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Merchants Blame Mall Owners for Empty Stores : Encino: Its owner says the center is declining because of its location. A parking lot separates it from Ventura Boulevard, hindering foot traffic.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Merchants at the picturesque Encino Town and Country Mall say the outdoor shopping center should have gotten a new name for Christmas-- Ghost Town and Country.

The merchants said they are angry that the owner and operator of the mall did little to attract shoppers. They also blame the firms for a decline in the number of businesses at the center.

“They’re definitely just letting this place die,” Dwight Wood, who runs the South of the Boulevard barbershop at the center, said of Encino Management Group, which manages the mall for the shopping center’s owner, Plaza Investments.

“There’s no reason why this place shouldn’t be half or at least three-quarters full. But no one comes here. They’re just letting it go, and they’re driving businesses out of here.”

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Almost half of the 33 retail establishments at the center at 17200 Ventura Boulevard are closed or vacant. Tom Muziani, who recently sold the More Than Waffles restaurant, said he lost his life savings--more than $300,000--trying to keep the establishment afloat for three years. The restaurant is now under new ownership.

“Trying to run a business is tough enough as it is without having your hands tied because of your location,” Muziani said. “The reason merchants want to be in a mall in the first place is to benefit from foot traffic. When people no longer come here, then there’s no longer a mall.”

Muziani said the restaurant “might as well be on the back alley of a back street. We’re at the total whim of the owners. If they decide to let it go, there’s nothing we can do. They just watch these people suffer and wither.”

Major tenants, such as a Nautilus exercise center, have moved out in the past few weeks, and owners of other businesses say they plan to leave early next year because they can’t drum up enough business. Some of the remaining tenants complain that they are barely able to pay their bills and that the mall’s management has refused to give them a break on rent, even with the lack of business in the mall.

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More important, they are frustrated about the 22-year-old mall’s future, they said. Jacob Kohanzadeh, a partner in Plaza Investments, earlier this year announced plans to more than double the size of the shopping center while demolishing a third of the existing structure. However, the plans are still being evaluated by Los Angeles planning officials and have yet to be approved.

“We’re confused because we don’t know if we should stay or leave,” said one shop owner who asked not to be identified. “We don’t know what to tell our customers. We don’t know if there’s going to be an office building here or what.”

In fact, many of the merchants say they suspect that mall management is neglecting the center to prove that it cannot survive without expansion and major improvements.

But the tenants said the mall could be successful if more attention were paid to improving the business climate.

“This is a beautiful setting, and I can’t think of any other reason why they would allow this to happen,” Wood said. “But it’s all very subtle.”

The outdoor center is distinguished by an open courtyard, trees, wooden walkways and a running stream that can be heard in most of the shops.

Mall officials denied responsibility for the lack of business and the continuing deterioration of the shopping center. They said that the mall was already in trouble three years ago when they took over and that they have been unable to lease many of the mall spaces despite efforts to attract “quality tenants.”

“We know that a lot of our tenants are unhappy, and we have listened to a lot of their grievances, but this has not been easy for us, either,” said Frank Nazarian, director of property management for the Encino Management Group. “We want to make this center a success, and we are doing our best.

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“We would rather have a paying tenant than just letting those spaces be empty and no money coming in.”

Nazarian added that rents in the center are less expensive than along Ventura Boulevard, where spaces lease for about $3 a square foot, he said. However, he refused to disclose the lease rates. Because of the possible renovation, Nazarian said, only one-year leases are being offered to prospective tenants.

Some of the tenants said that the mall was popular six years ago, and that all the spaces were leased. But mall management has not properly promoted the mall, even though all the tenants pay a promotion fee as part of their rent, they said.

Nazarian said that although merchants are charged for promotion, there is still not enough money in the mall’s budget for advertising or promotion. But he said each store has its own mailing list and is free to advertise.

The mall’s location is to blame for its lack of business, Nazarian said. Despite the presence of restaurants, such as the Good Earth and Acapulco, as well as a three-screen Laemmle Theaters complex, it is too hard for pedestrian customers to reach since it is separated from Ventura Boulevard by a parking lot. The trend along Ventura is to build stores that can be easily reached by pedestrians.

“We’re just waiting for approval from the city and the community so that we can get a center everyone can be proud of,” Nazarian said.

Kohanzadeh said he wants to demolish a third of the existing center, increase its size from 129,000 to 296,9068 square feet and add more than 1,225 parking spaces.

But tenants say they still wonder about the direction the mall’s management has taken.

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“How can anyone afford to under-utilize this many stores?” asked Bob Laemmle, owner of the center’s 1,000-seat movie theater. “From the customer’s standpoint, it has to be depressing to go into a center that looks half-abandoned.”

Laemmle said he would like to renovate the theater, “but I can’t spend money knowing that at any moment the center may close or I’ll be kicked out or they’ll bring a big mound of dirt into the area as they remodel.”

Wood said he is already looking for a new location for his barbershop. “I hate to move, because it’s pleasant here,” he said. “I would like to stay here forever. But I’m not making money here. It’s a real tragedy.”


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