On a recent afternoon, the Fox Hills Shopping Center was filled with hustle and bustle, but not the kind that might be expected.

As a handful of children rode a miniature train in circles, it was a group of nearby construction workers generating most of the activity. Some were mounting ceiling tiles, others were working on a new escalator and yet others were painting walls.

It was all part of a $180 million renovation that owner Westfield Group started in March 2008 on the 34-year-old Culver City mall, which has been hit hard by competition from new and upgraded malls on the Westside.

The aging retail center has received skylights, new glass guardrails and flooring, giving the mall a more airy feel. The food court is being renovated, and when the project is complete early next month a 333,000-square-foot addition will open, adding several small stores, a Best Buy and Target.

The mall also has been given a new name: Westfield Culver City.

“A $180 million renovation is pretty spectacular in today’s economy,” said Culver City Mayor Andrew Weissman.

It’s not as though Westfield had much of a choice.

The Sydney, Australia-based mall owner and operator, the world’s largest, bought the property at Sepulveda Boulevard and West Slauson Avenue in 1998. And while it made upgrades over the years, the retail center became dated.

Moreover, newer outdoor malls, such as Caruso Affiliated’s popular Grove, and extensive remodels of other prime L.A. centers, including the Beverly Center and Westfield’s own Century City mall, left Fox Hills a second or third choice for many shoppers.

Jack W. Plunkett, chief executive of Plunkett Research Ltd., a Houston market research company that tracks the retail sector, said the renovation appears to have been well handled. He noted that Westfield closed some shops, opened 26 others and overhauled the restaurant lineup with 22 new eateries.

“They are doing some things that are really smart – trying to take an old property and making it more open, more convenient,” he said. “They are also really smart to get Best Buy in there; they are really smart to get Target. It is a huge draw.”

Among the new shops and restaurants are H&M, which sells low-priced designer-style clothing for young adults; BJs, a popular brew pub; and Manna Korean BBQ, a funky Koreatown haunt. Next year, Gold’s Gym, the decidedly L.A.-flavored fitness center, will open.

Slowdown

Of course, the mall has been renovated amid a terrible economic downturn. However, Larry Green, Westfield’s senior vice president of development, said that it is part of the company’s strategy to reinvest in its assets despite poor short-term economic conditions.

“The retailers we are doing business with are looking at it long term and we believe (they) are going to be successful,” said Green, who oversaw the renovation. “Sunglass Hut, H&M – these kinds of retailers have a significant staying power.”

The company also contends that the mall never performed as badly as some might suppose. In an e-mail, a Westfield spokeswoman said the retail center “has been a solid performer in the portfolio,” with sales in 2007 hitting $369 per square foot. Sales dipped to $327 per square foot last year after construction began and the economy softened.

Plunkett said annual sales topping $300 per square foot mean a mall is doing well, adding, “You’d be running at an acceptable level.”

Westfield changed the name of the property to capitalize on the fact that “Culver City has become a pretty exciting brand,” Green said. Indeed, downtown Culver City has become a hot spot, particularly in the hospitality business, with a slew of eateries such as Fraiche and Father’s Office gaining recognition and helping create a buzz.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the renovation and expansion will make the retail center a meaningful challenger to competing Westside rivals. The mall is on the western edge of Culver City, far from the gentrified downtown.

“You are going to pull the people who may have been going to Westside Pavilion. Those people may change their shopping patterns,” said Matthew May of Sherman Oaks’ May Realty Advisors, a real estate broker with an expertise in retail. “But going on Main Street in Culver City is a different trip than going to a mall.”

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