The 13-story office tower rising from the center of the San Fernando Valley floor used to be the pride of Panorama City.
The community, founded in 1947 by steel magnate Henry J. Kaiser and land developer Fritz B. Burns, was a sprawling planned community of modest single-family homes clustered around a shopping center that helped influence suburban growth around the nation.
Home to returning service members after World War II, it became a premier shopping destination, with live reindeer luring customers during Christmas and manufacturing plants baptizing thousands of people into the middle class.
But by the 1980s, one of the neighborhood’s great strengths – its manufacturing industry – began to falter as factories such as a General Motors assembly plant closed down. The anchor department stores in the local mall were the next to go.
When the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck, it left Panorama City’s landmark tower empty and abandoned. For a while, it became a haven for homeless people – and a symbol of the neighborhood’s decline.
Now, residents hope the tower will become a beacon of recovery.
Developer Izek Shomof bought the Panorama Towers building last year for $12.5 million and plans a seismic retrofitting to make 192 live-work units and retail space on the ground floor.
It’s the centerpiece of several major changes coming to the area. Another developer has purchased the struggling Panorama City mall and plans improvements. An old Montgomery Ward department store is being transformed into a mixed-used living and retail complex that will include a grocery store, movie theater or big-box retailers.
After decades of struggles, some residents see signs of hope.
“We’re thinking Panorama City can turn around,” said Alicia Donley who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1960s.
Saul Mejia, president of the Panorama City Chamber of Commerce and a resident in the area for more than 30 years, said the attention from developers is “welcome and it’s needed.”
Others like Maria Ruiz, who has lived in the area for 24 years, worry more about the bigger issue of job growth to balance out the promised shiny new places.
“There’s talk of construction work all the time but not enough talk of jobs that will help people pay for the new spaces,” Ruiz said in Spanish.
For years, places like the General Motors assembly plant provided skilled jobs that not only sustained a middle-class income in the neighborhood, but also brought in income from outside the area, said Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning at USC.
When the General Motors plant shut down, a shopping center took its place. Well-paying manufacturing jobs left and were replaced by retail jobs that paid minimum wage. Those jobs did not create enough growth, Myers said. The mostly middle class, white workers at the assembly plants was replaced by Latino immigrants scraping by to make a living.
Although the largely Latino-immigrant community that moved into Panorama City helped keep the community populated and supported small businesses, the lack of high-paying jobs stalled economic growth, said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn.
Back when white middle-class families were the norm, Panorama City’s retail never felt stunted.
“In the ‘50s and well into the ‘60s the place to shop was Panorama City,” said Ron Collins, manager of the Panorama Mall.“It had more opportunities, unless you wanted to cross the mountains into L.A. proper, for places to shop.”
Big name retail centers weren’t as populous as they are today in the San Fernando Valley, when Panorama City offered department stores like Robinson’s and Orbach’s, Collins added. Though he still commends the area’s resilience in continuing to offer some form of shopping experience.
“Granted, it’s not the high-end and highly desired place it was in the ‘60s, but it’s still an important retail center,” he said.
Others don’t quite share Collins’ rosy view. For them, the area has failed to live up to lofty expectations.
Even the Panorama Mall, which brought a successful Wal-Mart and a La Curacao department store into the area, has lost some of its sheen in the eyes of locals.
“We refer to it as ‘Panorama Hall’ because it’s so small,” said Kristian Hernandez, who works at a nonprofit on Blythe Street.
Despite the lack of higher incomes supporting the area, revitalization efforts have been made since the early 2000s. But when such projects spring up, Viviano Montes, chairman of the Panorama City Neighborhood Council, said “it’s one big hoopla and it kind of simmers down.”
“The area hasn’t gotten any better, it’s sort of regressed,” Montes said.
Back in the 1970s, Collins would have called the Panorama Towers building a nice looking professional office space. It has since become known as “the [building] everybody hated because it was abandoned,” he said. Twelve years ago, the L.A. city attorney’s office filed a lawsuit against the then owner of the building, calling it a blight that attracted homeless people and crime.
In the last few years of working across the street from the Panorama Towers building, Raj Saini, president of a wireless phone company, has made numerous police reports due to vandalism and criminal activity.
Myers suggested that there should be cautious optimism for the development plans for Panorama City since the new projects might be geared more to newcomers with more disposable income than existing residents.
Yet Myers and others agree that it’s a good start for a neighborhood that has been in a downward trajectory filled with empty storefronts and deserted lots – and that for most Panorama City residents, has been far from the heart of the Valley for too long.