New Plan for LAX Area Seems Ready to Lift Off : Business: The largest landlord in Westchester is planning a $20-million shopping plaza. It would be the area's first major development in 30 years.

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For decades, Westchester boosters have pondered what to do with their fading downtown business district just north of Los Angeles International Airport.

Now, 30 years after the last major redevelopment there, the district's biggest landlord, Howard Drollinger, has proposed a long-awaited shot in the arm: an expanded grocery store, some office and retail space, and lots of free parking.

Some observers question whether the $20-million project, a Spanish Colonial-style shopping plaza on Sepulveda Boulevard, is ambitious enough to spur a downtown renaissance, as Drollinger predicts it will. But at the very least, it promises to shake up architecturally a struggling commercial strip long criticized as dowdy and theme-less.

"It's the total opposite of any building that has been there before," Westchester/LAX Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Donald Savoie said. Drollinger estimates that the village will produce $60 million to $80 million in annual sales and generate more than 200 short-term construction jobs.

Downtown Westchester was once a thriving shopping area, but airport expansion in the mid-1960s gobbled up nearly 3,000 homes in the area, costing the district much of its customer base.

Left behind was a suddenly remote and outdated downtown of low-rise buildings whose main entrances opened onto empty sidewalks on Sepulveda Boulevard. Parking was--and remains--mostly around back.

That style is in sharp contrast to Drollinger's plan, which features a landscaped, 50,000-square-foot parking lot opening directly onto the west side of Sepulveda Boulevard just south of La Tijera Boulevard.

Upon entering the lot, visitors would find a 46,000-square-foot Ralph's Supermarket--nearly twice the size of the current store--marked by a clock tower. There also would be 45,000 square feet of remodeled retail and office space.

The idea, according to H. B. Drollinger Co., is to create a village atmosphere. "It's going to be a big visual change, so that's going to create some interest," Savoie said.

Added Bob Smith, president of the Westchester Vitalization Corp., a nonprofit planning group in Westchester: "It may give some of the other property owners reason to develop their property."

Others were more guarded in their assessment.

John Ruhlen, also of the Westchester Vitalization Corp., termed the plaza "a nice project" for local residents, but one not likely to lure outsiders heading to or from LAX.

"I think it's a glorified strip mall," he said.

City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes Westchester, questioned whether the plaza would serve as "a catalyst for significant new development," but nonetheless she termed Drollinger's investment in his property "very encouraging."

"The significant breakthrough is that this time he really seems to have a project," she said.

As the owner of almost half of Westchester's downtown, Drollinger has come under periodic fire for failing to lead it out of the dumps, perhaps with a development that would somehow capitalize on its proximity to LAX and the millions of visitors the airport attracts each year.

Drollinger has blamed the impasse on various factors beyond his control, including a sluggish economy, government red tape and uncertainties about plans for vacant airport-owned land nearby. His company recently scrapped a somewhat more ambitious plan for the site that would have mixed retail space with 300 residential units, out of concern, said Drollinger Vice President Thomas Corley, that it was "overly ambitious."

But company officials say the delays are behind them. They are busily procuring various city permits and approvals, and they hope to finish construction by early next year.

"It's a major commitment to the area," Corley said. "It will bring a lot of shoppers back into the area."

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