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Open For Business : Retailers: Department store is the first anchor tenant in the quake-devastated Northridge center to reopen.

November 05, 1994|TIM MAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NORTHRIDGE — It's new, it's interactive. And more importantly, more than nine months after the Northridge earthquake forced its closure, The Broadway at Northridge Fashion Center is open again.

Hundreds of San Fernando Valley shoppers converged Friday to celebrate, with many saying the reopening provided a kind of catharsis after worrying for months about their own rebuilding troubles.

Others were less analytical: They came to shop.

"It's a new beginning," agreed Florence Struck of Reseda, who was most interested in finding kitchen curtains.

Friday's ribbon-cutting was heralded by the Granada Hills High School marching band, a steel drum band and scores of Broadway employees wearing white and red "Glad to Be Home" T-shirts. About 100 protesters also turned out, shouting at Broadway Stores Inc. President David L. Dworkin over the chain's hiring practices.

The revamped department store is the first of six mall anchor stores expected to reopen since the 6.8-magnitude temblor put the center temporarily out of business the morning of Jan. 17. The 210-store Northridge mall, one of Southern California's largest, was a half-mile from the earthquake's epicenter and incurred an estimated $25 million worth of damage.

Lloyd Miller, general manager of the Fashion Center, said Friday he does not know when other department stores--including Bullock's, JC Penney and two Robinsons-May stores--will reopen. The Broadway store joins a pizza restaurant and a car-repair shop already operating. The rest of the mall is scheduled to reopen in March.

During ceremonies Friday, union supporters--including members of Carpenters Local Union 1506--shouted at store officials, asking why Broadway officials hired out-of-state companies to rebuild its store.

"They shafted us," said David Freeman, a carpenter and union member from Burbank who passed out flyers urging people to boycott the store.

"They hired out-of-staters to do their work and paid them lower wages and no benefits," said Freeman, who was wearing a hard hat and a fake plastic screw rigged to look like it had been driven through his torso.

Dworkin and other store executives downplayed the significance of the protest. They conceded hiring some non-union workers but said a majority of those hired to rebuild were union members.

An hour after the grand reopening, with most of the protesters gone, local residents indulged in a long-missed pastime. Nearly every department of the totally redesigned store--from hosiery to housewares--was crammed with smiling, mostly female shoppers.

"It's a sign of rebirth," customer Marie McGee of Reseda said. "Do you know where the curtains are? It said 'Housewares' on that funny little machine downstairs. Maybe they don't call them curtains anymore."

McGee was referring to the interactive computer screen on the second floor. The computerized kiosks--which allow shoppers to find items sold at the store by pushing buttons on a computer screen--are part of a series of high-tech additions designed to make the shopping experience more "interactive," store officials say.

McGee said she welcomed Friday's outing, since she had not done much shopping since the earthquake. "That quake shattered our lives," she said. "Now I feel like things are back to normal. Finally."

Store employees were elated too, and spent much of the day directing customers.

Maggie Breckner, a Northridge resident who was working at the store the night before the quake, arrived Friday in search of a new outfit to wear to her night shift in domestic goods. She remembers returning to the store two days after the temblor.

"It was scary in here," said Breckner, trying on a pair of new flats in the shoe department. "The columns holding up the roof were buckled, mashed like petals on a flower. The floor sagged. We weren't allowed in very long."

Crowds trawled the store's new oval layout, oohing and aahing the high-tech, polished finishings. The layout of each of the three earth-toned levels inside the store follows a football-patterned shape.

"Look around you, oval is everywhere," said Frank C. Calise, senior vice president for visual marketing for Broadway. And it's true. Signs overhead are oval. The tables displaying men's ties are oval. The bright track lighting in the ceiling follow an oval circuit.

What's with all the oval?

"Women enjoy oval," Calise said. "And you can see from one end of the store to the other. It creates a feeling of openness. You don't have to go on some zig-zagging yellow brick road to find the department you want."

Upstairs, children wandered around the store's new Funzone, a play area created by Calise that includes a giant talking redwood.

Store officials refused to say how much they have spent.

"We spared no expense, but we're not revealing the cost," said Bill Ihle, vice president of corporate communications for the chain. "This store is going to be the model for our other renovated Broadway stores."

One out-of-towner who took in Friday's reopening spectacle expressed wonder at the size and spirit of the chatting, charging, check-writing crowd.

"It seems like people are starved for a place to shop," said Pat Welch, visiting from from Oklahoma. "I want to tell them to lighten up. I'm amazed at how seriously they're taking all of this."

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