BUENA PARK, Calif. — On a recent day, Jamas Gwilliam stood in front of Buena Park Downtown Mall's former Sears building and imagined the site's possibilities.

Gwilliam, the managing director for Merlone Geier Properties, dressed in a casual blueish-gray suit jacket and navy slacks, carried a roll of paper containing a printout of his company's plan for the area in his right hand.

What You Need To Know

  • Merlone Geier will host a virtual town hall about the Village at Buena Park project at Buena Park Mall at 6 p.m. on June 8

  • Reonomy property records show Merlone Geier spent more than $65 million to acquire the site from Sears and other entities

  • Merlone Geier is proposing to build 1,300 units, a mix of apartments and townhomes, on a 25-acre former Sears site adjacent to the Buena Park Mall

  • The Buena Park Planning Commission last month was split on the project, leaving it to the City Council to either approve or reject the plan

Gwilliam unrolled the paper that shows the rendering of a proposed 1,302-unit multifamily development with townhomes, a public park and manicured landscaping that could be the area's future. 

He looked up and points to an empty area of the parking lot. 

"There'll be two multifamily buildings on La Palma [Avenue]," said Gwilliam as he walked a Spectrum News reporter around the property. "To the south of us will again be two multifamily buildings with a large plaza in the middle."

The buildings would be gated, he noted. The public would have access to the public paseos, parks and an additional overflow parking for the mall. 

In the background, just a block away, are twisting roller coasters and excited screams from Knott's Berry Farm guests. Few cars could be seen entering the mall.

If the plan is approved, future residents could easily leave their front door, eat at the nearby restaurants, shop at the mall next door or walk less than 10 minutes to the front entrance of Knott's Berry Farm.    

Merlone Geier's Jamas Gwilliam points at the Buena Park Sears redevelopment site's plans. (Spectrum News/Joseph Pimentel)

But Gwilliam glanced up from the paper and looked at the site's empty reality. The 150,000-square-foot former Sears building built in 1958 shows its age, an old relic of the city's past.  

Once a thriving business, the doors have been shut since the former brick-and-mortar retail giant went under — as part of the retail apocalypse — in 2019. The building is weathered and discolored. Nowadays, only a silhouette of the once bold "SEARS" lettering displayed on top of the building appears.

The adjacent parking lot, totaling 25 acres, is mostly vacant. Rows of Teslas are parked in a nearby lot where the former Sears Automotive building stood. A fence cordons off deflated colorful jump houses for the so-called world's largest bounce house, the latest temporary pop-up on the empty Sears parking lot.

"This needs to change," said Gwilliam. "You could only have Spirit Halloween in the Sears and the Teslas parking in the back side and inflatable parks and circuses — you could only do that for so long."

After a contentious city planning commission meeting in which residents spoke out against the proposed massive multifamily project and failed to get the approval of a majority of commissioners, Gwilliam is on the offensive to see the project through as it limps to the city council for a decision perhaps sometime next month.

Gwilliam and Merlone Geier officials are hosting a virtual town hall at 6 p.m. on June 8, where they will present the proposal and respond to residents' concerns about the project. They are working with other housing organizations to host other forums about the project later this month.

"We're just trying to answer residents' questions," he said. 

The San Diego-based private real estate development firm has big plans to transform what some residents for years have called an "eye-sore" into a dense and thriving residential area.

According to the commercial real estate data site Reonomy, property records show Merlone Geier spent more than $65 million to acquire the site from Sears and other entities. Gwilliam wouldn't confirm the sales price. 

Pictured here is a rendering of Village at Buena Park. (Image courtesy of Merlone Geier)

The plan calls for demolishing the former Sears buildings and building apartments that could rise as high as seven stories, totaling 1,176 units and 126 residential townhomes. 

The new development would have amenities, including electric vehicle charging stations and bike racks. There will be a one-acre park open to residents and the public.  

The way Gwilliam sees it, the development could kill two birds with one stone. It could help the city meet its regional housing needs demanded by the state and spur economic activity by creating a place that could house an estimated 2,800 people and produce sales for the regional mall, one of the city's economic engines. 

According to the city, the city needs to produce nearly 9,000 units, more than one-third reserved for affordable housing, to meet the state's housing requirements.

Opponents of the project, however, are weary of a dense apartment project that could bring in so many people in an already busy area. 

La Palma and Stanton Avenue are busy thoroughfares, given that the mall and Knott's Berry Farm run through those streets.  

Gwilliam said those wide streets are meant to handle lots of vehicles. He also touted the area's public transportation. There are five bus lines, and it's next to jobs, goods and services.

"La Palma is a major arterial," he said. "These [streets] are major arterials. A lot of the infrastructure was set up to accommodate the thousands of people going to Knott's Berry Farm every day."

Gwilliam noted that the city is feeling pressure from the state to find future housing locations, and the former Sears site is perfect.

The city needs to take advantage of a site like this, he added.

"We have to place as much housing as possible [here] so it's less impactful in the suburban communities that exist within Buena Park," he said. "You want dense housing proximity to transit."

CORRECTION: A previous version of the story misspelled the name of Jamas Gwilliam. The error has been corrected. (June 1, 2023)