THE NORTHRIDGE QUAKE: ONE YEAR LATER : Street of Shaken Dreams : On disaster's anniversary, Valley strip mall merchants are still struggling, but some see reaason for optimism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days, the Northridge Garden Plaza strip mall is a sad sight.

One year after the powerful Northridge earthquake ripped through this neighborhood, causing roofs to crash in, shattering windows, smashing merchandise and sending toilets flying off their bolts, this formerly thriving shopping center stands nearly abandoned.

Of the 22 store spaces at the Reseda Boulevard mall, only nine, one of them a Coco's Family Restaurant, remain occupied. In the past few months, a hair salon, an escrow company and a used-record store joined the other small businesses fleeing the site after the quake.

Even the meager foot traffic generated by gawkers dropped after two adjacent apartment buildings--including the Northridge Meadows, where 16 people were killed in the quake--were demolished in October.

"Sometimes I wonder: 'Did I do the right thing staying here? Or should I have moved to another center?' " said Laura D'Angelo, owner of the Kids at Heart gift shop, which remains in business. "You have these days of self-doubt."

D'Angelo's sales are at 80% of their pre-quake levels, and she's working harder than ever to keep them that high. She is spending more on advertising, sales and promotions for the fancy rubber stamps her shop specializes in. She has also reconfigured her merchandise mix, focusing more on adult-oriented gifts such as hand-painted T-shirts, custom jewelry and wooden earring hangers. Today she's offering 20% discounts and free food.

Yet D'Angelo, along with some of her neighbors, sees a number of reasons to hope for brighter days ahead.

"I feel my business is getting stronger now," she said. "I think it's going to be a great year, an easier year. It couldn't be any harder."

Along this block less than a mile from the quake's epicenter, stories like D'Angelo's are common. Northridge is an affluent area, but the street is lined with strip malls that are home to mostly tiny businesses whose existence is often a day-to-day battle for a few hundred dollars in sales. For them, the quake was a knockout punch after the recession had left them bruised and weak.

For many businesses, the ongoing repairs and lingering damage seem to have stymied comeback efforts. Gail Potter, founder and chief executive of D&G; Escrow, said he closed its Northridge Garden Plaza office in September, consolidating operations into those of his Woodland Hills office, in part because of a leaky roof and other quake-related damage.

What's worse, customers were avoiding the Northridge office. "Real estate brokers said they didn't want to take their clients by that show of destruction and then go show them a house," he said.

Two other strip malls on this hard-hit block have suffered less than Northridge Garden Plaza has, with fewer businesses moving out and a few replacing those that did leave. A couple of their shop owners even report that sales have rebounded past pre-quake levels. The My Hero sandwich shop in a strip mall down the street from Northridge Garden Plaza saw a 5% to 10% increase in sales after the quake, "and it's holding steady," owner Howard Kuebler said.

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But for most of these Northridge merchants, business is still slow, and recovery from the earthquake has been far more difficult than any imagined a year ago.

Adding to their problems is the fact that much of the surrounding area is a ghost town. Condemned apartment buildings are in various stages of being torn down or rebuilt. Many local homeowners moved away while their houses were being repaired; some are only now starting to rebuild.

New piles of earthquake rubble still appear daily on sidewalks and in gutters. Enrollment is down at nearby Cal State Northridge, and the campus is undergoing major reconstruction. A few blocks away, the Northridge Fashion Center, the big local shopping mall that was the scene of some of the most startling earthquake damage, won't fully reopen until summer.

Some small-store owners on Reseda Boulevard had hoped to pick up new business while the bigger mall was closed, but many say shoppers have tended to avoid the area altogether. Northridge resident Gail Duckman, for instance, said she has "gotten used to there being no stores around. I do most of my shopping through catalogues."

Optometrist George Wolfus is still open for business in Northridge Garden Plaza, but he doesn't know how much longer he'll hold out. He said ceiling and wall repairs in his office have yet to be made.

Jo-Anne Leventhal, spokeswoman for the strip mall's owner, Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Co. in Hartford, Conn., said all earthquake repairs are completed and only cosmetic work remains. "We really are very optimistic about the center."

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For many merchants, survival has come down to whether they received a low-interest emergency loan from the Small Business Administration. The deadline for applying for those loans is Friday, and agency spokesman Rick Jenkins said there has been a flood of last-minute applications. So far, 61% of business applicants in Los Angeles County have been approved for quake loans--for a total of $1.4 billion, he said.

For many businesses, "it's been like, 'Either I get the loan or I'm out of business,' " said Ivette Remon Ibarra, a loan consultant at the Valley Economic Development Center, a nonprofit group that has helped thousands of businesses with loan paperwork.

One of those the center assisted is Rochie's Greek Row, a shop two doors from My Hero that sells clothing and memorabilia to sorority and fraternity members at CSUN. Owner Roya Saberzadeh said the $49,000 SBA loan she qualified for in November might be her ticket to staying in business.

With the money, Saberzadeh is finishing earthquake repairs inside her shop, and she recently purchased a used top-of-the-line embroidery machine to replace several sewing machines destroyed in the temblor. The new equipment will allow her to expand her business by taking in bulk orders and doing more specialized sewing work.

But a few doors away, dry cleaner and tailor Gianni Fontana di Trevi said he was denied an SBA loan because his pre-earthquake income was not sufficient. Now he's hanging on by a thread. During the holidays, he saw a boost in his otherwise dismal sales, but they've since fallen back to half of what they were before the quake, he said.

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Many merchants on the block say they're determined to stick it out because of their ties to the community. "I've been here 16 years," said Jackie Jones, owner of Jones Coffee Co., a gourmet coffee and collectibles shop in Northridge Garden Plaza. "It's like home."

Jones received a $31,000 SBA loan, which helped her stay in business, but the shop's sales are still off by 40%, she said.

At the Discovery Shop next door, the earthquake was only the first disaster to strike last year. Two weeks after the nonprofit resale store reopened in September after earthquake repairs were completed, a water pipe broke and flooded the shop, destroying much of the merchandise. In October, a faulty light fixture caused a late-night fire.

"We survived it all," manager Jill Angel said, "and we're still smiling."

* ALLEGED LOAN SCAM

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