BURBANK — In beautiful downtown Burbank, the road to recovery was paved with brick.
Hoping to lure shoppers back to the flagging downtown, city leaders worked from the ground up by installing jazzy brick-trimmed sidewalks and crosswalks along once-deserted San Fernando Boulevard.
The result: "It's changed from like a street in Mayberry to like a street in Westwood," said Mitch Siegel, manager of Book City. "I still notice the bricks myself. They look real nice."
Across Southern California, cities see gold in red bricks.
At times it almost seems an unwritten law of redevelopment. As they try to shore up the sagging image of downtown districts, the first action many communities take is to slap down some bricks--sometimes creating screwy landscapes where elaborate brick designs front the same old pawnshops and thrift stores.
Forget plastics. The word these days in communities such as Burbank, Glendale, Santa Monica, Long Beach and Newhall is brick.
Brick sidewalks. Brick crosswalks. Even brick streets.
"They create an ambience," said Jeanne Armstrong, redevelopment director for Glendale, which has installed extensive brick and terrazzo mineral-inlay work downtown. "It differentiates a section of the city as a place we really want people to come to. It says this is a premier retailing area."
But experts warn that fancy pavement often means nothing more than fancy footwork. Unless accompanied by more substantial programs to attract and keep new business, all the brick in the world won't protect sleepy downtowns from the competition of shopping malls and warehouse discounters.
"The question is whether any physical improvements make sense if you don't have concurrent social and economic changes going hand in hand," said Doug Suisman, an architect who specializes in urban design. "It's not clear at all that physical changes will lead to a change in the social setting.
"Why of all things would you repave sidewalks and crosswalks as your first step?" Suisman continued. "It's something I've often wondered. You get less bang for your buck than many other strategies."
He suggested that cities would be wiser to invest in renovating dilapidated building facades or installing benches, planting trees or building decorative newspaper racks.
"These are the simple amenities that make it pleasant to be on the street," Suisman said.
Municipal and business leaders agree that turning a downtown around calls for diverse tactics, such as low-interest loans or other enticements.
But, they concede, their ability to tinker with the urban environment is relatively limited. Since cities and counties are charged with maintaining roads, that is often where many start.
And not just with bricks. Hollywood Boulevard, for instance, which features bricks in a few intersections, glitters with bits of ground glass. But although the pavement shines, much of the rest of Tinseltown doesn't.
Armstrong said the brickwork along Brand Boulevard and Maryland Street in Glendale sets an example for private developers. Moreover, Armstrong and others say, elaborate brickwork demonstrates an area's potential and shows merchants that the city will invest money and time in a community.
"The city putting investment into a neighborhood can send a signal that is very important," said Allan Wallis, research director for the National Civic League. "The bricks can be symbolic of the city's intention to do more."
Such was the case in Burbank.
When the city opened its failing Golden Mall to auto traffic in the mid-1980s, City Manager Robert Ovrom said the intention was to do something classy. Inlaid bricks grace sidewalks and intersections.
"We wanted to do a good job of it," Ovrom said. "We could have just popped the street open, but there was a very conscious effort to do more than that."
But bricks were just the beginning. The city also sought out developers to fulfill its dream of a downtown mall as well as a multiscreen theater and restaurants.
Merchants--some of whom call their strip "Little Westwood"--say the effort has paid off. Len Borden, owner of Burcal Apparel, is closing his shop to lease the building to Crown Books, which wants to put a big store in downtown Burbank. The offer, he said, was too good to refuse.
And, he added, it wouldn't have come without the bricks and all that followed.
"It has really changed the complexion of the community in positive ways," Borden said. "The bricks add to the environment, the atmosphere. It's kind of a mini-promenade where people are walking around more."
In Newhall, however, redevelopment started and ended with bricks.
In the mid-1980s, Los Angeles County officials installed brick crosswalks and a few benches in the community's drooping commercial strip along San Fernando Road, hoping that they would be the first building blocks for a new downtown.
But business mainstays such as the post office and the bank and the general store closed up shop anyway. The closures "were killers in terms of trying to keep morale up," said Jo Anne Darcy, a Santa Clarita City Councilwoman and an aide to county Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
Pawnshops and thrift stores filled the empty storefronts and the area continued its downward spiral, Darcy said. Officials in Santa Clarita, which absorbed Newhall when it incorporated in 1987, are trying once again to pick up the pieces and revive downtown Newhall.
At least they've already got the bricks.
Brick enthusiasts, however, will concede that there's a downside to brickwork.
Glendale officials, Armstrong said, hear gripes from women whose high heels get stuck between bricks. "And gum sticks more," she said.