By NOLA L. SARKISIAN
Glenn Laiken is finally home.
After signing a 10-year lease and hiring an architect to help remodel his 2,100-square-foot space in Culver City, the owner of Alandales has found a comfortable spot to run his 25-year-old fine clothing store for men.
"This feels right. I've grown up in this community and I see the potential for its growth," said Laiken, 52, who had previously moved his business from Westwood to Rancho Park to Beverly Boulevard. "We're a catalyst for this area."
That's music to the troubled ears of Culver City officials who are struggling to rejuvenate the sleepy community that shuts down at sunset. After eight years of so-so success, which has included doubling the number of eateries in the city to 14, officials are finding that it's one thing to renovate the downtown retail district and another to find tenants.
Roughly $34 million has been spent in the past six years to build a new City Hall, turn an abandoned building into a venue for plays and poetry, and renovate the downtown streetscape.
To spur development, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency financed 40 percent of the $200,000 cost to relocate Alandales to the central downtown area along Washington Boulevard. Officials call it a show of faith that the city is serious in luring quality businesses to the area. And it's the first time the city has utilized its "Gap Closure" grant program to relocate a retailer rather than attract new high-tech businesses or other manufacturers.
"It's the kind of business that we think downtown should be filled with," said Mark Winogrond, director of the redevelopment agency. "We look for pedestrian-oriented retail. We want the shops to be independent, versus a regional chain. We wanted a store that had a loyal clientele that would follow the business, and Alandales fit all those criteria."
Winogrond and others working on downtown redevelopment hope more merchants will follow suit.
"It's reasonable to expect others to come. There are lots of followers, but no leaders," said Pat Hurst, a principal with the retail recruiting firm Economic Development Systems in Redondo Beach.
Hurst, who also is working on the revitalization of Pine Avenue in Long Beach, said success is not an overnight process. She said it took Old Pasadena 16 years to develop, and 18 years to rejuvenate the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The ongoing revival of Westwood Village remains a work in progress.
Much of the difficulty in recruiting quality businesses to Culver City has been attributed to the delay of Screenland, a major retail, restaurant and theater complex planned at Culver and Washington boulevards. The open-air center, which includes three parking structures, will be located along three city blocks to foster a pedestrian-oriented synergy with downtown businesses.
However, the approval process has dragged on for more than two years due to wrangling among city officials, the developer and area residents. In fact, the proposal has spawned the formation of an advocacy group, Citizens for a Livable Culver City, which cites infrastructure problems that could come with the additional 13,000 to 14,000 cars that the project is expected to attract each day.
"The proposed project is way too big and completely out of scale with the neighborhood. The amount of traffic and congestion is of grave concern to us," said Michael Kaufman, spokesman for the 100-member group and a one-year resident.
Other residents balk at such provincial views.
"We can't build a China wall around the city. You get people who've been here for less than two years, and they don't know what the local thoughts and sentiments are," said Wally Pollacci, 82, a 50-year Culver City resident.
So far, the $45 million development has been scaled back from 200,000 square feet to no more than 180,000 square feet, and from 5,000 seats and 24 screens to about 3,500 seats with 16 to 20 screens. The downsizing came as a result of an EIR process that began in 1997 and finished public review last July, said Chuck Davis, vice president of DDR OliverMcMillan in San Diego, the project developer.
"This has taken longer than other projects. Since last summer we have had five meetings alone with the community and we're trying to be responsive to their needs," Davis said. More meetings are to come. The project will go before the general design review committee on Feb. 11 and to the redevelopment agency on Feb. 15.
Meanwhile, existing downtown businesses continue to hang on despite the lack of neighbors.
"As a retailer, I'd love to see things move faster. No one can say business can't get any better. But anyone who knows this process realizes that the wheels of government don't work fast," said Jay Handal, owner of San Gennaro Caf & #233; on Washington Boulevard.
His efforts have contributed to the formation of the Downtown Business Improvement District, which was approved in December. The five-block district stretches along Culver Boulevard from Duquesne Avenue to Robertson Boulevard and involves 156 merchants. The business owners will assess themselves from $100 to $500 to finance activities. The BID is seen as a way to create the kind of environment that will lure retailers.
Hurst says the area's demographics also are attractive. Within a five-mile radius of Culver City, there are 801,000 people with an average annual family income of $83,000.
That potential could translate into big bucks. The 200-plus stores in Old Pasadena had $170 million in sales last year, and the roughly 160 stores along Third Street Promenade had $152 million in sales, both registering double-digit percentage increases year after year.
"This is a diamond in the rough," Hurst said of Culver City. "This could be the next major shopping and entertainment corridor for the local area."
Yet Culver City doesn't charge the skyrocketing rents found in the more successful areas. While tenants pay $6 to $7 per square foot on the Promenade and $4 to $5 in Old Pasadena, Culver City rents run $1.75 to $2.25.
"Many tenants are being run off from those high-price areas and we're trying to go after those who are being bumped," said Hurst, declining to comment on possible new tenants.
However, Davis said his company is in negotiations with California Pizza Kitchen and has letters of intent with Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. He said AMC Theatres is the primary contender to operate the theaters.
Officials point out the already-burgeoning growth in the city. The Hayden Tract, a cross-section of technology, commercial and industrial businesses bordered by Hayden Avenue and Jefferson and National boulevards, had a 50 percent to 60 percent vacancy rate in 1993, compared with 5 percent in 1998.
Meanwhile, the Costco development at Lincoln and Washington boulevards will encompass 224,000 square feet and include such retailers as Lucky, Sav-on Drugs and Hollywood Video. In the past few months at Jefferson and Sepulveda boulevards, Honey Baked Hams signed a deal for a 4,000 square foot space, Kinko's leased 6,500 square feet, and Mattress Discounters took over 4,800 square feet.
"Overall, Culver City has a pretty low vacancy rate for retail. The rates hovers around 8 percent," said Larry Bloomer, vice president of CB Richard Ellis in Century City. "Things priced at market go quickly. Those who want more chips off the table than they're entitled to have to wait it out."
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