By WADE DANIELS
The Sherman Oaks Galleria may finally get its long-awaited overhaul.
After years of battles between developers and area residents, the new owner is putting the final touches on a redesign that would reduce the retail square footage and add office space to the mall.
Dan Emmett, president of Douglas Emmett, the West Los Angeles real estate company that bought the mall last August, may reveal the new plan as early as this month, but any decision to proceed depends on one key factor whether the mall’s sole anchor tenant, Robinsons/May, decides to remain. The department store chain owns two stores at the mall, one of which has been closed for years. It is now considering pulling out of the mall altogether.
“Robinsons/May has not been doing that well there (business-wise) and will have to make a decision about what to do,” Emmett said. “If they decide to stay we will design (the renovation plans) around them, and if they leave, the design will be different.”
The Sherman Oaks Galleria gained notoriety in the 1980s as the place to find shop-till-you-drop “Valley Girls” popularized in a Frank Zappa song and the film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” But as the consumer frenzy of the ’80s subsided, so too did business at the mall. Today there are some 80 specialty-store spaces and only 55 of them have tenants.
“We hope the renovation will improve business greatly because it’s been terrible,” said Natalie Thain, assistant manager at Lerner New York, a women’s apparel chain owned by The Limited Inc. “All we hear is a lot of rumors and we’re waiting to find out what the plan is.”
Until now, the Galleria has been hard pressed to compete with newer malls, largely because its movie-theater anchor is a relatively small cineplex with just five screens. Movie theaters have largely replaced department stores as anchors drawing shoppers to malls.
An expanded number of stores is not necessarily the answer to drawing customers.
“The market seems to have said that the amount of retail space there can’t be supported,” said Emmett. “There is a lot of demand for creative office space, and we have some interest from some people for that.”
The Galleria currently has about 400,000 square feet of office space and about 500,000 square feet of retail space.
Emmett said businesses in multimedia, entertainment and technology have expressed an interest in leasing office space at the location. Office vacancy rates in prime Valley areas where those industries are concentrated, such as in the Burbank Media District, are almost nil.
Robinsons/May officials declined to comment on their talks with Douglas Emmett. The retailer has been considering pulling out of the mall for some time. Robinsons/May owns the store locations it occupies at the mall, but Emmett owns the land. Emmett would only say that Robinsons/May has a ground lease that extends for “decades.”
The likelihood of the department store remaining at the site is slim, said Marv Taff, an architect with Gensler, a San Francisco-based architecture firm hired by Douglas Emmett to help design the reconfiguration. Taff said his design work has been done under the assumption that the finished product would not include an anchor tenant.
If Robinsons/May opts to leave, construction workers could start on the project as soon as amended entitlements are in place and the store moves out, which could take up to nine months, Emmett said. If the store stays, the design process and a commencement of work could take much longer.
The mall has been at the center of a battle between developers and area homeowners for years as its owners tried to redesign the space to attract more traffic.
The previous owners, Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Co. and Prudential Insurance Co., were ultimately successful in winning entitlements for a $30 million renovation that was to include the addition of eight new restaurants, 2,900 theater seats (for a total of 4,000 seats and up to 18 screens), as well as 45,000 square feet of additional office space.
Homeowner groups have been anxious to learn how that planned renovation will change now that the mall is under new ownership.
“We struck a balance,” said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowner Association, speaking of the talks that led to the entitlements awarded to the previous owners. “If the current owners are going to use the entitlements and not seek to increase them, then that is acceptable.”
If Douglas Emmett proceeds with its plan to change the proportion of retail and office space, the company would have to seek additional entitlements from the Los Angeles City Council. However, a plan that does not seek to increase the number of movie screens or add other entertainment venues is not likely to meet with protests from homeowners.
Douglas Emmett’s plans also call for demolishing a three-story office building that borders the mall on the northwest corner of Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards, a demolition that was approved under the previous ownership. The building obscures much of the view of the Galleria from the street, and has been blamed for the mall’s inability to attract customers. The new design calls for an open outdoor section with fountains and dining areas in place of the office building, in an attempt to make the mall look more inviting to passersby.
“The Galleria is too much like a fortress as it is,” said Taff.
Emmett said he will not seek to increase the amount of parking at the Galleria, which was another point of contention for homeowners. The mall has 3,600 parking places instead of the 4,800 required by the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan, which is the city’s development blueprint for the area. But the city approved a variance exempting the mall from adding more parking.
Emmett said his studies indicate that the Galleria does not need more parking, only better traffic management. Currently, cars attempting to enter the structure queue-up along Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards, blocking traffic and causing congestion. Emmett said that if more cars were directed to the parking structure adjacent to the mall, instead of to the area directly underneath it, much of the congestion could be eliminated.