In a stunning blow to two strategically important but struggling Los Angeles commercial centers, Macy's department store chain greeted shoppers and employees at its Baldwin Hills and Westwood Village branches Saturday with the announcement that they were being closed.
The abrupt closure of the two stores caught many by surprise, including Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, where one of the outlets was located.
"The way they did this strikes me as being terribly high-handed and completely insensitive," said Ridley-Thomas, who added that he learned of the Macy's closure from mall executives.
Shoppers were greeted by posted signs or, if they called, recorded telephone messages directing them to the chain's closest stores.
In an announcement distributed to the news media by Macy's West headquarters in San Francisco, the chain also said it would spend $100 million in Southern California over the next three years building two new stores and renovating others. The two new outlets will be in Westminster and Lakewood.
The announcement called both the Baldwin Hills and Westwood Village stores "underperforming."
Closure of the Westwood Village store was less surprising to locals than the shuttering of the Baldwin Hills establishment.
"It's been rumored for a very, very long time," said Laura Lake, president of Friends of Westwood. She said plans already were underway to bring in high-end retailers to replace the Macy's, which in an earlier life was a Bullock's.
Faced with competition from other aggressive retail complexes, such as Century City Shopping Center and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Westwood Village is struggling to regain the economic vibrancy that once made it a magnet for shoppers.
"While we are sorry to see Macy's leave, we anticipate seeing some higher-end retail come in," Lake said.
A few miles away, at Crenshaw Plaza, people were expressing shock and anger at the closing of the Macy's store, a fixture at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards. Macy's was one of three anchor tenants of the mall, along with the Sears and Robinsons-May department stores.
The closing of the store was viewed as a blow not only to other tenants of the mall but also to the African American community, which sees Crenshaw Plaza as a necessary part of the economic resurgence of the surrounding minority communities. Residents and businesspeople have been buoyed by the success of the Magic Johnson Theatres and plans for the $100-million Santa Barbara Plaza redevelopment project on adjacent property.
Just three years ago, about 200 residents organized a parade up and down King Boulevard in an effort to convince Federated Department Stores to convert the Crenshaw Broadway store, which had been taken over by Federated, into a Macy's. The support, along with promises by the city to contribute $3 million in redevelopment money to renovate the store, convinced Federated to stay.
But things didn't work out, said Merle Goldstone, a spokesperson for Macy's.
"The community asked us to keep it open. We agreed and tried. Unfortunately, our sales continued to decline. It was a hard decision, but one we felt we had to make," Goldstone said.
Ridley-Thomas, resurrecting an old complaint, accused Macy's management of shortchanging the Baldwin Hills site by not bringing in merchandise of the same quality as could be found in the chain's other stores. "They never lived up to their commitment to stocking, upgrading the furnishings, staffing and redesigning the store," he said.
Not so, said Goldstone. "We tried to listen to the customer and upgrade and bring in better merchandise. That is where we put our emphasis. But it didn't sell," she said.
Ridley-Thomas said he would immediately begin working to find a replacement tenant.
"We don't want an abandoned building placed on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw. That is just not acceptable," he said.
Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, who oversees the city's minority business program, said he believes Crenshaw Plaza will recover.
"Macy's was unable to figure out how to make money there, but there are a number of retailers who have gone there, including the Magic Johnson Theatres, who have shown they can make it work," Delgadillo said. "It takes the right kind of retailer to go into the neighborhood and make it happen. We don't think there is any lack of interest in the area."
Crenshaw residents said they were stunned by the sudden closure.
"It just leaves a huge hole," said Media Brown, associate director of the Pan African Film and Arts Festival, which puts on the largest Black History Month event in the nation from its offices in Crenshaw Plaza.
"I'm stunned," said Najee Ali, a community activist. "That store was very important to us. The closing of Macy's is a great setback for our whole community."
Earl Underwood, owner of the Leimert Park Fine Art Gallery a few blocks away, said, "Any business that fails in a consumer-driven market like Los Angeles just isn't paying enough attention to the community."