A stroll down Brand Boulevard offers a fragmented glimpse of how city centers evolve.
Glendale’s main drag is still dotted by storefronts from pre-World War II days--businesses such as small bakeries, independent bookstores and a grand theater that once dominated the area when streetcars whisked along the boulevard’s median.
By the 1970s, as many of those businesses struggled, the city welcomed the Glendale Galleria, an imposing, enclosed shopping mall on the downtown’s southern edge. The Galleria was followed in the 1990s by another new retail trend, two “big-box” plazas anchored by multiplex movie theaters and chains such as Borders books and Best Buy.
In the next few weeks, officials will break ground on yet another chapter in Brand Boulevard’s retail evolution, this time with a 15 1/2 -acre retail and residential development in a down-on-its-heels section of downtown.
The project, narrowly approved by voters in September, has sparked soul-searching about whether another big development is what downtown needs.
“Glendale is at a crossroads right now,” said Arlene Vidor, president of the city’s historical society. “You have to ask: Is it going to be retail overload? ... It’s great that people come to Glendale to shop. But that’s not going to get them out enjoying the city.”
Americana at Brand, a $264-million project proposed by developer Rick Caruso, offers a mix of fashionable boutiques, restaurants and upscale apartments that is becoming increasingly common.
To supporters, the 475,000 square feet of added retail and entertainment space will boost sales tax revenues for the city, and the residential units are expected to enliven Brand’s street life.
But Vidor and other residents wonder at what cost. They believe the development is out of scale with the area and that older buildings with character are needlessly being lost.
Americana, they believe, will cement Brand’s transformation from an old-fashioned row of shops to a series of overcrowded mega shopping centers. The new development, they point out, calls for another multi-screen movie theater even though there are two just across the street.
“The downtown has gotten crowded. The traffic is awful,” said Gil Brown, 39, a computer repairman and 13-year area resident. “I don’t know if Glendale can handle it.”
But others believe the development will help bring back some of the vibrancy that Brand Boulevard has lost over the decades.
Beatriz Porto opened Porto’s Bakery with her family in 1976 and watched the boulevard’s slow decline.
“In the old days, people used to live in the area and come to the little shops. Now, people don’t walk the boulevard. They drive to a few specific places and that’s it,” she said. “All the small businesses in the area were going out of business.”
She believes the Americana’s new residents will bring pedestrian life back to Brand, especially at night.
“I think everybody would benefit from a walking district,” she said. “At 5 p.m., people leave the area. When everyone goes home from the office towers, it becomes like a ghost town.”
Caruso, the developer, said Americana will have the small-town feel of his other projects such as The Grove in Los Angeles, including a central courtyard where people can hang out. Among the target clientele are the thousands of people who work in the office towers along Brand. He also hopes that office denizens growing weary of long commutes will move into the 100 condominiums and 238 apartments he plans to build.
“You can shop, you can dine, you can go to a great movie. More important, you can hang out, you can get a cup of coffee, you can listen to jazz and you can people-watch,” he said.
Caruso believes his development will make Brand Boulevard more inviting, and the project’s courtyard can become a central meeting place.
Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based expert on social and economic trends, said Old Pasadena and Valencia’s Town Center have successfully carried out the retail village concept, integrating offices, shops and housing on a walkable scale.
“The intelligent way to live in Southern California is to do as much as possible in your area,” he said. “It feeds into the need for a sense of place, a sense of identity. We want to participate in a metropolitan region but live in a village.”
City redevelopment chief Jeanne Armstrong says Caruso’s mall would help the district’s struggling shopkeepers rather than put them out of business, as some fear.
“What we need is downtown housing,” she said. “That will bring a 24-hour population that will support my little dry cleaner and my shoe repair shop and where I get my hair done. We need to re-create a need for the small merchants that have traditionally occupied Brand.”
Holdouts from a proud downtown tradition can still be found amid the chain-store retailers and eateries now occupying many storefronts in the old business district.
Brand Bookshop, revered among book lovers, brims with hard-to-find tomes. The chandeliered window display of Laura’s Corset Shoppe offers lingerie in sizes up to 50G. Nearby, customers queue up at Porto’s Bakery to feast on carb-laden delights.
Standing watch over it all is the elegant Alex Theatre, rescued from the bulldozers and reborn as a performing arts center.
A dozen years ago, fans persuaded the city to save the Greek-Egyptian-style Alex and turn it into performance space. The venue quickly earned many new friends by providing a clientele for restaurants and a nightlife when the malls went to sleep after dark.
“If we had lost the Alex, Brand wouldn’t have had a chance,” said longtime resident Chelsea Slaughter, 58, a writer and artist.
But Vidor and other preservationists believe the Alex Theatre restoration has become the exception rather than the rule. The city, she said, seems obsessed with attracting business to downtown, even if that means erasing its past.
“It seems that Glendale is bent on being a retail center,” she said. “The idea of wandering and feasting your eyes on the built environment should include the architectural styles and features of bygone eras.”
At the north end of downtown, preservationists are waging an uphill battle to save the former Glendale Federal Bank building from a major facade change by new owners. The mid-century modernist tower has been nominated for the state historic resources register.
The Americana plan calls for the demolition of two older structures that some residents want saved. Caruso said the fire station and telephone company building “have no historical value.” Redevelopment director Armstrong vows the city will make every effort to “rehabilitate what’s here, not raze buildings” as downtown revitalization plans proceed.
But Vidor worries it isn’t doing enough.
“All you have to do,” she said, “is look at cities like Chicago, Savannah and St. Augustine. There’s a tremendous surge of interest in historic buildings for retail, mixed uses and arts purposes. We have so much to lose if we keep letting stuff go.”