As Fashion Center Grows to Size XL, Some Shoppers Feel Pinch in Parking

Times Staff Writer

Seven months pregnant and tired from scouring sales, Ann Barnes, a 22-year-old Studio City resident, trekked across the hot asphalt of Northridge Fashion Center to the only parking place she had been able to find--at the far southern edge of the lot.

"Usually, I can park close to the door," she said. "But today I had to walk quite far. My feet hurt."

Three months into a controversial expansion that will increase the center's size from 1.1 million to 1.5 million square feet by October, 1988, Northridge Fashion Center is experiencing growing pains.

Parking Dwindles

With much of the mall's western side being prepared for construction of wings that will house a May Co., a Robinson's department store and about 35 smaller stores, convenient parking places are scarcer, barriers disrupt familiar traffic patterns, dust sometimes clouds the air, and pedestrians at times are forced to dodge cement trucks. Construction is expected to get into full swing near Labor Day.

The activity has left mall merchants anxious over whether they can bank on the loyalty of shoppers like Barnes as the back-to-school and fall holiday shopping seasons approach. Early indications are, however, that, far from dwindling because of the inconveniences, business may actually be improving.

"Our spring and early summer has been stronger this year than last," said Kenneth Oswald, general manager of the mall, which is owned by U.K.-Northridge Inc.

Between Jan. 1 and May 31, 1987, the most recent period for which the mall's figures were available, sales at the mall grew by nearly 6% over the same period last year, Oswald said. From January through May last year, sales had decreased less than .5% from the previous year. According to the state Tax Franchise Board, the fashion center dropped from fifth to sixth place in the race for gross taxable sales among Los Angeles-area malls from Jan. 1 to June 30, 1986. The Northridge center, however, remained the top-grossing mall in the San Fernando Valley, with six-month sales of nearly $91 million in 1986, contrasted with sales of $77 million at Topanga Plaza, which came in second, according to the figures.

"Sales are just great at Northridge," said Jack McCarley, vice president of public affairs for Bullock's, which is undergoing a major renovation at the mall. "If we weren't remodeling inside, our sales trends would probably be even better."

Gary Bain, general manager of the center's Broadway department store, characterized business as excellent despite the store's proximity to the construction sites for the new three-story Robinson's store and a three-story parking structure scheduled to be ready by mid-November. "This store remains No. 3 in volume of the 43 Broadway stores," he said.

Glenn Harrison, general manager for the mall's J. C Penney Co., said he believes it is too early to assess the economic effect of mall expansion on his store, but he said this year's Fourth of July sales outpaced those of last year.

The general manager of the mall's Sears store, Jim Farner, said the expansion "hasn't had any great impact on us."

Tire Store Prospers

At some stores, business has been brisker than it was before preparation for construction started in April. The Firestone Mastercare Car Service, for example, is taking advantage of a move to a smaller, more visible location at the mall after its original site was razed to make way for the incoming May Co. store. "I've gone from the back of the mall to a corner site, and traffic is up," said Firestone general manager Doug McConnell.

Many merchants, however, dread that an increasing parking pinch could soon begin to send shoppers elsewhere, and interviews with some customers indicated that parking had indeed become more of an ordeal than a convenience.

Beverly Gilmore, a 44-year-old Woodland Hills resident, said she spent 15 to 20 minutes looking for parking over the Fourth of July weekend.

Another shopper, Ellen Cerro, a 57-year-old Canoga Park resident, complained that, since expansion work began, she sometimes has been forced to look for parking places "until I feel like I'm going to run out of gas."

Shopkeepers operating small stores and restaurants closest to the May Co. construction site say they may have suffered the most from a dearth of customer parking.

Restaurant Suffering

Michael Wagner, assistant manager of neighboring Fiddlers Three restaurant, said he is down 100 customers a day since April, when the contractor, Nuhahn Inc., razed the original Firestone store and began laying utility lines for the new east-west wings.

"If it weren't for mall employees, we probably wouldn't have any business," he said.

Al Besa, assistant manager of Harris & Frank, a clothing store, said, "Customers don't like to drive around looking for a parking place. They go elsewhere."

Oswald estimated that about 800 customer-parking spaces will be temporarily lost through expansion, but said such inconveniences are to be expected. "Whenever you do any major construction, merchants are always going to be short some parking."

However, a series of steps taken through the fall is expected to increase parking beyond the 6,650 spaces the mall had before expansion started, Oswald said.

8,000 Spaces

Rearranging existing parking lots and construction of two three-story parking structures, with the second to be complete in October, 1988, will increase the total spaces to 8,000, he said.

At first, the expansion was expected to be finished by August, 1988, but the opening of the remodeled mall has been delayed three months to October, 1988. Within the mall, nearly two dozen of the 120 stores and businesses will relocate or will reduce their size, and about 15 will leave, creating room for as many as 65 new tenants, Oswald said.

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