Atwater Divided Over Shopping Center

Times Staff Writer

Developers' plans to build a "big box" shopping center in Atwater Village divided the community into two camps, one predicting wild success, the other disaster.

Eight years later, both sides say they were right.

Residents feared that locating what they called a predatory super-store in their homey urban village -- as opposed to a more typical suburban setting -- would snarl Los Feliz Boulevard with traffic and hurt older, local businesses.

Plan supporters, however, suggested it would put Atwater Village on the map by drawing new patrons to the neighborhood's shops and restaurants. Perhaps more important for Los Angeles officials, it would fill city coffers with tax revenue they feared was being lost to Burbank.

Today, the two camps offer dueling accounts of how transforming the old Franciscan Ceramics factory site into a mall -- east of where Los Feliz Boulevard crosses the Golden State Freeway -- has changed Atwater Village.

Shoppers flock to the development's Costco, Best Buy and Toys R Us, particularly on weekends. But residents say the shopping center taxes their ears, eyes, lungs and patience.

"Bad things happen to good people," Atwater Village resident David Naftalin said. "We're good people. We deserved better, but we got saddled with this Kafkaesque castle instead."

Residents also note that the development hasn't put Atwater Village on the map. Toys R Us, for example, identifies the store on its company Web site as the "Toys R Us-Glendale." Costco is the "Los Feliz Boulevard" Costco and the Mimis Cafe chain dubbed its restaurant "Mimis Cafe Los Feliz."

Project proponents counter that, civic pride aside, the benefits outweigh the problems.

"It's been good revenue for the city," said state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, the Los Angeles Democrat who represents portions of Atwater Village. "It has provided services in an area where people are often underserved."

During her prior stint as a Los Angeles councilwoman, Goldberg cited studies that showed the development would not worsen traffic congestion. Today, she said, she regularly shops at the center and has found it easy to get in and out.

"I'm not saying there's no increase in traffic. That would be silly," Goldberg said. "But I think the question is less, 'Is there more or less traffic?' but 'Are you sitting in gridlock?' The answer is no."

Feelings on both sides could intensify as new chain establishments -- including Starbucks, Baskin-Robbins, Togo's and Pat & Oscar's Italian restaurant -- begin to open at the front of the shopping center.

Tucked behind the big-box retail stores sits a church with a massive parking lot in an area that was badly contaminated by the property's previous occupants.

The church and shopping center land was once the site of Franciscan Ceramics, which produced its famous Desert Rose china there for more than 70 years before shutting its doors in 1984. After the closure, trucks hauled away 6,022 loads of contaminated materials and left behind a rare gem in Los Angeles commercial real estate: a 45-acre parcel.

Residents' hopes that the property would house a police academy were dashed when the site's front portion wound up in the hands of developers with visions of a shopping center anchored by major stores.

Having largely saturated suburbs, according to Michael Beyard, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, big-box chains are moving into urban neighborhoods to satisfy Wall Street's demands that they continue to expand.

A decision by California voters to cap property taxes by passing Proposition 13 in 1978 made local governments hunger for tax revenues generated by commercial developments, he said.

At the same time, big-box stores are enjoying broader popularity as attitudes toward discount shopping change. Wealthier shoppers might still prefer to buy their suits at Neiman Marcus but apparently have no problem getting their underwear at Costco, Beyard said.

"Anywhere there is a large vacant lot that is suitably zoned, you're going to see pressure for big-box stores," he added.

And for some people, that's not a bad thing.

"The only effect it has had on Atwater is that it provides the neighborhood with stores that a lot of people are happy to have nearby," said Stephen May, a resident and broker of Atwater Village homes.

"I have friends in the film and TV industry talk about buying a house here now," added James Mustard, owner of City Gallery on Los Feliz Boulevard.

Goldberg contends the shopping center has breathed new life into an area that was "dying on the vine." She pointed to Woody's Bicycle World as one Los Feliz Boulevard business that has not only defied predictions of financial ruin, but has prospered since the shopping center opened.

Robert Woodcock, who runs the bicycle shop with his son, said sales of certain types of bikes are, in fact, down. But the shop's repair business has picked up, perhaps because Toys R Us and Costco don't service bikes.

"It hurt us in a way I never figured, which is the traffic," Woodcock said of the center. "It's harder for our customers to find parking."

Perhaps nobody has been hit as hard as some of the residents whose Perlita Avenue homes are along the shopping center's western border.

Christian Vasquez, who shares a condo with his brother and sister on Perlita, said half of the eight units in his association have changed owners during the last eight years. In some cases, he said, the shopping center played a factor in his neighbors' decisions to move.

Vandals perched in the center's parking lot have smashed windows in the complex and in three of his family's cars, Vasquez said. Best Buy fliers, empty beer cans and other debris litter the slope leading down to his backyard, which he said on weekends is filled with the odor of car exhaust and the sound of engines starting.

Karen Kennedy, senior vice president and director of operations for Festival Cos., which took over management of the property several months ago for Asset Acquisitions, said richer landscaping and more frequent litter pickups are among recent improvements.

"We're doing everything we can to be good neighbors," she said.

Goldberg described the situation with neighbors as "an urban conundrum."

"I think people in the city need to realize there are trade-offs if they don't want to have to travel for services," she said.

Goldberg may have helped keep some shoppers from running off to Burbank, but not all.

"We're planning to move," Vasquez said. "Probably to Burbank, Glendale or somewhere where there isn't a lot of traffic."

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