Elliot Leifer was not in a mood to mince words.
"Frustration? Oh, yeah, I would say there's been absolute frustration," said Leifer, 54, the owner of Ed's Towne Shop, one of the mainstays of the Burbank Golden Mall.
Leifer last week was describing what it's been like to do business in the past several years on the six-block pedestrian mall in downtown Burbank. He echoed some of the concerns of many merchants on the mall: that city officials don't care about them and have neglected the mall in favor of pursuing larger proposed shopping centers.
"The city has been trying to put something on this vacant 40-acre site next to the mall for forever, but it's just been one boondoggle after another," Leifer continued. "It's had a negative impact on everything here. Burbank shoppers have developed this pattern of going away from the mall for their shopping needs. I'm very upset."
Blocked Off From Traffic
The Burbank City Council is scheduled to tackle the future of the mall Tuesday as it ponders whether to reopen the entire mall to vehicular traffic. The mall, which sits on San Fernando Road, has been closed to cars since 1967, and officials now believe that the opening of the mall is critical to the revitalization of the downtown area.
"After years of neglect, it's time for that mall to be put on the front burner," said Vice Mayor Robert R. Bowne. "This should be our number-one priority in the resurgence and re-energizing of that mall."
The mall, which stretches from Tujunga Avenue to Magnolia Boulevard, is in the heart of the downtown redevelopment area targeted for renovation by the city. The fronts of the stores face the blocked-off street.
In recent years, officials have not been kind in their remarks on the Golden Mall, its attractiveness or its viability as a shopping center. Its overgrown trees and deteriorating landscaping used to be a haven for vagrants. Merchants would not always keep up the appearance of their storefronts. Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard once called the mall "an embarrassment and a disgrace."
Part of the problem, officials said, was that city officials were concentrating on snaring a regional shopping center for the 40-acre site next to the mall. The fate of the mall would be tied to that project, which they have hoped would rival the Glendale Galleria in drawing shoppers from the San Fernando Valley.
But the 15-year effort by the city to get such a center has yielded only false promises and lost hopes. The most crushing blow came in April, when the Walt Disney Co. abandoned its plans to build a $611-million shopping center and entertainment park on the site. Before that, developer Ernest Hahn was unable to meet his commitment to bring the $140-million Towncenter to the location.
With each new proposal, the Golden Mall merchants would wait in anticipation. And wait.
"Past administrations just were not concerned about the Golden Mall," Howard said. "They were only concerned about the 40 acres."
With the delays, the merchants grew more upset. "The mood on the mall was bewilderment and confusion," said Vern Michel, 53, the owner of Michel's Record City on the mall. "They didn't know which way to go."
Mall merchants and officials said there was also another problem: the closing of the street to traffic. The street was closed to distinguish the retail center from regional shopping centers.
"The Golden Mall was a noble experiment that did not work," City Manager Bud Ovrom said. "This kind of thing was done by cities all over the country, and 99.9% of them did not work. Ultimately, the closing of the street did more harm than good."
Michel, who opened Michel's Record City on the mall in 1967, called the closing "a disaster."
"The mall was only viable for about three years. Then it stopped. No new stores came in. It was hard to park, and the store windows were not visible from any major street. We just felt closed in."
But as the years progressed, developers who wanted to build on the 40-acre site would incorporate the mall into their plans, prompting the merchants to bide their time. Hahn wanted to transform a part of the mall into a festive village street that would feed into the Towncenter. Disney planners wanted the street to remain closed.
With the failure of those projects, almost all the merchants and city officials agree that opening the street is the answer to the mall's problem.
"It would encourage new businesses to come in, and the businesses that are here would improve their look," said Chuck Zidell, 52, the owner of Lyons For Men clothing store. "I'm definitely in favor of it."
The cost of the project remains up in the air. It cost the city about $2.2 million to open three blocks of the mall from Tujunga to Olive Avenue to vehicular traffic and add landscaped sidewalks. But officials seem to lean toward spending the necessary funds.
"That mall should have been opened a long time ago," Howard said. "I think it could be something great. It could be a showcase for Burbank."
Complaints by Howard and other officials about the mall's appearance have declined in the past year. The addition of a 10-screen movie theater and a youth-oriented hamburger restaurant have already brought new energy to the area, merchants say.
"I don't care what anybody says," said Morey Goodstein, owner of Morey's Shoes and Boutique. "This is a good place to come. There's nothing wrong with business here."