LISA STEEN PROCTOR Staff Reporter
Welcome to the Rodeo Drive of shopping malls: The Beverly Center.
Strolling about the irregularly-shaped complex, which celebrates its 15th anniversary next month, reveals almost as much about L.A. chic as it does about brand-name retail.
Besides the usual mall fare the Gap, a food court, movie theaters, etc. is an ever-changing assortment of small, trendy stores that’s anything but mall-like.
Shops like Traffic, MAC and Shauna Stein cater more to the Melrose Avenue set than to soccer moms. And the frequent celebrity sighting (Leonardo di Caprio, Rosie O’Donnell, Courteney Cox, to name just a few) only adds to the show biz allure.
Topeka it ain’t.
Even wardrobe stylists who normally shun malls in favor of more adventuresome shopping realms can be found trolling the Beverly Center for the latest fashions.
“It’s the best store in L.A.,” stylist Lynne Bugai, says of Traffic. “It’s a shame it’s in a mall in a way it’s not as cool. Most stylists are snobs and don’t like malls.”
Bugai, who shops for magazine shoots and music videos, says she can outfit anyone out of the store, from Dick Van Dyke to the rock group INXS, out of the quirky store on the mall’s sixth level.
That kind of cachet has helped make the Beverly Center, which sits on what used to be a kiddie amusement park, an L.A. institution. It also set the stage for other, smaller shopping complexes in the La Cienaga/Beverly corridor of West L.A. creating a retail phenomenon, as well as a frequent traffic nightmare.
“The Beverly Center is a real thorn in our side,” said Allyn Rifkin, principal traffic engineer with the city of Los Angeles.
The mall was approved before requirements for traffic mitigation, Rifkin said, denying the city the chance to require new stop lights, street widening and other improvements. (Such improvements were required for newer developments, including the nearby Beverly Connection.)
In the past 10 years, the number of cars passing through the intersection of Beverly and La Cienaga has jumped 37 percent from 70,000 a day to 96,000 a day making it the city’s 19th busiest intersection, Rifkin said.
But while it may be an annoyance for motorists, all that traffic helps the Beverly Center maintain its reputation as one of the nation’s busiest malls.
“The Beverly Center is well north of $400 in sales per square foot and close to $500 per square foot,” said Chris Tennyson, senior vice president of The Taubman Co., which owns the Beverly Center and 20 malls in 11 states.
By comparison, other malls in Taubman’s portfolio average $365 sales per square foot, he said. The national average for all malls hovers around $200 per square foot.
While mall officials would not disclose actual sales and customer traffic figures, the numbers are only expected to increase with the arrival next month of Bloomingdale’s department store.
So what makes the Beverly Center so successful? It starts, of course, with location.
Three million people live within a 12-mile radius of the mall, and the average household income for the market area exceeds $50,000 per household, Tennyson said. As downtown has seen its share of retail traffic steadily decline over the years, the Beverly Center became the obvious benefactor.
“Over the past decade, there has been a pretty substantial decline in mall traffic,” noted Ira Kalish, senior economist at Management Horizons, the retail consulting division of Price Waterhouse. “Those that have been successful are those that are more upscale and have more of an entertainment aspect to them shopping centers that make shopping fun because of their ambiance or their uniqueness.”
With hip stores, celebrity shoppers and even a Hard Rock Cafe, it’s not surprising that the Beverly Center has become a tourist attraction.
“The name the Beverly Center is very popular in Japan,” said Kazu Watanabe, tour planner for Japan Travel Bureau in downtown L.A., which each year trundles thousands of tourists to the Beverly Center as part of its sightseeing tour.
In fact, the Beverly Center receives so many tourists four to five million each year that the mall is adding a welcome center for tour groups and a Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau visitors center. Some of the center’s tenants also cater to this group of customers on their own, often providing information on their products in Japanese or other languages.
But the most important element to the mall’s success remains its mix of eclectic, fashion-forward stores a mix that the mall works hard to protect.
“We have stores with a broad appeal, such as a Gap, a Limited, but the stores we fight for are those with a bit of an attitude,” Tennyson said.
Take, for instance, the ultra-cool Traffic boutique.
Owner Sara Moldovan said she first applied 13 years ago to move her Hollywood Boulevard clothing store No Problem to the Beverly Center. After being rejected as not upscale enough, she opened a new “all upscale” store Traffic next to No Problem. Upon seeing the success of Traffic, mall officials agreed to accept Moldovan.
Now a mainstay at the Beverly Center, the small, 3,200 square foot store represents a microcosm of the complex’s 910,000 square foot gross leasable area. The shop offers wares as varied as the clientele it clothes ranging from Boyz II Men to Rosie O’Donnell.
A $520 Italian knit shirt from long-established Dolce & Gabbana hangs a few steps from a $34 multi-colored knit shirt from hip L.A.-based Crash Poets.
“We seek out entrepreneurs people doing unique merchandise,” said Evette Caceres, the mall’s marketing director. “We want the ‘first ever.'”
But just being accepted as a mall tenant isn’t enough. Mall General Manager Donald Trefry says the Beverly Center requires tenants to do major remodels midway through their lease “to keep the stores as fresh as the merchandise.”
“We probably turn over tenants faster here than in other shopping centers,” Trefry said, citing a rate of about 15 percent.
“Even if a tenant is paying rent on time, if we don’t feel they’re doing the type of sales per square foot that they should be, we might talk to them and try to reach a solution,” he said.
The land now occupied by the Beverly Center was once Kiddyland, an amusement park where, according to local lore, divorced dads from Beverly Hills took their kids.
Adjacent to the park, parents could bring their children to ride ponies in a field of straw.
That slow pace changed abruptly when developers Sheldon Gordon and Phillip Lyon targeted the land for the Beverly Center a focal point for what they envisioned would become an upscale retail area.
The developers’ assessment was correct. Following the opening of the center in 1982, the area has given rise to a collection of shops, restaurants and a hotel, creating one of the densest retail areas in the city.
“The impact on the neighborhood has been tremendous the entire neighborhood has changed completely,” said Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and a long-time resident of the area.
“Everybody has had to go to permit parking, the crime rate has escalated tremendously, and there’s far more noise you can hear cars going back and forth at all times of the day,” she said.
Trefry denies there is a serious crime problem and points out that the mall has taken steps to decrease incidents of property theft in the parking lot. According to numbers provided by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Wilshire District, crime in and around the Beverly Center fell 36 percent from 1995 to 1996.
But Harold Hahn, president of the Burton Way Homeowners Association, recognizes that while the Beverly Center has had some positive impacts on the area, the problems far outweigh the benefits.
“The problem is two-fold the Beverly Center and other shopping has caused major congestion in a densely populated area and there is a lack of parking.”
None of which is enough to keep away shoppers like Rik Smith. “I like to come here to people watch,” he said one day last week. “I don’t consider myself a fashion plate, but I like to come watch people who dress up to go shopping here.
“I just saw (singer-actress) Brandy buying a dress in one of the stores when a group of Japanese tourists crowded around her asking for her autograph,” he said. “Where else can you see that?”