A Rising Tide
Americana at Brand anchors other businesses -- even competitors -- in downtown Glendale
After four years, public officials have declared the mixed residential-outdoor shopping and dining mall Americana at Brand — where a giant chandelier hangs over the southern entrance, a faux Eiffel Tower changes colors atop the main commercial area and an elaborate central water fountain dazzles as songs by Frank Sinatra and other Big Band Era crooners are piped throughout the 15.5-acre complex from morning to night — a grand accomplishment, producing greater than expected sales from its combination of stores, restaurants, movie theaters, condos and apartments.
In addition, the space — quite contrary to initial fears, which produced a lawsuit in 2004 aimed at stopping the Glendale Galleria’s main competitor in the downtown area that was finally settled in 2009 — has actually provided a much-welcomed customer boost to the sprawling 36-year-old, 200-store indoor mall, anchored by original tenant JC Penney, Macy’s, Nordstrom (relocating to the Americana in fall 2013) and the country’s only three-story Target.
Located directly across the street from the Americana on Central Avenue, just north of Colorado Street, the Galleria now boasts an Apple store (with another Apple outlet across the street at the Americana) and a Bloomingdale’s to open in fall 2013 in the space formerly leased by Mervyn’s.
“I think the Americana has been an unqualified success for Glendale,” said Councilman Ara Najarian. “A lot of people will leave the Americana and go to shops and restaurants elsewhere along Brand when they’re on their way to or from there, or when a wait is too long at an Americana restaurant. My own kids did that last week when they faced a two-hour wait for dinner at the Americana.”
Despite the positive reviews from people like Najarian and officials who claim the city has benefited greatly from the Americana, some community activists are still suspicious of what they call a sweetheart deal made between the city and Americana developer Caruso Affiliated. The LA-based company is headed by billionaire Rick Caruso, owner of the Grove in Los Angeles, who is rumored to be eyeing the mayor’s job in that city.
Glendale City Council critic Herbert Molano doubts whether Glendale officials will ever recoup the true value of the 8.5 acres the city gave to Caruso Affiliated and the three additional acres the city is leasing to the retail developer for just $1 per year.
“The financial justification the city gave to the public for the subsidy it gave to Caruso is based on the property and sales tax revenues coming from the Americana,” Molano said.
“Every year around April, I request that the city of Glendale give me a copy of the Americana’s financial statement, but this year the city has refused to release them, saying it’s proprietary information,” said Molano, a longtime follower of the city‘s financial dealings. “The interesting part is that the city itself is supposed to evaluate the performance of the complex, and I don’t believe that anyone is doing that.”
Although Molano insists he’s being stonewalled, city officials say nothing could be further from the truth. Further, Molano is incorrect about city officials not keeping tabs on the mall’s finances, according to one of the people charged with evaluating that progress.
“Both the Americana and the Galleria are major drivers of pedestrian traffic in downtown,” said Philip Lanzafame, Glendale’s chief assistant director of community development. The Americana opened in 2008, just south of the Galleria’s northeastern section, with 75 high-end retail outlets and restaurants, 238 apartments and 100 condos “just as we were falling into the abyss of the national financial collapse, and it generates around $1.3 million for the city yearly,” Lanzafame said.
“If we didn’t have it going in 2008, our general fund would have had to backfill city spending in the neighborhood of a million dollars,” he added. “So it’s a great boost to Glendale.”
Lanzafame does note, however, that the Americana’s impact on smaller area businesses — the mom and pop stores that form the heart of any city — is harder to quantify. “If mom and pops took a dip in sales from the 2008 downturn, is it the Americana or the economy unrelated to Americana?” asked Lanzafame. “You may want to relate it to the Americana, but you can’t say scientifically yes or no.”
In addition to new businesses, Lanzafame recalled the hundreds of construction jobs that the Americana provided. He also stressed the 1,700 service-industry jobs that it now supports, and noted that the 200 management and support staff positions created by owner Caruso Affiliated were all filled from the Burbank Jobs Center, with most of those applicants being Glendale residents.
“The Galleria definitely jumped in sales while the rest of the state was in freefall, and they’re both large retail malls,” Lanzafame said. “When you look at the sales tax generated out of the Galleria, add that to how Americana helped.”
An even keel
Aside from questions about whether Glendale is truly getting a fair deal out of the Americana, most of those asked about the city’s current business boom expressed greater concern about the state of the Exchange shopping complex. Located on the east side of the Americana, on Brand Boulevard, the Exchange is a collection of small restaurants and movie theaters that remains a constant worry to city officials.
