Shoppers stroll past a Sephora cosmetics store, which used to be a ballet… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
Malibu boasts more than 20 miles of coastline, rugged mountains and idyllic oceanfront homes. But for many residents, one of the beach town's greatest charms is what they like to call the "Malibu way of life."
It was a life filled with mom-and-pop stores where you could shop in your bathing suit and pay when you remembered to bring money. It meant having to go into the city — or at least as far as the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica or Beverly Hills — to shop for all but basic items.
Not anymore. Over the last few years, Malibu has seen an invasion of high-end chain retailers such as J.Crew, True Religion, Juicy Couture, Missoni and Ralph Lauren. A Whole Foods Market and Urban Outfitters are coming soon.
Retailers have been lured by the luxury demographics of Malibu, which has some of the priciest real estate in the country. But they come as some local, independent stores have faded away.
For some longtime residents, something from the old Malibu is getting lost.
A few years ago, actor Dick Van Dyke complained in a local newspaper that for all the fancy boutiques, he could not buy a screwdriver within the city limits.
And things have gotten worse since then.
"There was a small-town feel to it that's just not there anymore," said Van Dyke, who has lived in Malibu for 27 years.
"The change is amazing. It is becoming more like L.A. every day.… And you still can't buy a pair of socks or underwear," he said.
In response to complaints from some residents, Malibu is considering a law that would make it more difficult for additional chain stores to open in the city's central district. City staff said that about 25% of the stores in Malibu's civic center are chains, and that number is expected to grow.
Under the proposal, the vast majority of new chain stores in the city's civic center would have to go to the city's Planning Department for a full review process before they could open.
The plan has heightened debate about Malibu's changing identity.
Some residents, like Rosa Ferro, like the increasing options for shopping.
She misses some of the mom-and-pop businesses but said the new stores reflect the city's demographics.
"Of course, there's a place for fancy clothes," she said, sitting outside the James Perse designer clothing store.
But the glitz turns off 12-year resident Robert Cabral.
"One of the main reasons I moved here is the charm of the town," he said. "Lately, it's become more like Robertson Boulevard. Big stores are coming in, chains are coming in, and the charm of a beach town has become the charm of a shopping town."
A trip down Cross Creek Road offers a window into how Malibu is changing.
On one side sits the Malibu Kitchen, an eatery and market advertising "Better Than Mom's Meat Loaf." For 13 years, customers have walked through the screen door and onto the creaky hardwood, standing in line behind the glass deli domes.
Many take their paper-wrapped sandwiches to go, but old-timers tend to linger at the wooden picnic tables outside.
In recent years, the Malibu Kitchen has been surrounded by chains like L'Occitane and Juicy Couture. Across the street at the Malibu Village shopping center, the Sephora was once a ballet studio, AllSaints clothing store replaced a local bookstore, and Levi's fills a former hair salon, shoppers said.
The most dramatic changes can be found at the Malibu Lumber Yard. For years, it was exactly that — a place where people could buy plywood, hammers, and, yes, screwdrivers.
But since being converted into a shopping center in 2009, it's become akin to a Rodeo Drive by the sea. A clue to the clientele is reflected by the sign showing a camera and the words "Paparazzi Free Zone."
There are green jackets at Maxfield priced at $2,350 apiece and a striped beach towel at James Perse that costs $195.
The first floor of the $25-million Malibu Lumber Yard is about 71% chain stores, according to a city staff report. Three of the seven stores on the second story are vacant.
Real estate experts said the influx of high-end retailers and the decline of mom-and-pops can be blamed in part on Malibu's rising real estate values.
When a new shopping center opens or a center changes hands for more money than it was worth before, the high price of the property gets passed down to tenants in the form of higher rents, said Jeff Milchen, co-director of the American Independent Business Alliance.
Some developers say that the proposed chain ordinance isn't necessary and that the free market is deciding the retail mix of the city.
Developer Steve Soboroff, who is building the Whole Foods shopping center, said he's all for "good retailers … that serve the community." Whether they are chain stores or local small businesses is less important.