By ELIZABETH HAYES
South Lake Avenue in Pasadena once epitomized a genteel, carriage-trade shopping destination. Classy boutiques dotted the tree-lined boulevard, while models paraded the latest fashions in the tearoom at Bullock’s Pasadena.
But the district started to lose its luster in the late 1980s. And while Pasadena’s once-seedy Old Town was reborn as a trendy shopping and entertainment district, once-proud Lake Avenue lost much of its distinction.
Today, Bullock’s is a Macy’s and many of the small, upscale shops have been replaced by cookie-cutter discounters like Ross Dress for Less and The Good Guys. Gene Burton’s women’s boutique, the I. Magnin department store and Jurgensen’s gourmet grocery are all gone.
As an anchor tenant, Macy’s decided to jazz up the area and teamed up with Forest City Development of Cleveland to develop a revitalization proposal. The Pasadena City Council will get its first look this week at the plan, which calls for a a six-screen theater, a Gelson’s market, restaurants and boutiques surrounding Macy’s.
“Macy’s asked us to take a look at the street and determine what might be done to reverse the negative trends declining sales and a general shift from upscale to middle or discount retail along South Lake,” said Victor Grgas, Forest City’s director of planning.
Free-standing department stores are hard-pressed to survive these days, Grgas said. Macy’s is the last fashion department store in Pasadena; the former Robinson’s on Colorado Boulevard is now a Target.
The South Lake Business Association is supporting the plan, in large part because of Forest City’s reputation as a high-end developer and its successful redevelopment of downtown Cleveland, which included construction of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, said Jim Ellis, president of the group.
But neighbors say the project is too big. Instead of returning South Lake to its glory days, it will create traffic headaches for residents, said Jeff Ellis, president of the Madison Heights Neighborhood Association.
“The last thing Pasadena needs is another mall subsidized with taxpayer money,” said Jeff Ellis (not related to Jim). “A lot of neighborhood associations are in favor of seeing something done. But it’s far too big and intrusive.”
Forest City’s $32 million project would encompass 153,158 square feet, built on part of the Macy’s parking lot and a bank of ivy on the east side of the 1947 building. Developers are asking for $3.6 million in city subsidies.
The three-level parking garage would partially block views of the Bullock’s building, which is a registered historic landmark.
John Rousselot, a resident on San Pasqual Street, said South Lake doesn’t need a project of this scope, although he agrees that Macy’s needs to be upgraded.
“It’s nowhere near the quality of the Sherman Oaks store,” he said.
Jim Ellis, however, says that without city approval of the project, Macy’s may opt to pull out noting that it has sister stores nearby at the Santa Anita Fashion Park and Glendale Galleria.
Five city commissions already have weighed in on the project.
The Traffic Advisory Commission said that developers have taken measures to protect residential neighborhoods. But the Design Commission, Cultural Heritage Commission and Planning Commission denied the developer’s request for the parking structure at Del Mar Boulevard and Hudson Avenue which effectively would kill the project.
Grgas said Forest City surveyed 20,000 Pasadena households and found 7-to-1 support for it. Jeff Ellis is skeptical of that, but he concedes that he’s swimming against the tide. The Forest City project is estimated to yield a net of $1.13 million annually in an area that now generates only 10 percent of the city’s total sales tax income.
“I’m afraid the council is going to see dollar signs and buy the promises and approve this,” Ellis said.
Councilman Sid Tyler, who represents the South Lake area, said he supports the general concept but wants changes made, including a reduction in the size of the parking structure.
“If the developer could make design changes, the whole community would support it,” he said. “We want the store to be successful and for Macy’s to stay. We don’t want to be a Wal-Mart or a Home Depot.”