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New Mall’s Prospects Up in Air : Burbank: The debut of the long-awaited, $400-million center has come amid reductions in retail sales nationally. But some predict success.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Burbank Mayor Michael Hastings didn’t mince words about the prospects this holiday season for the new Media City Center shopping mall in downtown Burbank.

“I guarantee that this shopping mall will do 100% better this year than last year,” Hastings said last week.

He wasn’t just being optimistic. At this time last year, the $400-million indoor mall was just a hollow structure under construction by developer Alexander Haagen. It was also a reminder of the frustration and failed promises that had kept a mall from being built in Burbank for more than two decades.

But even though the long wait is over, the first holiday season at the mall may turn out to be less than jolly.

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Some real estate and commercial shopping consultants have said the timing of the mall’s opening late this year could not have been worse, considering the sluggish economy that has reduced national retail sales and caused severe financial difficulty at some major department store chains.

John Golish, a partner specializing in retailing and distribution for Arthur Andersen & Co., said: “Given the whole state of affairs with the economy, it’s definitely not the optimum time to be opening a mall. It’s difficult enough for existing retailers, who are all fighting for market share.”

“If everyone were being candid, they would say they would have wanted the mall to open during a robust holiday season,” said Larry Kosmont, who runs his own development consulting firm in Burbank. “It’s better to open in a robust economy because you need customers to restructure their shopping patterns.

“The good news is that the mall is open,” Kosmont said. “The bad news is, not as many people will be going to it as hoped. It may be till next Christmas before they have a great season.”

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The mall, which was financed with $50 million in city redevelopment funds, is still expected to generate about $2 million annually in sales tax revenue for Burbank, officials said.

Sixty percent of the planned 130 stores in the mall are open for business, as well as the three anchors--Ikea, Sears and Mervyn’s. Haagen officials are still working to get a replacement for the Buffums department store, which had been slated to be one of the main components of the mall until the chain went out of business last year.

Although the opening of an upscale Bullock’s department store in August will take away some of the sting of the loss of Buffums, officials are still trying to fill the 42,000-square-foot space on the first floor that Buffums was to occupy.

Industry experts also pointed out that the Media City Center will face fierce competition from the nearby Glendale Galleria, the region’s most successful shopping mall. They said shoppers may be unwilling to check out a new mall in favor of the more familiar and established Galleria.

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But despite the gloom of the economic scene, some predict great success this holiday season for the center. They said curiosity will draw consumers, while convenience will attract shoppers from Burbank and neighboring communities such as North Hollywood, Sunland-Tujunga and Pasadena.

“This is for sure not an ideal economy to be opening a mall,” said Richard Giss, a principal with Southern California Retail Services Group. “But with good stores and good design and the curiosity factor, it may fare better than the older malls. It’s new and has a different lure.”

Experts also pointed to the success of the just-opened AMC multiplex in the mall, which Haagen executives said is proving to be one of the most successful in the chain. The theaters are expected to bring significant foot traffic into the center, they said.

They added that the true test of the center’s future will come after the opening of Bullock’s in August.

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Fred Bruning, chief of staff for Alexander Haagen Co., was upbeat about the coming months at the mall.

“With any new mall, it’s unrealistic to think it will take less than a year to get noticed,” he said. “When Bullock’s comes in, we feel we’re going to have the strongest mall in the Valley. By Christmas of 1992, we’ll have the dominant mall presence in the trade area.”

Bruning said negotiations with Sportsmart sporting goods stores to replace Buffums may be completed in a few weeks. Other major tenants such as the Gap clothing store and Waldenbooks are scheduled to open at the same time as Bullock’s.

Assistant Burbank City Manager Steve Helvey echoed the sentiment.

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“We look at the bright side--we’ll have a brand-new mall poised for the economic recovery,” he said.

“We can look in hindsight at how it would have been better if we had opened 10 years ago, and it’s hard to dispute that,” Helvey said.

“But we have to keep an optimistic stance. Somebody’s got to be ready for the good times while building through the bad times.”

The city has gone through more than its share of bad times in getting a mall.

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Developer Ernest Hahn first wanted to build a downtown Burbank shopping center with five department stores in 1979, but withdrew that project after citing financial difficulties. He then planned the Burbank Towncenter, a smaller version of his original plan.

That proposal collapsed in 1987 after 10 years of planning when anchor store Robinson’s withdrew and Hahn was unable to find a replacement.

The most ambitious project for the site--a large-scale shopping and entertainment complex by the Walt Disney Co.--was abandoned in 1988 when the project became too expensive.

Haagen was recruited by the City Council the following year to build the Media City Center.

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Council members said they had no doubt that the Burbank center would hold its own during the holidays.

“We have a lot going for us that other centers don’t,” Hastings said. “Burbank always seems to surprise everybody. I think we’ll surprise everyone again.”


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