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Trying to Regain a Role on the Commercial Stage

VALLEY BUSINESS | VALLEY@WORK

February 16, 1999|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — In Hollywood, it is said, image is everything.

In North Hollywood, too.

So when Arthur Sweet, a longtime San Fernando Valley businessman, began looking for ways to attract rehab-minded developers to the once-bustling Valley Plaza shopping strip here, he decided to start with a face lift.

Early next month, Sweet and a contingent of like-minded business owners will take to the streets, literally, to remove the gum, grime and grit that Sweet feels make the perimeter of the shopping center look shabby.

Later, Sweet, who is spearheading the effort, hopes to add banners, improved lighting, potted palms and other plant life, as well as more ambitious amenities such as a small park and an LAPD sub-station.

It's part of a proposed $1-million cosmetic make-over for an outdoor mall that arrived on the scene in the 1950s and hasn't had reconstructive surgery since, observers said.

The area got its last close-up in 1997, when a botched bank robbery across the street disintegrated into a surreal scene from a Hollywood movie, with two robbers barraging police with automatic weapons fire until the bandits were killed.

That episode, along with years of recession and the 1994 earthquake, helped sculpt a visage that's become increasingly common across Southern California--of an aging center struggling to reclaim its lost commercial sheen.

Sweet, whose smoked-glass office building at the corner of Victory and Laurel Canyon boulevards stands watch over the southern end of the plaza, hopes that the powder and paint will provide just the kind of come-hither look that will entice a commercial developer to come in and do a major full-scale remodeling job.

"We're going to beautify the area and clean up the area and make it so desirable that a major developer will want to come in here," said Sweet, a commanding presence contained in a compact package.

If spit and polish and zeal could turn shopping centers around, we'd all be out there with scrub brushes. Sweet and his team of makeup artists know that there are bigger challenges ahead than simply cleaning up. Along Bellingham Avenue in the rear of the Valley Plaza, 10 of the 18 storefronts are vacant.

But if you're trying to regain your foothold on the region's commercial stage, I suppose it doesn't hurt to get your hair done first.

*

Even without the new paint job, the plaza, and what's left of nearby Laurel Plaza, have attracted the attention of some major developers.

Los Angeles-based developer Ira Smedra, whose proposed $84 million Village Center Westwood retail-theater complex is embroiled in controversy with neighbors, has been acquiring properties in Valley Plaza and hopes to begin a major rehab of the area later this year, sources close to the developer said.

The revamping of Valley Plaza, one of the oldest outdoor malls in Los Angeles, would begin with the vacant stretch near the Hollywood Freeway that once held a J.C. Penney Co. store, a Wherehouse music store and other, smaller shops.

Smedra, who also developed the Laurel Promenade mall in Studio City, said he did not want to reveal details of the planned revitalization of the plaza, which is now home to T-shirt and thrift shops, an auto parts store and a fairly successful Sears.

"We are looking at some potential opportunities in the area for a new project," Smedra said.

But a source close to the project said Smedra's company, Arba Group, has "under contract" all of the vacant parcels around the old Penney store and a number of additional parcels elsewhere in the strip, which stretches from just south of Victory Boulevard to Archwood Street along Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

"The group is moving forward with the redevelopment of [the Penney's] area as phase one," said the source, who asked not to be named.

He said construction could begin as soon as eight months from now on a development that would involve six to eight stores, including "some national retailers but no Wal-Mart, big box people."

In terms of functional equivalents, "under contract," is much closer to "in escrow" than it is to "done deal." Things could still go wrong.

Still, those hoping for a rebirth in the area see the current level of developer interest as a hopeful sign.

Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, who represents the area, said Monday that another developer, whom he declined to name, has expressed strong interest in recreating a commercial development in Laurel Plaza, a smallish shopping complex that was all but leveled by the Northridge earthquake. A Robinsons-May store is all that remains of that shopping center.

"There is active interest in a development there," said Wachs, who said he has reviewed several proposals for the two shopping areas involving "substantial" dollar commitments. "Generally speaking, it's good, solid interest by good, solid people in both areas."

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