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Merchants Gagging Over the Galleria

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Omigod! The shopping mall that totally introduced the world to the high-pitched, grody-to-the-max Valley Girl vernacular is, like, coming back.

Fer sure!

After being dead for two years, the Sherman Oaks Galleria, a national icon of 1980s teenage mall culture, immortalized in the Frank and Moon Zappa song “Valley Girl” and films such as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” is being resurrected as a high-end open-air retail and entertainment center.

While shoppers, including grown-up Valley Girls, can’t wait to reunite with and rediscover the tubular Galleria, its reconstruction and reopening have sparked a distinct streak of paranoia in the nearby cafes and boutiques along Ventura Boulevard. Fearful of losing customers, many Sherman Oaks business owners have made it clear they’d like to gag the Galleria with a spoon.

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“Why didn’t they just let it die?,” one restaurant owner asked.

The 880,000-square-foot outdoor retail, entertainment and office center at Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards is scheduled to open this summer with the same sort of hoopla the mall received when it shut down in early 1999 because of flagging sales.

The death of the original Galleria attracted eulogies in media far and wide. Many believed the closing of the box-like shopping center, with notoriously bad parking, signaled the end of the whole mall phenomenon.

But after demolishing about half the old mall and building around the remains at an undisclosed cost, developers herald the new, open-air Galleria as a retail trendsetter.

Among other tenants, it boasts a 16-screen multiplex from Pacific Theatres, restaurants such as Cheesecake Factory, Fuddruckers and Prego Ristorante, a Burke Williams Day Spa and the nation’s largest Tower Books, Records and Video store. In addition, it contains 600,000 square feet of high-end offices housing tenants such as Warner Bros. The Galleria’s owner, Douglas, Emmett & Co. of Santa Monica, is also talking with other large retailers, including sports and home stores.

Merchants Fear Mall Will Drain Customers

The center is being touted as the premiere retail attraction for the San Fernando Valley and, in the same vein as Old Pasadena and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, the greater Los Angeles area.

Which isn’t what those on Ventura Boulevard want to hear. Like small-town business owners dreading invasions of the big, bad Wal-Mart chain, merchants are already bracing for the Galleria’s reopening. They fear the behemoth will steal Valley consumers and drain activity in the rebounding business district along Ventura Boulevard, roughly between Cedros Avenue and Van Nuys Boulevard.

“I think the Galleria could put me out of business,” said Tony Turgeman, owner of an upscale boutique offering imported French and Italian clothing. “It could be devastating for Ventura Boulevard.”

The area offers a scattering of mom-and-pop stores featuring haughty decor, triple-X-rated porn, used CDs, homemade crafts, wedding gowns, tattoos, diamonds, cigars and guitars, as well as a handful of chain stores including Tower and Borders Books and Music. Restaurants range from sushi bars to Italian bistros to seedy dives to staples such as Starbucks, Jamba Juice and Togos. Some businesses last for decades, many for a couple of years or less.

Already, the Galleria’s threat is proving real. Anchored at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Cedros Avenue since 1982, Tower Records plans to ditch the boulevard for the Galleria. The music store attracts people of all ages from all parts of the Valley, and business and city leaders say they do not know what will replace it.

“Losing Tower will hurt,” said K.C. Dhiraj, manager of Collectors Guide, a collectibles and toy store across the street from Tower. “It brought in foot traffic. A good chunk of our regulars also shop at Tower.”

Tower spokeswoman Sara Hanson called the Galleria “a spectacular development” that will allow the chain store to more than triple in size to 50,000 square feet. The two-story Tower location will feature music and videos on the top level and a bookstore and cafe on the promenade level--a direct competitor with Ventura Boulevard’s other anchor, Borders Books and Music, which opened in late 1999.

Despite merchant worries, city leaders believe the Galleria will also draw people onto Ventura Boulevard. “People who work at the Galleria will go to the boulevard to shop and eat,” said Sharon Mayer, chief field deputy for Councilman Mike Feuer, whose district includes Sherman Oaks.

Some Pan Other Efforts to Revive the Boulevard

The Galleria reincarnation comes on the heels of citywide efforts to invigorate Ventura Boulevard, where many visitors complain of parking hassles, traffic and a lack of security.

In August 1999, the Los Angeles City Council approved the formation of a Business Improvement District, or BID, in the area. This means most of the property owners in a geographically defined area--in this case, the portion of the boulevard that includes Tower as well as part of Van Nuys Boulevard to the north--agree to assess themselves a fee based on storefront footage while the city provides seed money to help merchants organize.

The roughly $213,000 annually available to improve Ventura Boulevard has been spent, in part, on planting trees, cleaning up the sidewalk, adding more outdoor lighting and hanging colorful banners proclaiming the area “The Village at Sherman Oaks: The Main Street Shopping Experience.” The area also will host a street festival next spring and, beginning in March, live bands and magicians on Saturday nights.

Turgeman opened his Ventura Boulevard clothing shop, Serenity, last August hoping it would benefit from efforts to improve the area. He envisioned an upscale urban marketplace with benches, flower pots, outdoor kiosks and funky sculptures.

So far, he’s been disappointed. “The trees they planted are right in front of my window, blocking my sign,” said Turgeman, echoing complaints from other merchants. “We have to make this place alive, especially with the Galleria coming.”

Indeed. “Just because [a boulevard store] has been around for 20 years doesn’t mean anything any more,” said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. “If I were a merchant, sure I’d be nervous. They’re going to have to compete and make it more attractive to visit their stores and restaurants.”

Some shoppers--such as Patricia Flores, 32, of Encino--doubt improvements would make them choose the Boulevard over the Galleria.

“There’s not enough here,” she said, as she finished lunch at a fast-food eatery on Ventura. “Once the Galleria opens, I’ll just go there.”

Getting Ready for a Big Competitor

Alfred Aghajanian recently opened Aromi Cafe, which offers sandwiches, gourmet coffees, pastries and low-fat gelato, as well as outdoor seating along Ventura Boulevard.

Although he’s already developed a steady stream of customers, he worries that the Galleria’s Cheesecake Factory, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and other eateries will lure away regular and potential customers.

“I think [the Galleria] could hurt,” said Aghajanian, who plans to ease the impact by taking his fruity Italian ice cream to the high-rises near the Galleria and offering samples. “One taste, and they’ll come to Ventura Boulevard.”


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