GLENDALE — Ever since the Glendale Galleria opened in the 1970s, Glendale has dominated the retail scene in the eastern San Fernando Valley. Burbank and Pasadena have spent much of the last 20 years just trying to catch up.
But today, Glendale is in danger of losing its edge.
Outdoor shopping venues, such as Old Pasadena and the Burbank Village, are increasingly popular with shoppers weary of going to the mall. Glendale officials say they recognize the threat but have been unable to get their own large open-air project, Town Center, off the ground.
While the Galleria is still a powerhouse mall, local retail experts say the massive indoor shopping center is showing its age. It needs Town Center, which would be adjacent to the mall, to stay competitive, said Bob Haas, partner with Cypress Retail Group of Encino.
"Glendale was the first one out of the box with a very successful mall. Because of their success, it's always been perceived as the place to be," Haas said. "They are potentially falling behind a little bit as they relate to Pasadena and Burbank. They need to add outdoor retail anchors to the downtown area."
Bill Boyd, a senior vice president at Grubb & Ellis, agreed.
"Glendale is not as aggressive in its pursuit of retail as it was in the '70s and the '80s. While the city is still pro-business, it's becoming, as we've seen already, a little more challenging in establishing new retail," Boyd said.
Glendale officials have had high hopes for Town Center since it was conceived in the early 1990s. The city has spent about $14.5 million buying property on the 11-acre site, which is bounded by Central Avenue on the east, Brand Boulevard on the west, Colorado Street on the south and the Glendale Galleria on the north.
The site is made up of small strip malls and vacant lots. Recently, the city built a temporary skateboard park on one of the vacant lots.
Town Center has been envisioned as more than an outdoor mall. It was to provide a "heart" or a "centerpiece" to the city's somewhat disjointed downtown. The city's redevelopment agency now owns much of the 11-acre site, but any developer who comes in would encounter expensive land costs in order to assemble the whole project.
Donahue Schriber, the developer of the Galleria, was chosen by the city in 1997 to develop Town Center. But the company pulled out of the project in 1999, citing both the high cost of land and its inability to secure ironclad commitments from hotel and movie theater partners.
Jeanne Armstrong, the city's director of development, said Donahue Schriber put in a great effort to make the project work. However, financing problems in the hotel and movie theater businesses destroyed their plans.
Armstrong said she doubts hotels and movie theaters will be part of the project. Hotel operators have little interest in the site, and movie theater chains are not looking to expand in Glendale, she said.
The cost of downtown land, estimated as high as $100 per square foot, has also hampered developers.
"Building all retail just doesn't pencil out," Armstrong said.
For much of this year city staff has been trying to sell the Glendale City Council on the idea of downtown housing. If the retail is built with downtown housing on top, developers might be able to afford the land, Armstrong said.
"It's not going to be just another Galleria," Armstrong said. "We need to solicit from the development community what is possible. The private sector has to tell us what is in demand."
In August, Armstrong will try to get the council to make some major decisions on the project. City staff are eager to get the project moving, in part because of the potential negative impact of having vacant lots dotting the downtown area. "The longer the property sits there, it has a ripple effect on the surrounding neighborhood," she said.
Armstrong and retail experts insisted there is demand for more retail in Glendale. Boyd said Town Center is not stalled due to lack of interest from retailers.
"It's unfortunate for the retail market," he said. "It would be such a dramatic upgrade and improvement to the existing mall."
And improving the Galleria is essential, especially with 5 million square feet of new retail either under construction or on the drawing board in Los Angeles County.
Haas said there are several major retail expansions underway that could affect Glendale's retail sales. He cited as examples the pending Farmer's Market expansion in the Fairfax District, the proposed expansion of Santa Anita Fashion Center in Arcadia, the renovation of the Pasadena Plaza and the continuing expansion of Valencia Town Center.
"They are definite, absolute threats to the Glendale trade area and will pull shoppers away," Boyd said.
Haas shared Boyd's view.
"In order to protect its ground, Glendale needs to do something of quality around the Galleria," he said.
Glendale Mayor David Weaver said he's not interested in rushing the project, but would rather take his time and get it right.
"It's not a question of not doing development; it's a question of doing what the community wants there," he said.
Weaver likes the idea of downtown housing, saying it would provide retailers with more customers on nights and weekends.
"To have any kind of vibrant community, you need to have people living there to begin with," Weaver said.
He said he hopes young professionals working at local studios will be drawn to high-end rental housing downtown. He believes it also may be attractive to seniors who want to sell their large family homes and live in an area where they can walk to local stores.
Weaver is an advocate for more open space in the city, and Town Center has been envisioned with a city park. Still, he said, he realizes the city has to allow developers to be creative in their approach.
"We can't tie the hands of the developers. I want to see what ideas they come up with," Weaver said.