Westside developers aim for face-lifts without scars

Times Staff Writer

With the affluent Westside of Los Angeles escaping much of the economic angst gripping Southern California, shopping center owners near the coast are spending lavishly to burnish their malls and beckon new shoppers.

But there is also tiptoeing going on as these expansion-minded malls try to avoid the impression that they will overwhelm their neighborhoods with more dense development, worsening traffic and endless waits to turn left.

Planners, bulldozers, builders and ribbon-cutters are busy:

In the works is a major overhaul for two adjacent malls in Marina del Rey.

Construction started this month on a $170-million makeover and expansion of Westfield Fox Hills mall in Culver City. This follows a $170-million upgrade by Westfield on its Century City mall about a year ago.

Santa Monica Place has been emptied of its stores to make way for a $265-million top-to-bottom renovation. Come spring, owner Macerich Co. will lift the roof off the aging complex and refill it with upscale tenants.


Westside Pavilion recently went through a major makeover.

With so much going on, community groups such as the Del Rey Neighborhood Council are keeping an eye on the developers, representative Michael H. Stafford said. Developers “are going to do whatever they think the market wants.”

Developers and retailers believe the Westside wants top-end shopping with the latest stores and mall designs. And the Westside is the “dominant favored quarter” for development in Los Angeles County, said urban consultant Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution. “Because that’s where the rich people are.”

Although the recent global credit crunch has driven down commercial real estate values, some large developers are taking a long-term view and plan to keep building.

“We invest through economic cycles because it has been demonstrated that you have to keep shopping centers refreshed, renewed and vibrant for them to continue to be productive and appealing for consumers,” said Katy Dickey, a spokeswoman for Westfield Group.

Next up for substantial improvement on the Westside are the two decades-old malls in Marina del Rey; Villa Marina and Marina Marketplace are across the street from each other at Maxella and Glencoe avenues. The owner announced plans for a multimillion-dollar makeover that may include residences and offices.

The upgrade will not add a lot of density to the properties, vowed representatives of J.H. Snyder Co., the Los Angeles developer that owns the centers with RREEF Real Estate. “Nobody needs to fear a large new shopping center that is going to increase environmental impacts,” said Drew Planting, a senior partner at J.H. Snyder.

But concerned neighbors will be watching closely, said Mark Winter, a director of the Marina Peninsula Neighborhood Assn. “The fear we all have is that our ability to move around the streets will be impaired.”

The owners acquired the properties more than a year ago and will spend more than $100 million on renovations and development by the time the makeover is complete, they said. “We want an indoor-outdoor experience,” said Cliff Goldstein, also a senior partner at J.H. Snyder. “We hope to remind people of their last trip to Spain or Italy, or newer American-style” shopping plazas.

Various designs for the malls are under consideration, and the owners intend to unveil their proposals in about three months, Planting said.

The malls house a combined total of almost 420,000 square feet with such tenants as bookstore Barnes & Noble and grocery stores Pavilions and Gelson’s. They also have large parking lots that may be replaced with a more pleasant environment for strolling and leisure, Planting said, perhaps with park-like landscaping and water features such as fountains. Parking might be moved into structures.

Each of the two existing centers has a movie complex, both of which are “antiquated,” he said. Developers haven’t decided whether to upgrade or remove the theaters.

The developers are meeting with community groups and hope to submit plans by Los Angeles architect Jerde Partnership to the city within 100 days. If they are approved, construction could begin by late next year.

Upgrading malls to keep them competitive is a routine practice in the shopping center industry. These complexes built in the 1970s and 1980s are due, Planting said.

“The marina has gotten more upscale, but it’s also gotten younger” with families moving into nearby Playa Vista, he said. “We’re going to focus on a merchandising mix that meets the newer demographics.”

The pace of retail and residential development on the Westside is unnerving residents such as marina area activist Winter who worry about “packing too many people into too small a space,” as he put it.

“The community-at-large perceives a crisis,” he said. “The streets are completely gridlocked at certain times of day.”

Barry Kurtz, a transportation engineer who is a consultant to the county, said planned improvements to some Marina del Rey intersections and a proposed extension of the Marina Freeway would ease the area’s traffic problems but wouldn’t fix them.

“Unless the city wants to shut down” development, he said, “we are definitely looking at more traffic, more congestion. The transportation picture on the Westside doesn’t look good.”

Developer Planting acknowledged that “people are anxious about having another shoe drop” when they hear about development plans, but he insisted that redevelopment of his company’s marina centers would not turn them into a regional attraction or overwhelm the sites.

“It is meant to serve the local community, and our leasing efforts will reflect that,” he said.

Apartment landlord Douglas Ring, one of Marina del Rey’s largest property leaseholders, offered support for the developer in the face of potential “not in my backyard” activists.

“NIMBY-ism says we should change nothing in my neighborhood,” he said “The fact of the matter is that society keeps changing and growing. If everyone who developed was of Jerry Snyder’s quality, we would be much happier.”

Ring said Snyder “takes the time to do it right.”

Stafford of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council has some concerns about the direction the Westside is taking. He finds many new stores overpriced but said he understood why things change.

“Some people would like progress to leave them alone until they die,” he said. “But when it stops, it means this area is going septic.”