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Merchants Hope Architect Can Revive El Monte Mall

October 20, 1985|ALAN MALTUN | Times Staff Writer

EL MONTE — Old timers here still remember when folks came from all over the San Gabriel Valley to shop at what is now known as the Valley Mall, an eight-block strip of stores on Valley Boulevard in the heart of downtown.

They would buy clothes at the J. C. Penney store, amble across the street for a soda pop at the Thrifty Drug Store counter and then drive over to pick up groceries at McDaniel's Market before heading home. El Monte's retail district became the major shopping hub between Pasadena and Pomona.

But times have changed.

Large regional shopping centers have sprung up in nearby Arcadia, West Covina, Monrovia and, most recently, Montebello, luring more and more shoppers away and helping to drive the mall into decline.

Penney's to Close

McDaniel's Market is long gone. Penney's, following a policy favoring regional shopping centers like the one in Montebello, will close early next month. And Thrifty plans to pull out of the mall in the spring. What remains is a hodgepodge of discount outlets and second-hand stores, graphic evidence of a stagnated downtown retail economy.

Earlier this year, in answer to pleas for help by merchants and property owners on the mall, the City Council awarded a $98,000 contract to the Arroyo Group, a Pasadena architectural firm, to develop a program to revitalize the mall and surrounding commercial and residential property.

"We've got to do something now," said Dennis O'Brien, a property owner on the mall and proprietor of Sol's Jewelry and Loan, who strongly favors the city's action.

"We can offer good-quality merchandise, but we do need to change our image. If we don't do anything, we're going to go under. I want to protect my investment."

O'Brien Confident

Although some critics argue that the city has done too little too late, O'Brien and other proponents of the program contend that it will attract better quality merchants and more customers.

The Arroyo Group, which guided the rehabilitation of Pasadena's Old Town, recently unveiled a proposal for a wide range of private and public improvements to be phased in over the next three to five years. They include:

- Renovating existing buildings, adding new facades that, in many cases, will mark a return to their original architectural styles.

- Installing 1920s-style street lights.

- Establishing visual continuity with new signs, window awnings and a universal color scheme of tan, brown and blue.

- Creating a small park on the mall and filling in empty lots with new construction.

- Expanding and landscaping parking lots behind existing buildings and refurbishing rear entrances to the stores.

- Constructing new retail, commercial and residential developments adjacent to the mall.

Next month, the El Monte Community Redevelopment Agency will hold a formal hearing to consider approval of the proposal as part of the Valley Mall Redevelopment Area Project. Boundaries of the proposed project are roughly the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks on the north, the Rio Hondo Channel on the west, Ramona Boulevard on the east and the San Bernardino Freeway on the south.

Blend of Styles

Arroyo Group architect Larry B. Morrison said his company favors an approach that will blend the mall's storefronts, currently a mix of styles from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, into a more attractive, coordinated look.

"We will mix the new with the old," he said. "The buildings were done in a variety of styles--Art Deco, classical revival. We are not trying to impose a single architectural style."

El Monte Planning Director Harold O. Johanson said the program initially would be voluntary, but noted that the city could later make it mandatory. Property owners will be required to pay for their own improvements, but the city will offer incentives in the form of 15-year loans at 6% interest, he said. The city will pay for public improvements.

Because the program is voluntary, Morrison said, it is impossible to project exact figures, but he estimated that private investment will run "tens of millions" of dollars. Public improvements will cost several million more, he said. About $350,000 has been allocated for public improvements to the mall this fiscal year and the city plans to channel part of its federal Community Development Block Grant funds to the program for several years.

Not All Agree

The Arroyo Group's proposal has not met with universal acclaim.

Some businessmen favor total redevelopment of the area. They complain that the city has not been aggressive enough in seeking a new anchor store to replace Penney's, which is the mall's biggest draw. And they worry that the city has been so slow to take action that the mall is beyond saving. Although no exact figures were available, a city finance official estimated that sales growth has lagged behind inflation for more than a decade.

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