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Reviving Promise of Panorama City

Planners want to restore the Valley's model suburb of the '40s with a discount shopping area.

September 08, 2004|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

When Panorama City sprang up in the late 1940s atop farmland in the center of the San Fernando Valley, developers breathlessly hailed it as "The New City" -- an entire mass-produced town the likes of which Los Angeles had never seen.

Today, Panorama City's business district is downtrodden and faded.The four department stores that made up the heart of the area -- Orbach's, Robinsons, the Broadway and Montgomery Ward -- are long gone, along with many of the smaller shops that grew with them. Vacant storefronts abound. A six-story bank building that was once the centerpiece of the commercial district sits empty.

"It's distressing," said longtime resident Paul Powers, 68, who remembers when shoppers from around the Valley and beyond would flock to Panorama City. "I don't expect to see a return to those times."

The town, just north of Van Nuys, has been battered by competing shopping malls, the loss of factory jobs that fueled the local economy and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Once white and largely middle class, the area's population of 66,000 is now a mix of working-class Latinos and Filipinos.

But in this demographic shift, Los Angeles city officials and urban planners see an opportunity to remake Panorama City.

They envision creating a new retail center that caters to ethnic populations. Instead of old-line department stores, they see mom-and-pop discount shops.

Instead of playing to the suburban car culture, they want to make the strip along Van Nuys Boulevard more inviting to pedestrians who could spend hours strolling and shopping.

"I would not be surprised if it became a center of discount shopping," said planning consultant Bob Scott, who lived in Panorama City for 19 years.

He is part of a volunteer group of planners and architects trying to get the town back on its feet. "There's a difference between 'economy' and 'blight.' There are economy discount centers where people go to spend the whole day and shop."

In some ways, the transformation is already occurring. Latino-owned businesses like Del Sol Furniture in the new Plaza del Valle on the north end of Panorama City have in recent years filled the void left by departing chain stores.

"The neighborhood has changed a lot, and for the better, I think," said Sylvia Torres, the store's co-owner. "Ten years ago, we would not have put our business here."

Customers come to such sale-price businesses with a purpose in mind beyond picking out a new sofa.

"A lot of people who come here are trying to build up their credit because they're thinking ahead and they want to buy a house," Torres said.

A Valley businesswoman for 22 years, Torres moved her shop from Van Nuys in May, partly because she believed foot traffic would be a plus.

While clients are not flush with money -- the area's median family income in the 2000 census was about $33,000 compared with $42,000 in Los Angeles County as a whole -- they "seem like they're comfortable and can afford to buy good furniture," she said.

Shops in the block-long Plaza del Valle face an outdoor courtyard that resembles a market square in Mexico.

Murals, fountains and decorative tile soften the harshness of utilitarian stalls where merchants on short-term leases can start businesses with little investment.

Panorama City was the creation of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and developer Fritz B. Burns, who teamed up after World War II to build 2,000 starter homes.

The houses -- all about 1,100 square feet and offering similar floor plans but different exteriors -- rose from the Valley floor near Van Nuys and Roscoe boulevards, placed along curving streets that broke with the Valley's crisscross grid.

Panorama City was seen not as a bedroom community for downtown Los Angeles but as a self-contained development with jobs at the nearby General Motors factory and Schlitz brewery. Instead of going downtown to shop, residents had their own sprawling shopping complex along Van Nuys Boulevard.

"East Coast scholars would look at Levittown [on Long Island, N.Y.] to define post-war suburbanization," said Ken Bernstein, a preservation expert with the Los Angeles Conservancy. "But here on the West Coast, Panorama City is one of the best examples. Back then, it was innovative."

The town was in the vanguard of the post-war subdivision boom that swept Southern California. Mass-produced housing, following the Panorama City model, led to the region's legacy of modest but respectable tract housing in suburbs such as West Covina and Lakewood.

And for decades, Panorama City seemed to work.

"The big deal was to get a job at the GM plant and get a car, and life would be good," said Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas, who grew up in the area and represents part of Panorama City.

In addition to the car factory and brewery offering thousands of jobs, the town boasted a Carnation research laboratory (where Coffee-Mate was invented) and plenty of aerospace jobs nearby.

All are now only a memory.

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