other stores in Rancho Villo far less visible to freeway commuters.

“From a retail perspective, its doesn’t have the capability it once did when it was fronting 198 and visible from 198. That’s why the Kmart was there. And then when they expanded the highway, that really affected the view, and that really affected the store. Then, everybody knew Kmart was in town, so it shopped fine,” Sanders said, adding that a new retailer would want to be more visible to passing freeway commuters.

“If you were going to try to reoccupy that building as a retail establishment of some sort [now], it would be very difficult to do, so we think there’s an opportunity to fill it as office,” he added. “It’s kind of a nice repurposing.”

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