But notwithstanding the still-empty, three-story former Borders Books store right up the street at the corner of Brand and Broadway, which has been vacant for more than a year, and a number of businesses moving in and out of the Exchange’s massive anchor store, formerly Tower Records, hopes for a turnaround in that area run high. Casual Male XL and Home Goods stores have taken over the big-box spot, and four new theaters under new ownership have recently opened.
The Exchange’s beleaguered retail-restaurant collective can also take heart in the coming reopening of the former Mann 10-screen multiplex on neighboring Maryland Avenue, a short walk from Brand in Old Glendale, which will reopen under new investors this fall.
Add in a hoped-for new theater from the Laemmle art-house chain, and Najarian believes the city is on its way to becoming a major cultural hotspot, much like its smaller but ostensibly hipper and trendier neighbor Pasadena.
Noting that the Exchange had been the source of economic concern long before the Americana opened in 2008, Najarian said that “stores going in and out of business is just the natural cycle of things,” and pointed out Glendale’s current housing boom as a sign that things are going well for the city overall. One prime example of turning around the closure of a major retailer came when a former Circuit City store on Maryland just south of Broadway was made part of condo development with more than 1,000 units, currently under construction at that corner. Najarian also touted Bloomingdale’s opening a store in the Galleria in 2013.
“While the Exchange never had the critical mass we were looking for, I think that will change because much of the new housing will go in next to that,” said Najarian. “A lot of those residents are going to be going to the Exchange and patronizing it. If you find the right restaurant or service to offer as a business owner, you’ll be fine.”
That sentiment is echoed by Najarian’s fellow city councilman, Rafi Manoukian, who believes the strong financial commitment already shown by the impending cinema owners will put the Exchange on a stronger keel.
“The Exchange has been a problem since the 1990s,” said Manoukian, who served on the council from 1999 to 2007 and was elected again in 2011. “The movie theater there was a draw, but it was never a destination. I understand the former Mann 10-screen theater is currently leased out and the new lessees are investing a lot of money, so that indicates it could be a viable area. I believe it is viable, and with a good anchor and some additional marketing for that area, I think it’ll be just as prosperous as some other areas.”
24/7 vs. 18/7
One somewhat remarkable factor in Glendale’s recent business successes is the city has made it happen despite its being one of many California locales hit hard by Gov. Jerry Brown’s elimination of city redevelopment agencies. In fact, it could be argued that the extra tax money the Americana has brought into the city’s coffers amid recession has proven to be make or break for the city’s financial health.
Another area in which the Americana has proven beneficial to Glendale is the boost it provides for the city’s historic Alex Theatre, located a few blocks north, near the corner of Brand and Wilson Avenue. Glendale Arts Interim Chief Executive Officer Elissa Glickman said the Alex and Americana provide an easy flow of business for one another.
“The Americana has been an incredible partner,” said Glickman. “It helped launch free concerts at the Americana and launched the Glendale POPS Orchestra, because Rick Lemmo, their senior VP of community relations, works with the community and creates bridges and partnerships. They rejuvenated and brought life to the community that didn’t exist before the Americana. The restoration of the Galleria and its bringing in Bloomingdale’s, plus Nordstrom’s coming to the Americana in 2013, will bring a whole new level of life and transformation to the area.”
Some challenges remain, of course, including how to balance the interests of the new owners of the former Mann Theatres complex against those of the prestigious Laemmle art-house chain. The city’s loss of redevelopment funding from the state has posed a risk that an adjoining residential component will be left out of the Laemmle complex, and Najarian said the city is still searching for a way to successfully accommodate the Museum of Neon Art after its move last year from downtown Los Angeles and help the completion of a new Marriott Hotel at the intersection of Central and California avenues without redevelopment money.
“I think it will shake out,” said Najarian.
Clearly, to paraphrase Sinatra, one of Rick Caruso’s favorite entertainers, Glendale’s little town blues really are fading away. One of the only remaining unused pieces of property left in the city’s downtown is now spoken for, with the property on Wilson, between Brand and Orange Street to the west, about to be turned into a 238-unit residential development known as (what else?) Brand & Wilson.
The 60,000-square-foot project would include shops and restaurants situated below apartments and townhomes. Manoukian, Mayor Frank Quintero and Councilwoman Laura Friedman have all expressed support for the project. Councilman Dave Weaver reportedly believes the site should be used for a five-star hotel.
“We’re going to have a lot of downtown housing. Our goal is to create a downtown Glendale that is, if not 24/7, at least 18/7, with action going past midnight and then again at 8 a.m. for the breakfast and early morning crowd,” Najarian said.
“We do hear from some residents who would prefer Glendale to be that bedroom community it once was, with the streets empty after 8 p.m. But I don’t think that’s where we’re going. Most of the desires and tastes of the community are changing, and they’d like to not have to leave town for nightlife.”