Paul Hunt finds the Burbank Golden Mall to be a picturesque, quaint shopping area, offering unique and personable shops within a parklike setting. He also believes that the outdoor pedestrian mall has been slowly dying.
“Just look at how few shoppers there are around here,” said Hunt, 41, co-owner of a bookstore, as he waved his arm at a few pedestrians walking along the leaf-covered sidewalks of the mall.
“Other than the lunch crowd from the nearby offices which comes here, this is about as busy as it gets,” Hunt said. “It’s not a disaster yet as far as business goes, but it could be a whole lot better.”
A recent report by a redevelopment consultant on the future of Burbank growth called the six-block-long Golden Mall a “landscaped shopping street that has historically been the city’s retail center.”
History Not Golden
But many Burbank officials, citizens and merchants share Hunt’s belief that the history of the mall has been anything but golden.
Even Mayor Mary Lou Howard, who said she has tried to push measures to improve it for three years, has called the Golden Mall “an embarrassment and a disgrace” to Burbank residents and past city government officials who have allowed it to deteriorate.
“The governments didn’t care because they were concentrating on getting a regional center, and the public didn’t care because people don’t like to shop in a park,” she said.
Burbank city administrators and merchants have been struggling for almost 20 years with the problem of turning the mall into a viable shopping center. Officials and shoppers have continually complained that the mall has many of the negative characteristics of downtown metropolitan shopping areas--transients, unkempt storefronts, vacant stores--but few of the positives that would attract customers.
Now, the Burbank Redevelopment Agency has moved to breathe new life into the mall. Members supported a $4-million proposal last week that would open the streets of the mall to vehicular traffic. City officials hope that construction could start in about three months and be completed by November, 1986, in time for the Christmas shopping season.
The agency would reopen San Fernando Road, a portion of which was closed to create the pedestrian mall in 1967. City officials said opening the area to vehicles would necessitate removing kiosks and landscaping that adorns the mall. They said, however, that they were examining ways to maintain the area’s unique architecture.
The agency action, which was applauded by nearly all the mall merchants, was an acknowledgement that the dream of attracting major department stores and throngs of shoppers had failed.
But even after the hotly debated vote by agency members, shoppers and officials have continued to wonder whether opening the mall would add luster to its slow-paced atmosphere.
Some former mall customers, such as Carole Kubasek, said the mall would continue to decline.
“That mall has been a loser for 18 years, and it will continue to be a loser,” said Kubasek, 46, who added that she disagreed with the public expenditures to improve the mall. “It’s really uncomfortable to shop around there. The outside of the stores look bad, and most of the insides are awful. There are exceptions, of course, but no more than a half dozen.
“I won’t shop there and my friends won’t. I hear about it all the time, and I think most people in Burbank have bad feelings about the mall.”
Other shoppers said that an increase in traffic will destroy the ambiance of the mall. “Everyone in the stores is friendly, you can find what you want and you can rest while shopping,” said Margaret Lee, 60. Speaking in front of the Burbank City Council last week, Lee blasted Howard for backing the vehicular traffic measure, saying she was “destroying her baby.”
Questions about the potential of the mall after the road is finished also remain. Councilman Michael Hastings said he feared that the public improvements to the street would not encourage merchants and building owners--most of whom are absentee owners, according to officials--to improve the appearence of their storefronts.
Councilwoman Mary Kelsey said that traffic might congest the street, and that public money might have been better spent improving the buildings.
Store owners and managers leveled charges at past local administrators, holding them responsible for the mall’s lackluster activity and appearance.
‘Redevelopment the Villain’
“Redevelopment is the main villain in all of this,” said Morey Goodstein, 62, who has operated Morey’s Shoes and Boutique on the mall and street for 40 years. “Why should the merchants care about fixing up their stores when the mall is right in the middle of a redevelopment district and the city can take our shops away almost at a moment’s notice? None of us want to take that risk and spend all that money and energy if our shops are going to be taken away.
“The more buildings get torn down, the more the merchants get scared and the less the buildings are fixed up,” said bookstore owner Hunt. “It’s like a snowball. Redevelopment is evil.”
Built in 1967 at a cost of $1.2 million, the mall, which stretches from Tujunga Avenue to Magnolia Boulevard, now sits in the middle of Burbank’s City Centre Redevelopment Project. The fronts of the stores face the blocked-off street, while the backs are adjacent to parking lots.
Much of the area is dotted by vacant lots, the scenes of recent demolition to make way for the proposed $140-million Towncentre shopping center at the end of the mall, which merchants say will provide the boost the mall has needed for years.
Some Merchants Displeased
But not all the merchants were happy with the proposal to reopen the mall to vehicular traffic, believing that it did not go far enough.
In his initial report to the agency, Community Development Director Larry Kosmont said the five-block stretch of Golden Mall would be opened up, but traffic on Orange Grove Avenue, which is near the north end of the mall, would not be able to reach San Fernando Road. He said maneuvering traffic around a three-story parking structure that lies to the east of the mall would be “a technical nightmare.”
“But for the mall to really work, that street has to go through,” Hunt said. “The shop owners who have shops near Orange Grove really want it. They feel discriminated against.”
Kosmont and City Manager Robert Ovrom said they were examining ways to open Orange Grove through to the mall as well as offering merchants economic incentives to improve their storefronts.
As for the planned street construction, Stephen Hall, senior city redevelopment project analyst, said, “We’re not 100% sure this is the answer to revitalizing the area, but it’s the best solution we seem to be able to come up with. There are quality merchants in the mall who have toughed it out, adapted their stores and have been quite successful. The street will help. People don’t get out of their cars now unless they can see a store from the street.”
Resent Mall’s Image
Despite the area’s decline, Goodstein and other veteran merchants resent the depressed picture that has been painted of the mall.
“I have stores in Sherman Oaks, Lakewood and Santa Monica Place, and this is my most successful store,” Goodstein said. “People come from all over to come here. When people say there’s no foot traffic on the mall, I tell them everyone’s in my store.”
Al Kessler, who built his jewelry store in 1967 when the mall was established, said he also has been successful there.
“During the day, I look out and see a lot of people,” he said. “People buy ice cream from the kiosk across from me. . . . For lower prices and better customer relationships, this is the place to come. And we’ve got some genuinely nice and classy places to shop.”
On several afternoons last week, fashionably dressed young women, senior citizens with canes and bedraggled transients walked along the mall. Miniature waterfalls and fountains flowed near benches. Muzak floated out of speakers. Customers drifted in and out of the stores.
On the weekend, the amount of foot traffic increased, with a steady stream of customers wandering into the boutiques and jewelry shops as street musicians entertained along the mall.
But Hunt, who has co-owned the Book Castle since 1981, said he is unhappy with the amount of daily foot traffic on the mall and claims most of the businesses are “just doing all right.”
While saying that sales figures for the mall were not available, Burbank officials noted that business has been declining.
Kosmont said the street-widening and other improvements will make the Golden Mall an important component of downtown Burbank.
A 10-screen movie theater that will be built on Palm Avenue between First Street and the mall will bring lots of foot traffic to the area when completed next December, Kosmont said. Several restaurant chains, impressed with the success of Burbank’s year-old “Restaurant Row” near downtown, are also interested in locating franchises in the mall, he said.
“The interest is so great, we can almost pick and choose,” he said.