NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

Westside Pavilion has had its share of problems since opening along a busy stretch of Pico Boulevard in 1985.

Residents first complained about traffic congestion to the mall. Then came a jewelry store robbery in 1991 and a gang shoot-out the next year. Then in 1994, the Northridge earthquake leveled a ramp on the top deck of the mall parking structure and blocked a prime entrance to the food court for months.

Meanwhile, Westwood Too the mall's awkwardly placed 100,000-square-foot open-air addition that opened in 1991 has had a hard time competing against newer regional shopping centers.

All of which posed some serious challenges to Macerich Co. when it bought the 850,000-square-foot mall eight months ago for $170.5 million.

"When we first looked at the mall, we saw that many changes needed to be made," says David Contis, chief operating officer of the Santa Monica-based real estate investment trust. "Our goal is to improve the tenant mix and the look of the mall. We see a big opportunity."

To date, only modest changes have occurred. Two new tenants have signed leases and four more tenant deals are in the works. But after months of meeting with city officials, nearby residents and existing tenants, Macerich officials are crafting a plan they hope will change the fortunes of their new property.

"We've sent out about 30 letters to challenge merchants to perform better and we are reviewing their sales," said Contis. "We're also assessing the needs of other stores. Some need to expand. Others perform well, but need less space."

The vacancy rate is not a critical problem in the main mall, where 98 percent of the space is occupied and the Westside's only Nordstrom is one of the anchors. But merchants and shoppers alike have complained about the lack of upscale tenants to complement other stores, like Robinsons-May, Banana Republic, The Gap, Limited and BCBG.

Yigal Asseraf, manager of the Privilege women's clothing store, said his shop struggles despite being located on the first floor, next to Nordstrom.

"My sales have declined in the past three years," he said. "We have some nice stores here, but every mall has them. We have nothing special here to separate us, which is what we need."

To make space available for more-desirable tenants, mall management said some expiring leases may not be renewed. One sporting goods retailer could be replaced by an Ann Taylor store, and a Canadian shoe retailer has tentatively agreed to lease space.

Macerich also is exploring the possibility of expanding Nordstrom, which at 130,000 square feet is among the chain's smaller sites. Nordstrom officials confirmed that the expansion is under consideration.

Meanwhile, Westside Too is in critical need of a retail infusion. Its major tenant now is the three-story Barnes & Noble. Since its opening, the annex has operated without a traditional anchor, instead relying on the draw of the mall itself.

But that strategy has fallen short. Many shoppers choose not to visit the annex because it requires using a third-floor bridge or walking outside and crossing Westwood Boulevard. Its vacancy rate is an anemic 37 percent.

Mall officials say they hope to attract several large houseware retailers to the annex, such as Bed, Bath and Beyond and Pottery Barn. "Our objective is to have a few retailers that are very focused, large merchants that are destinations of themselves and will benefit the mall," Contis said.

Another possibility is relocating the existing four-screen Landmark Theatre from the main mall to the annex and doubling its size.

Macerich officials also believe a facelift will help draw customers. A renovation project now underway involves painting the interior, changing landscaping, installing new lighting, opening a customer service center and adding more ATMs.

In addition, 100 security cameras will be positioned throughout the complex. "It's a sign that we take security seriously. Right now, we don't have problems with security, but we want to take a proactive approach." said general manager Wendy Tentkoski.

One of the two new shops to open since Macerich bought the mall is J. Colton men's clothing store. Owner Arthur Sharif said that years ago he and his parents had a coffee kiosk in the mall that did brisk business. They left, however, in 1992 when officials didn't renew their lease, and went on to open the Khyber Express Indian eatery in Santa Monica Place.

"At one point, the mall was the hottest thing in L.A.," he says. "They used to film rock videos in the mall. Actresses used to shop there. Then, the mall was hit hard. Business slowed down and eventually suffered from area competition."

But Sharif believes in the mall's potential and notes that his store made a profit three months after opening. "There is a very affluent customer base in the mall. We draw from the loyal Nordstrom shopper, from Bel-Air, from Westwood where Macy's closed," Sharif says.

Westside Pavilion's 1998 sales of $368 per square foot was well above the national average of $301, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York. Still, the center's numbers are low when compared to other successful Southern California malls including Century City Shopping Center, which posted sales of $550 a square foot in 1998. Contis said he expects Westside Pavilion to hit $400 by the end of 2000.

"In general, it's a strong mall compared to the nation. It's just in a highly competitive area. Yet, the potential exists for it do more and become a great mall," said Daniel Blatteis, owner of Blatteis Realty in Beverly Hills.

The changes can't come soon enough for some shoppers and merchants.

"I've seen little things they've done like having better signage for the restrooms and ATMs. But tenant mix is the biggest issue. We need the Restoration Hardwares and the Pottery Barns to stay competitive," said Nordstrom general manager Pat McGowan.

Added customer Deborah Neivar: "Besides Nordstrom, the stores here are too young for me, too trendy. I'm hoping to see more boutiques that have classic lines like Century City. It would also be nice if they had more coffeehouses and restaurants. That way I'd stay longer."

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