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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

New Hope for Revitalization

November 29, 1998

The curtain is about to rise on the future of Canoga Park. Later this week, the Madrid Theatre opens in the heart of Canoga Park's sagging commercial district. Its dedication will mark the happy ending to a long saga of decay and destruction. But in another way, it marks the beginning of a new era of hope for one of the San Fernando Valley's oldest communities. Like any good story, it provides lessons.

Canoga Park's downtown strip along Sherman Way once was the pride of the West Valley. Founded in 1912 as part of the community of Owensmouth, the promenade boasted grand buildings bustling with commerce. But that began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. Homeowners moved out of the neighborhood as it aged, leaving older homes for immigrant families. Air-conditioned malls such as Topanga Plaza and The Promenade lured shoppers away from Sherman Way.

Shops folded. The Madrid became home to a Pussycat Theatre adult movie house. Efforts to jump-start the strip largely failed. Slowly, antique shops began to fill in some of the old, vacant storefronts, establishing a sort of cluster of shops selling old and exotic items. But just as activity began to pick up, the Northridge earthquake smashed the district--destroying old masonry buildings. Among the casualties: the Madrid.

Within hours of the earthquake, City Councilwoman Laura Chick had big plans for the old X-rated theater. Working with the Community Redevelopment Agency and Mayor Richard Riordan's office, Chick secured $3.5 million in federal disaster money for the heart of Canoga Park. Most of that went toward turning the Madrid into a top-flight community theater. About $500,000 was spent fixing up surrounding businesses with improvements such as new facades and signs.

A walk along Sherman Way today still reveals vacant shops and rundown storefronts. But for the first time in a long time, merchants and community members are optimistic about the future. City officials expect the Madrid will host 130 performances in its first year of operation. It will be the West Valley's only mid-sized live theater. Restaurateurs are already curious about nearby storefronts. The expectation: The theater will allow a critical mass of business to form around it, giving Canoga Park the boost it needs to finally shake off years of bad times.

Using theaters to revive rundown sections of town is nothing new. And it does not always work. The failure of the Los Angeles Theatre Center complex downtown is perhaps the most costly example. But the Madrid project differs from the Theatre Center in significant ways. First, it carries no debt. All of the construction costs were paid out of federal disaster money. Second, the effort enjoys tremendous community support, including a booster group with more than $200,000 in the bank. Third, Canoga Park is much less threatening than the Theatre Center's location on Spring Street.

Rebuilding a community takes more than a fresh coat of paint and a few jazzy buildings. But the enthusiasm and support built up around the Madrid project are hopeful signs that Canoga Park is finally ready for its close-up.

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