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Like, Some Profits Would Be Nice, for Sure : Famed as the 'Valley Girl' mall, Sherman Oaks Galleria is undergoing a major face lift.

September 21, 1995|AARON CURTISS and KAY HWANGBO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite national notoriety as a home away from home for the mythic Valley Girl, the Sherman Oaks Galleria faces much of the same competition and pressure that has left malls around the country in the doldrums.

So it surprises few in the retailing and development industry that the 15-year-old mall that leaped to fame with Frank Zappa's 1982 song "Valley Girl" is undergoing a major renovation intended to make it more attractive, more accessible and, most importantly, more profitable.

The mall once synonymous with San Fernando Valley consumer culture seeks to add 13 movie screens--for a total of 18--and 27,000 square feet of new restaurants in an effort to lure more shoppers to the 90-store mall.

Two-thirds of an adjacent office building at Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards would be torn down to create an open-air plaza, which would be open to the street to ease access for pedestrians. Restaurants with patio seating and stores would open onto the plaza. Construction would begin in 1997 or 1998.

Joy DeBacker, the mall's general manager, said the Galleria has not been doing well financially, either in terms of its sales per square foot or its ability to retain tenants "appropriate for the community." The mall has been losing money for about the past three years, she said, although she would not say how much.

The Galleria is not alone, retail industry analysts say. Regional malls across the country are finding themselves caught in a change in the retailing industry as warehouse clubs such as Price Club and discount stores such as Wal-Mart siphon away business.

At the same time, the specialty boutiques that once lined the promenades linking mall department stores are increasingly setting up shop on hip outdoor streets such as Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade or Pasadena's Old Town.

Department stores, once a mall's name-brand draws, are merging right and left. In the case of the Galleria, the merger of Robinsons and May Co. left it with the same store operating at both ends of the mall.

Within that environment, malls are competing for tenants and amenities to appeal to the fickle tastes of consumers who flit among trendy spots like hummingbirds among flowers.

"This is probably the most competitive era in the 40-year history of regional malls," said Mark Schoifet, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York.

In the San Fernando Valley, that competition has been particularly fierce since the Northridge earthquake. With many malls damaged or destroyed, all have undergone major renovations, echoing a nationwide trend in which remodeling projects outnumber new construction 2 to 1. The result: Most are like new, making differences between them that much more difficult to spot.

Schoifet predicted that the malls finding success in the next decade will be those that effectively mingle retail and entertainment uses to create places even non-shoppers want to linger.

"The advantage a mall has is the sociological aspect of shopping," he said. "You have the ability to have fun at the mall. You bring the kids and shop at the Disney Store and check out Foot Locker, have lunch at the food court and maybe take in a movie. You can spend a few hours at the mall and describe it as a fun experience. I don't think a lot of people would describe going to a warehouse club and taking a carton off the shelf as a fun experience."

Ironically, though, malls are also facing competition from the very place they once threatened: Main Street. Places such as Pasadena's Old Town and Third Street Promenade, with coffeehouses and pool halls, are the gathering spots for young people in the 1990s, much as malls were in the 1980s.

Architect and urban planner Woodie Tescher, who helped engineer the resurgence of Third Street, said malls are trying to emulate that urban feel by connecting again to the streets that surround them. The Galleria, for instance, is tearing down most of its garden office building along Sepulveda Boulevard to create a public plaza and easier access from the sidewalk.

The key, he said, is flexibility. What's hip today will be tomorrow's joke, and malls that succeed must create places that can accommodate the changing tastes of consumers.

"Whether it's movie theaters or restaurants or coffeehouses or virtual reality," Tescher said, "people love to socialize ultimately."

*

Curtiss is a Times staff writer; Hwangbo a special correspondent.

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