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A beauty makeover for a big-box retailer

Costco gets a new look after residents weigh in on Westfield mall plans that include the warehouse giant.

November 09, 2011|By Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times
  • An artist's rendering shows a plan for a Costco store at Victory Boulevard and Owensmouth Avenue in the west San Fernando Valley.
An artist's rendering shows a plan for a Costco store at Victory Boulevard… (Westfield )

How do you make a Costco beautiful?

It's been a thorny topic in the west San Fernando Valley for more than a year, ever since Westfield Group, owner of the landmark Topanga and Promenade malls, announced plans for a 30-acre development between the two shopping centers.

Many residents were expecting a Bloomingdale's, high-rise towers, upscale dining.

What they got was a Costco.

"It's just a box with a parking lot," said Shirley Blessing, a 41-year resident.

Plans to include a 20-pump gas station didn't help matters. But perhaps the project's most-scorned feature is the back wall for the 166,000-square-foot store, which will stretch along Victory Boulevard for the length of 11/2 football fields.

"It's not something that is architecturally inviting," said Gordon Murley, president of the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization. "You might as well build a tunnel along that block for the visual that it's giving."

Valley homeowner associations have long wielded clout on land use matters, but in this case, Costco Wholesale Corp. — which declined comment for this story — may have the upper hand. Los Angeles city officials, business groups and labor leaders have all come out for the project.

"We're in support of anything that'll support an influx in jobs," said Diana Williams, executive director of the Woodland Hills-Tarzana Chamber of Commerce.

Still, Westfield admitted, the Costco was less than an architectural landmark.

"The initial designs were not exciting," said Larry Green, Westfield's vice president of development.

Hoping to keep the peace, the developer asked its architects to give the project a makeover. The aim: to make a Costco warehouse look less like a Costco warehouse.

Many residents wanted the Costco to be a more compact, two-story structure. And they wanted the gas station — located at Owensmouth Avenue and Victory Boulevard in the plan — to be less visible or even eliminated.

"That gas station needs to be mitigated so it won't be a sore thumb," said Jeff Bornstein, a 26-year resident of Canoga Park who was one of many project opponents who testified at a Los Angeles Planning Commission meeting last month.

In the latest design, a wall was included to partly hide the gas station from the street. But Green said that other major suggested changes were nonstarters.

"Have you ever been to a two-story Costco?" Green asked. "That's not a model that works for Costco."

Another oft-heard suggestion among residents was to place the store far back onto the lot. This was also rejected by Westfield.

"From a city planning point of view, pushing Costco back into the interior would result in a more typical suburban format," said Westfield spokeswoman Catharine Dickey, "versus the lively, urban experience planners are seeking for the West Valley."

But in the final design presented at a Planning Commission meeting in late October, the store was pushed 40 feet back from Victory Boulevard, leaving room for some beautification elements.

The strip of land from the wall to the street will become a green space with trees and a decomposed-granite walking trail leading to pocket parks and benches.

Added to the wall, in the plans, were several rectangular structures that the developer called "window boxes," though there will be no windows. And instead of flowers or other greenery, these long boxes that will jut three feet out from the wall will have lights inside.

"The idea is that when you're driving or walking, you'll be able to see light coming out of these elements," Green said. "It's going to feel like activity in an occupied space."

The biggest added decorative element will be a facade to cover almost the entire exterior. It will be constructed of metal strips made to look like dark woods.

Stephen Hamilton, Westfield's vice president of design, said the slats would "modulate" the exterior — in other words, make it look less like a big-box store.

About 50 people spoke at the packed Planning Commission meeting that lasted seven hours. In the end, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the Westfield plan.

It's not a done deal — the City Council still has to greenlight the plan. The council hasn't set a date for the vote, but if it adds its approval, Green said the developer hopes to break ground by the third quarter of next year and complete Phase 1 of the project in 2013.

Opponents were dealt a blow by the commission vote. For many of them, the makeover enhancements were little solace.

"It will be the best-looking Costco anyone will see in L.A.," said August Steurer, who sits on the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council.

"But in terms of good planning and good urbanism, they're just making the best out of a poor choice."

rosanna.xia@latimes.com

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