Over the past 30 years, "mom and pop" merchants in the Montrose Shopping Park have developed a special identity.
"Montrose is Mayberry. Good ol' Mayberry," said shopkeeper Susan Paynter, likening the shopping strip to the fictional, folksy North Carolina town depicted in the popular Andy Griffith television series of the 1960s.
The atmosphere in the three-block drive-through mall along Honolulu Avenue west of Verdugo Road resembles a small rural town where merchants, shoppers and even the foot patrolman call one another by first name. It sponsors street festivals and is proud that there is almost no crime.
Although the City of Glendale annexed the area in 1954, residents and merchants refer to the Montrose shopping strip as "our town." It has a general store, a hardware store, movie theater, bowling alley, cafes and more than 130 other shops featuring arts, crafts, collectibles, gifts, jewelry and clothing.
The shopping district, which was developed in the 1920s, got a city-financed face-lift in 1967, when its plain business street was converted into a curving, tree-lined mall dotted with landscaped outdoor seating. Parking lots were added to the rear.
During the past three years, the city has spent more than $200,000 on improvements and landscaping.
But there are cracks in the image of Glendale's Mayberry. And last week merchants turned to the city for help.
Most worrisome, the village's economy has remained stagnant for three years. The volume of taxable sales has stayed at $15 million while sales at other Glendale retail centers soared, according to Brian Butler, city finance director.
A small J.C. Penney store, which was the major department store in Montrose for more than 40 years, was closed several years ago because it had fallen out of step with its parent chain's emphasis on large stores in suburban malls.
Several small businesses have gone bankrupt, leaving vacant storefronts on the mall.
Merchants and city officials attributed the problem in sales to the withdrawal of Penney's and other stores as well as increased competition since the opening of the second phase of the Glendale Galleria in 1983.
Offices Moving In
And there is a growing trend for banks, offices and high-technology businesses to move into the village, replacing retail shops.
Although financial and office development has revived other decaying downtowns, merchants in Montrose said they are killing the small-town image of the village. Many merchants and shoppers said they would prefer that the village become an arts colony.
In response to the merchants' request for aid, Glendale last week allocated $22,000 to study the plight of the shopping park and to develop long-term plans. It is the first study sought by Montrose, City Manager James Rez said.
"The Montrose business area has always been a very self-reliant area," Rez said. "I am sure it was not an easy decision on their part to ask for help."
The city returns about $16,000 a year, part of sales-tax revenues generated by the shopping park, to the merchants' association, which uses the money for promotion and growth. That allocation is not sufficient for merchants to fund their own study, according to the association.
'Steady Decline in Sales'
Rez said the city has "noticed a rather steady decline in sales in the Montrose Shopping Park when the sales figures are converted to actual dollars after inflation."
He recommended that the City Council finance the study so that merchants "can make the necessary plans for a comprehensive, long-range program toward becoming a more successful retail center."
He said, "The city's investment will be returned through increased sales and activities."
Rez told the council that the city financing will have a beneficial psychological effect because many residents of the Montrose-La Crescenta area "perceive that all of the city's efforts and assistance are taking place in the center city."
In asking for help, merchants reopened discussion of a topic that once drew cringes--redevelopment.
"We have laid off the idea of redevelopment in the past," said Frank Roberts, president of the Montrose Shopping Park Assn. "But, if we do have to go that way, maybe later on it would be nice to get the town all shaped up and looking good."
Character of Village
Roberts and other community leaders said they hope that the study, expected to be completed in the fall, will propose a way to enhance the special character of the village.
John Kumjian, a Montrose jeweler for more than 25 years and a member of the Montrose Parking Board, said: "This is a unique town. There are not too many towns left like this anymore. But it needs to develop a sense of uniformity."
Roberts suggested that an architectural theme be developed, perhaps by installing boardwalks and hitching posts to resemble an Old West town. He pointed to the success of the quaint Danish architectural theme in Solvang as an example of how a theme shopping area can lure customers and tourists.
He maintains that, because Montrose is close to Descanso Gardens, it is ideally situated to attract tourists. The town is a popular stop for tour buses en route from the gardens.
