Southern California's mini-mall boom may be peaking because of land shortages, rising property values and complaints from residents who think the centers are becoming a blight on the urban landscape.
"Some people believe there may even be an official crash," said Mike Nelson, a UCLA graduate business student who is taking part in a study of the controversial developments.
Loosely defined as small, L-shaped corner buildings of five to eight retail stores fronted by a parking lot, mini-malls are considered by many to be perpetrators of traffic, crime and environmental ugliness.
Although such developments have sprung up throughout the nation, there is an unusual concentration of mini-malls in Southern California, spurred by rapid growth and the area's dependence on the automobile.
And with concentration comes controversy.
"I wouldn't call them the decline of Western civilization," Councilman Michael Woo said, "but they are poorly designed and are part of the bland environment that characterizes too much of Los Angeles."
There are about 2,000 mini-malls in the Los Angeles area, most built within the last decade.
"It's definitely a perceived problem, and complaints are universal throughout the city," city planner Chuck Rozzelle said. As an illustration of the density, a mile-and-a-half stretch of Ventura Boulevard in the eastern San Fernando Valley has 11 such centers with two more under construction.
The mini-mall phenomenon came about during the oil crunch of the mid-1970s. Facing bankruptcy, many corner gas station owners sold their properties to the major oil companies, who in turn sold the parcels cheaply and in bulk to developers.
"These corner lots gave retail store owners better street identity and established parking areas, benefits above and beyond what they had when their businesses were in the middle of the block and fronted the street," said Los Angeles architect Tom Layman, who has designed more than 400 mini-malls since 1978.
But complaints from neighborhood groups about insufficient parking and inadequate buffers between residential and commercial zones led the City Council in August to adopt a six-month citywide moratorium on such developments.
"I'm not against doughnut shops and fast-food outlets in concept," Woo said. "I'm trying to encourage through the moratorium how the city can create more neighborhood-oriented commercial development."
Among the elements being considered to mitigate the complaints are tougher parking and landscaping requirements and one-way driveways to minimize traffic jams.
More extreme measures have been taken in Woo's district, which encompasses parts of Hollywood, Silver Lake and the San Fernando Valley. The City Council recently approved a so-called pedestrian overlay zone for the area, requiring at least 65% of all buildings, 65,000 square feet or smaller, to front the sidewalk. The move effectively rules out the most important mini-mall criterion--parking in front.
Developers defend the proliferation of mini-malls in Southern California as merely a response to the demands of a mobile society.
"The reliance on the automobile and the need for convenience are major aspects of the Southern California life style," said Bob Heyman, president of Key Centers Inc., a major mini-mall developer based in Canoga Park.
"In truth, people want mini-malls," he said. "If someone said a substantial majority of Angelenos shopped at one once a day, I'd believe it."
Yet in Beverly Hills, which is surrounded on three sides by Los Angeles, the City Council unanimously approved a ban on mini-malls within its major business zone and severe restrictions in other areas.
Planning officials in other car-conscious California cities from Sacramento to San Diego claim that mini-mall problems are relatively unknown in their areas.
A yet unpublished study on mini-malls was conducted by UCLA's Nelson, along with fellow graduate student Rick Rosen. Sponsored by a fellowship through Gensler & Associates, a Century City architecture firm, the study focused on how to create better convenience-oriented neighborhoods.
Rate of Growth 'Slowing'
"Our general conclusion was that the rate of growth of mini-malls is slowing and that they may not prove to be as significant a problem as residents and the city feel," Nelson said.
In the 1970s, many developers were able to purchase corner land parcels from the oil companies for as little as $30 a square foot, Nelson said.
"They were extremely profitable in the past because of low land costs," he said.
Today, few choice lots are available and less attractive properties garner $75 to $100 per square foot. Prices are steadily climbing, according to industry statistics.
"It's a much riskier venture now," Nelson said.
Tim Riley, executive director of the Southern California Property Owners Assn., acknowledged that economics could very well stand in the way of future mini-mall projects.
"Land values will dictate a change, but that change will still have to reflect the demand for consumer services," Riley said. "If prices get much higher, it may not pencil in to have these small, one-story centers."
Earlier this year, Los Angeles architect Donna Brown organized a national competition to explore design alternatives to the mini-mall.
"Some will survive merely because of their location and because coming and going doesn't disrupt traffic patterns too much," she said, "but others will fall because they were designed to last only a short time.
"The land they sit on will become so valuable that developers will tear them down to put up denser real estate."
One alternative is a move toward the more urban European arrangements with housing on the upper floors and retail below, Brown said. Such developments are common in New York and San Francisco.
"We just need to have the foresight," Woo said, "to make sure that whatever comes next isn't worse."