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By Queenie Wong, San Jose Mercury News – May 9, 2016

CUPERTINO — Metal gates stood in front of the vacant stores, footsteps barely made a sound through the spacious building and the only signs on a rainy afternoon of what used to be Macy’s at the Vallco Shopping Mall were the red stars left on the windows.

The once bustling mall is now a ghost town, with its 1.2 million square feet mostly empty.

Elizabeth DeBruin started shopping at Vallco in the 1970s, back in the day when there were fewer indoor malls in the Bay Area and crowds packed the space.

“My friends and I jokingly call this the night of the living dead mall,” DeBruin said. “If you were going to film a zombie movie you would film it here.”

As a teenager, DeBruin went to T.G.I. Friday’s with friends but today the only reason the San Jose resident comes to the mall is to watch movies at the AMC theater. To kill time, movie goers browsed through their books, Kindles or tablets while some ate ice cream as they waited for the next showtime.

Renderings of a mixed-use town center called “The Hills at Vallco” on large columns near the theater provide a glimpse into the mall’s potential future, its modern design and greenery contrasting with the dated pastel colors, light blue lamp posts and gold railings inside the shopping center. But no matter what the future holds for the Wolfe Road project, it’s clear to the few tenants and people inside the mall that Vallco is a shell of its former self.

Dean Townsend, 48, was in the food court with his son Rider, who was grabbing a meal from one of the few restaurants still open: Authentic Fresh Mex Grill. Townsend used to go to Vallco’s ice skating rink when he was a kid and even purchased a washer and dryer from Sears 20 years ago that’s still working. “You never think that a place you went to as a kid would become like this,” he said.

Before becoming a regional mall, Vallco was a business park and its name comes from the principal developers — Varian Associates and the Leonard, Lester, Craft and Orlando families — who pooled their land together to form the park in the 1960s, according to the city of Cupertino’s website.

In September 1976, Vallco Fashion Park made its public debut and its grand opening included a celebration that featured a pops concert from the San Jose Symphony, a 900-pound cake big enough to feed 4,000 people and Winnie the Pooh to entertain the children.

Despite being called one of the “swankiest” Santa Clara County shopping centers at the time, the party didn’t last for long.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Vallco struggled to compete with nearby Valley Fair in San Jose and the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto. And as online shopping became more popular and brands opened their own stores, Sears, JCPenney and Macy’s — once big draws for Vallco –didn’t need multiple locations in the same area.

“It’s not a matter of quantity of retail now. It’s about quality of retail and about creating a destination and providing an alternative for someone who would either just do their Christmas shopping online or go elsewhere in the community to gather and connect with people,” said Reed Moulds, managing director of the Sand Hill Property Company, which wants to redevelop Vallco.

Featuring a 30-acre park and nature area, the $3 billion redevelopment plan by Sand Hill includes what is billed as the world’s largest greenroof, 625,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, 2 million square feet of office space, 800 housing units, an amphitheater, vineyard and more. The bowling alley, ice skating rink and theater — all still open — are included in the plan.

After a group of Cupertino residents opposed the idea of placing housing and office space at Vallco, which is located next to the Apple campus, the developer submitted more than 3,700 signatures from supporters last week to place an initiative on the November ballot that would allow the project to move forward.

As business owners began to learn about the redevelopment plans, more began to head for the door.

Santa Cruz resident Mel Nash owns the Legends Comics & Games, a store that’s been inside the Vallco Mall for more than 30 years. While he has fond memories of his customers, Nash isn’t spending time dwelling on the past and decided to move the store to the Santa Clara Town Centre.

“It’s sad for me to be leaving this community. But I can’t stay in here the way it is at this point and besides that, they want to tear it down anyways,” Nash said.

Menahem Nassi of Palo Alto walked through the mall with his granddaughter Naomi and as he looked around, he threw his hands up in the air and asked “What happened?”

The duo came to the mall for some bowling, but were waiting for a private party there to end. As they walked around, Nassi, 67, pointed to the few “survivor stores” left in the mall, including one for eyeglasses.

“I understand the financial aspects of shopping centers as a thing of the past,” he said. “But people don’t realize that a lot of us still appreciate the good old ways.”