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Running on Hope : Strip-Mall Shops and Some Landlords Struggle to Survive

AT THE EPICENTER: A Valley Business Block Rebuilds. * One in an occasional series


From the door of her small shop on Reseda Boulevard, Roya Saberzadeh surveyed the scene outside.

Along the block, one apartment building after another was condemned, including the Northridge Meadows complex just across the street, where 16 people died in the Jan. 17 earthquake. The National Guard troops were gone, the sightseers dwindling.

At her shop, Rochie's Greek Row--which sells clothes and memorabilia with insignia from college fraternities and sororities--Saberzadeh long ago cleaned up the broken glass. She reopened two weeks after the quake with only one of four sewing machines operating, a damaged heat-sealing machine and broken wood-cutting devices. With no earthquake insurance and $50,000 in damage, she wonders how she'll pay her $2,000 rent.

Saberzadeh waited for hours at a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster center, and she's hoping for a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration. But the SBA is demanding extensive records, including tax filings and profit-and-loss statements. Loan approval could take two months.

And even with a loan, Saberzadeh's business would be on shaky ground. Most small businesses barely pay the bills. "Where am I going to get the other $600 or $700 a month to repay the loan?" she wonders. "The economy is already bad enough, and my savings are depleted."

And so it goes for dozens of merchants on this rattled block full of strip-mall delicatessens, nail salons and dry-cleaners.

A month after the 6.8-magnitude quake, many windows along Reseda are still boarded up, and some stores remain dark. Saberzadeh's brother, Ramin Bezadi, who has two shops in the same strip mall as his sister, has seen only a few customers return to his fitness salon--and none to his tanning salon.

Even before the quake, most of these merchants survived day to day. They worked long hours, taking in a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each day. Most carried no earthquake insurance because of the high premiums and deductibles. And now they wonder if the apartment dwellers and Cal State Northridge students who once frequented their establishments have left the area forever.

At least one merchant already has called it quits.

Lori Pass opened the Ten Little Piggies children's shoe store 2 1/2 years ago in the Northridge Garden Center strip mall, a few doors north of the Northridge Meadows apartments. It had been slow going because of the recession, Pass said, and with the store closed by the quake, she is without the income needed to buy a spring inventory.

"When you're just hanging on, to come up with more money to pay your bills . . . it's just not worth it," Pass said.

So she is holding a sale in the garage of her Northridge home, selling $40 brand-name sneakers at half-price. Her store manager, who lived in a now-condemned apartment building, is moving to Colorado. Two weeks ago, a shopkeeper from Glendora bought some of her wall hooks and displays.

"It hurt," Pass said. "It just hurt."

Hairo and Pierre Hairbetian, father and son owners of Andre's Shoe Repair, next to Rochie's Greek Row, said business has been all but nonexistent since the earthquake. After 11 years, they will have to cut prices and spend more money on advertising to bring customers back--money they do not have.

"Mentally, we're destroyed," Pierre Hairbetian said.

A few doors down, Gianni Fontana di Trevi looked glum as he flipped through receipts at his dry-cleaning and tailor shop. In the last few years, although business was slow, he paid the bills with his usual $200 in sales a day. But more than two weeks after the earthquake, his sales had fallen to about $100 one day, $50 the next.

"Before, we were happy we were alive," he said. "Now, I worry about the business. This is my life."


The merchants in these mini-malls aren't the only ones suffering. The landlords have their own demons to deal with.

Beth Burnam, whose family owns the Northridge Garden Center, has spent the last month phoning contractors, meeting with structural engineers, talking to tenants and renegotiating her mortgage.

About half the shops in Burnam's strip mall have reopened, but some remain yellow-tagged by the city. Some ceiling tiles need replacing, and cracks in doors, walls and floors must be patched. For Burnam, even finding an "Open for Business" banner proved problematic: Local suppliers were sold out.

Burnam feels caught between her tenants, who can't afford to pay the rent, and her mortgage lender. She estimated that repairs will cost $250,000, and she did not have earthquake insurance. Trying to sell the mall would be tough, given the depressed real estate market. Allowing the lender to foreclose is an option, Burnam said--but hardly an attractive one.

"I truly have no money to run the center," she said. "My bills right now exceed the money in my checking account."

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