"The fascinating niche they fill," says Alan Hess, an architectural historian and author, "is that they're often mom-and-pop operations." Comic-book dealers, hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurants, bilingual tax preparers, check-cashing services--these businesses simply can't afford the high rents demanded by major malls. The surge of Central American and Asian immigrants into 1970s Los Angeles would provide the mini-mall with eager tenants. (Today, typical mini-mall rents--in the San Fernando Valley, anywhere from 85 cents to $2 per square foot--still compare favorably to the $2 to $6 a square foot the enclosed shopping center might garner.)
The oil crisis would provide the real estate. Hundreds of gas stations in Southern California dried up during the 1973-'74 OPEC embargoes. Oil companies sold off their abandoned sites cheaply, often to hungry developers who realized that the lots--ideally located at busy intersections across the city--were already zoned for commercial use.
The boom would reach its apex in little more than a decade.
The mini-mall backlash began in earnest in 1986, when L.A. Councilman Hal Bernson, frustrated that 40 mini-malls had mushroomed in his San Fernando Valley district during the previous 18 months, agonized at yet another City Council discussion of an initial mini-mall ordinance: "By the time this thing gets passed, there won't be any corners left to save."
By 1985, real estate agents and developers estimated there were as many as 3,000 mini-malls in Southern California. Homeowners complained about congestion and litter and insufficient parking, about teenagers with boom boxes and "undesirable" loiterers. Mini-malls soon earned the nickname "pod malls," since they spawned as fast as the mutants in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
A series of retaliatory anti-mini-mall edicts went into effect all over L.A. County: in May 1987, a two-month halt on mini-mall construction in Hollywood; a yearlong moratorium in Eagle Rock; blanket bans in San Marino and West Hollywood, restrictions in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. In November 1988, the L.A. City Council unanimously approved the "mini-mall ordinance," No. 164201, to establish at least some elementary guidelines. Calling it a "desperately needed proposal," then-Mayor Tom Bradley championed the planting of one shade tree per four parking spaces.
"There's not a great deal of flexibility with the building's form," architect Tom Layman admits. "When you look at them, you see signs and glass and cars." His firm, T.W. Layman Associates, designed more than 400 mini-malls in Southern California. He proudly proclaims only one, in Dana Point, "absolutely gorgeous," and another on Wilshire and Highland an example of "the few successful two-story ones we did." The challenge with a two-story, Layman says, is simple: "Get the customer to go to the second floor."
Though his firm still designs about half a dozen a year, Layman says mini-malls reached a saturation point in the early '90s. There was the recession and a shortage of empty lots, and really, Layman muses, "how many doughnut shops can you put in the city of Los Angeles?"
Some store owners in Koreatown and South L.A. stood up to defend the mini-mall, however, from a more lethal threat: the 1992 riots. Mini-malls were inviting targets. Driveways were convenient to pull into; huge plate-glass windows easily smashed. Thirty mini-malls were severely damaged or destroyed. Some were rebuilt regardless, this time often constructed of thick cinder block, guarded by 6-foot iron fences and featuring glass storefronts high enough to escape a car's grill.
No one company capitalized on the mini-mall dream as prodigiously as La Mancha Development Corp. Since that first structure in Panorama City in 1973, La Mancha has built far more mini-malls in L.A.--at last count, 650--than any competitor. The company's signs, "For Lease, La Mancha Development, New Shopping Center," festooned with a Picasso-esque silhouette of a bowlegged Don Quixote grasping his lance, were raised at so many construction sites in the '80s that they became more than one Valley kid's first exposure to Cervantes.
At the height of the mid-'80s boom, when his company completed as many as five projects a month (as compared to 10 a year in the mid-'70s) and its net worth was reported at $50 million, Sam Bachner, La Mancha's president, was crowned "mini-mall king." To this day, Bachner takes exception to the honorific.
"Lots of misnomers have been thrown around and the jargon's been flipped," Bachner says. "Mini-malls? Strip malls? We built convenience centers, to give easy access to go in a store and come out."
Where did "mini-mall" come from? "I don't know, 'E.T.' I think," Bachner responds. "I'm kidding. Probably some correspondent couldn't spell convenience so they wrote 'mini.' "
His late partner, Alan Riseman, came up with the La Mancha moniker. "What do you think of when you hear 'Don Quixote?' " Bachner asks.