Veteran Glendale merchant Bill Ross stood on the brick and concrete sidewalk fronting his Brand Boulevard shoe store and predicted: "Eventually, Brand will come back as one of the hottest retail streets in Southern California. If I were a young man, I'd open a business now and wait it out for the next three to five years it's going take."
But Ross is quitting business after 17 years in Glendale. Despite his assurance of certain prosperity, Ross, who is 75, said, "I'm too old to wait for it." He said a rent increase this month prompted the decision.
Ross is at the tail end of an exodus of old-time merchants from Brand Boulevard as it is being transformed from a Midwestern-style downtown to an office and retail center growing with an enormous shopping mall, the Galleria, that opened in 1976.
With many of the old stores gone, Brand has entered a new and trendier time. Fashion shops, European-style cafes, Melrose Avenue-style restaurants and corporate retail chains are cropping up, transforming Brand outside the Galleria into a vital retail street.
More than 50 businesses have opened on upper Brand within the past year, city records show. Once-vacant and decaying buildings are being restored to their original architectural styles of 50 and 60 years ago. Shoppers are returning to the wide, tree-lined sidewalks previously emptied by the pull of the Galleria.
'Like a Ghost Town'
"The boulevard was like a ghost town before," said Annie Scandal, who opened a boutique, A Scandal, on Brand Boulevard two years ago. "Now, suddenly, it is booming everywhere."
Less than four years ago, at age 21, Robert Mulder became probably the youngest of the new breed of merchants on Brand. He said business at his bargain-price dress shop, known as Evans Nothing Over $9.95, which caters largely to the growing number of office workers along upper Brand, has increased fivefold since then. He envisions even greater increases in the near future and has bought property on the boulevard, which he said is his "key to retirement."
"I'm seeing a lot of food places, computer places, a lot of catering to the high-rises coming in on Brand Boulevard," Mulder said. "Space on the boulevard is becoming very valuable."
Despite the proximity and success of the Galleria, merchants on Brand agree that spillover from the shopping mall has little to do with the resurgence of the business district.
Scandal, who sells clothing and accessories, including Beverly Hills Highway Patrol jackets, said many of her customers dislike mall shopping. "My customers usually don't shop the Galleria," Scandal said. "They are looking for more personalized service and attention rather than what suits the masses."
Michael D. Moro, president of Downtown Merchants Assn., said the blend of trendy merchandisers and specialty office- and high-tech services is a "wave of the future" that has emerged within the past 18 months.
But he conceded that, although revitalization has begun, it has been handicapped by long delays in construction of office projects, such as the twin-tower complex to be built at 100 N. Brand Blvd., north of the Galleria.
Vacant blocks where stores have been leveled for redevelopment are "like a smile with missing teeth," he said. "What's really going to turn things around and make a significant change is for these new projects to start coming out of the ground."
Despite those delays, Moro said rents on Brand Boulevard have skyrocketed from about 50 cents per square foot in 1977 to $1.50 or more per square foot now. Moro, who is a property owner, predicts that rents will reach $2 to $2.50 per square foot--comparable to rents in popular retail areas such as Melrose Avenue, the Westside and the Galleria.
It was the rapid rise in rents that drove many old-time merchants off the boulevard, including shoe store owner Ross. "My rent has doubled and tripled and it is about to double again," Ross said. "I just can't afford that."
Moro said higher rents have resulted in the entrance of more chain operators, such as Computerland, Strouds Linen and Danica Furniture, because they can take advantage of mass advertising and other cost-saving services of large-scale merchandising. "It is difficult for the 'Mom and Pop' store to survive in this kind of climate," he said.
Mulder said, however, that climbing rents are a sign of the boulevard's revitalization. Rent increases forced him to move his clothing shop three times in less than four years, but he said he now has a long-term lease that will limit rent increases.
Many of the merchants who left "got scared from the high rents," Mulder said. "They were still making a profit, but they couldn't comprehend those numbers. Now that the boulevard is revitalizing, they are probably very sorry that they left."