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Chic Street Is Taking Off the Grunge

The glamour has faded a bit on Beverly Hills' famous shopping thoroughfare. So work crews are freshening the makeup.

August 12, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Luckily for Rodeo Drive, face-lifts are readily available in Beverly Hills, even for streets.

On Monday, work began on a long-planned overhaul of the opulent thoroughfare, which by Beverly Hills standards, at least, has become a bit shabby.

It's not quite a case of urban renewal -- we're not patching potholes here -- but, in Beverly Hills, gum on the sidewalk is a call to action.

"I see distress," said Fred Hayman, the semi-retired retailer to the stars who taught the world how to say Ro-DAY-oh. "It's a street in need of rehabilitation."

Despite wilting summer heat, Hayman, 77, whose Giorgio boutique helped put Rodeo Drive on the global shopping map, looked impeccable, right down to the Italian-crafted brass and enamel FH buttons on his navy blazer.

Not so Rodeo Drive.

As Hayman strolled the famed boulevard one recent sunny morning, the walkways were spattered with the telltale dark smudges of discarded gum. Black paint on the trash cans had flecked off, uncovering bare metal. Inexplicably, a strip of gray duct tape had been left across a sidewalk, its peeling edges ready to trip up the next unsuspecting wearer of Manolo Blahnik stiletto mules.

It is, in short, a street that wants some nips and tucks, just like some of its well-heeled clientele.

By Thanksgiving, if all goes as planned, the 300 and 400 blocks of Rodeo will have wider sidewalks and medians; new palm trees; hip, new streetlights; and mid-block crosswalks.

The work is part of an $18-million revamping of five streets that form the heart of the city's "business triangle." Phase I of the project will tackle parts of Rodeo and Beverly drives. Phase II will brighten up Brighton Way, Dayton Way and Canon Drive and finish the business portions of Rodeo and Beverly.

Most of the streets will be adorned with a mixture of palms and flowering trees, replacing the all-too-ordinary ficus trees.

This will be the first significant development on Rodeo in more than a decade. Rodeo watchers say it has been long in coming.

"It's long overdue," said Chuck Dembo, a commercial real estate broker on the street. "It will make Rodeo look more like a European walking street, which is what it should be."

Much of the impetus for the revamping came from the Rodeo Drive Committee, which Hayman pioneered 31 years ago with other legendary merchants, including Jerry Magnin (who owned the Polo Ralph Lauren franchise on Rodeo for many years), Herb Fink (of Theodore boutique fame) and David Orgell (the purveyor of silver, china and other luxury items).

The plan was developed by Moule & Polyzoides, a prominent architecture and urban-design firm based in Pasadena. To cover the costs, property owners voted overwhelmingly to pay fees over 25 years that are based on property size and location within the business triangle.

This is not to suggest that Rodeo Drive is down and out. Rodeo seems as eye-poppingly spiffy as ever to many visitors.

"It's so clean, compared to New York or Boston," said Caitlin Vestal, a just-arrived visitor from the East Coast.

"It makes me happy. There are a lot of people," said Sumin Lee, a 9-year-old from Seoul who was shopping with her parents for a souvenir handbag and shoes for her grandmother.

Indeed, Rodeo Drive is surging back after two challenging post-Sept. 11 years.

"The tourist with money who could make a difference sort of evaporated," said Lucy Zahran, a retailer of fine porcelain and other wares. When her Rodeo rent tripled, she bolted for the Grove shopping center in the Fairfax district.

But now, retail sales and hotel occupancy have rebounded to about pre-9/11 levels, said Todd Steadman, director of economic development and government affairs for the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce.

Bulgari and Yves Saint Laurent opened splashy stores this year. Giorgio Armani and Polo Ralph Lauren have recently expanded. Among those with plans to vastly enlarge their stores are Louis Vuitton (at Fred Hayman's former corner location) and Cartier.

At the Santa Monica Boulevard end, Brooks Brothers will open an 18,000-square-foot emporium soon at the spot vacated by Tommy Hilfiger. And Prada expects next summer, after some design-related delays, to open an avant-garde "Epicenter" location, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas. It will be one of only three such locations.

In July, the Robb Report, a chronicler of luxury lifestyles, anointed Beverly Hills the nation's best place to live for shoppers, calling Rodeo Drive "a three-block-long roll call of the world's leading luxury retailers." (That's stretching things a bit; it's a mere 2 1/2 blocks.)

And next month, in a celebrity-studded affair, the street will honor Giorgio Armani with its first Walk of Style award. The famed designer will receive a miniature bronze of "Torso," a Robert Graham sculpture that was unveiled at Rodeo and Dayton Way in June as the street's new symbol.

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