One such bus stopped in Montrose last week so that passengers from the Reseda Senior Citizens Center could have lunch at The Swedish Inn Smorgasbord--all they could eat for $3.95.
Many Specialty Stores
Merchants said they favor developing the district as an arts colony because it has many specialty shops.
The merchants said there are the same number of tenants in the Montrose mall--137--as there are at Galleria I, the first phase of the Glendale Galleria. But there are 32 specialty shops in Montrose and only 11 at Galleria I.
Shoppers can find a variety of collectibles in Montrose, such as a life-size wooden Indian with the message "See America First" that stands guard at the entrance to Collector's World.
Merchants acknowledge that there are obstacles to developing a theme along the mall. For instance, The continuity of small shops and stores is interrupted by banking institutions and their adjoining parking lots, professional offices and other non-retail businesses.
Roberts contends that those businesses, some of which were built more than 15 years ago, would have been more suitably situated on parallel streets because they do little to attract foot traffic. But he concedes it is unlikely that the businesses, particularly the banks, would ever move.
Department Store Needed
He said a redevelopment project or more restrictive zoning laws could attract more retail stores and restaurants. The mall needs a major department store to fill the void left by the withdrawal of Penney's, he said.
Merchants said they also would like to attract large restaurants to the district, similar to chains that recently completed restaurants in Burbank's new downtown "restaurant row."
Rez said the city is keenly aware of the importance of the type of development that should be permitted on key lots in and near the mall, particularly a vacant corner at Honolulu Avenue and Ocean View Boulevard.
A multiretail development was authorized by the city several years ago on that lot, but was never built because of the downturn in the economy.
Large vacant parcels behind stores also are considered prime for development, especially for restaurants, city officials and merchants agree.
Parking has been a long-standing problem in the community. Over the years, the city has acquired new parking lots and maintains them from parking-meter fees and fines for parking violations.
But shoppers complain that they don't like paying for parking, which costs 5 cents an hour, and become irate when fined $8 for parking violations.
Several years ago the 18-year-old merchants association persuaded the city to permit five-hour free parking on part of the city lots behind stores. Many merchants said that isn't enough and want all parking to be free in the district.
But, if parking were free, merchants might be required to pay for maintaining lots, enforcing parking limitations and acquiring parking facilities--costs many say are prohibitive.
The Montrose Parking Board for years has been in a stalemate over parking woes and no solution appears near, said Val Grayson, a commission member and Montrose merchant for 32 years.
Roberts suggested that the solution may eventually come from formation of a redevelopment district to provide funds for parking from tax increments similar to that used for the Galleria.
Effect of Galleria
Many merchants said the economy of the little shopping district has been hurt by the Galleria, which opened in two phases, in 1976 and 1983. But many shoppers who switched to the Galleria are now returning to shop in Montrose, merchants said.
Kumjian, the jeweler, said: "Our customers tell us they prefer shopping here rather than in large malls because of the personalized service we offer. Everybody knows everybody here and we would like to keep it that way."
Glendale police officer Maynard Kenney, who has walked the three-block beat two days a week for more than two years, not only greets shopkeepers by name "but nine-tenths of the customers, too," he said.
Many of the shops are operated by families, some by a second generation. Merchants regularly sponsor their own town celebrations, such as the Cinco de Mayo festival planned Saturday and a two-hour Christmas parade.
Mix of Merchandise
Alan Amitin, who operates the Montrose General Store that his father opened in 1947, said the shopping area allows merchants the freedom to offer a mixture of merchandise that would not be permitted in malls such as the Galleria. Amitin's store offers a variety of goods, from jeans to surfboards and from swim suits to snow skies.
Amitin, who said his store has shown a steady increase in sales for 12 years, said he rejected an invitation to relocate to the Galleria. "Our major consideration against moving was losing the independence of merchandise mixing. It is that diversification of merchandise that accounts for our increase in business," he said.
Marlene Carnevaly, a Montrose resident who has been shopping in the village for 27 years, said: "These are long-time mom and pop merchants. Everybody here is friendly. Its just the way they are. There is no other area like it."