For San Fernando Valley's Economic Centers, Post-Northridge Quake Recovery 25 Years in the Making

2019-01-17 | Daily News

Jan. 17--Some effects of the Northridge earthquake have endured longer than others.

A quarter-century later, several buildings that were damaged by the magnitude 6.7 temblor that rocked the region just before dawn on Jan. 17, 1994 are still vacant.

But local officials say that while recovery in some San Fernando Valley areas has been slow, things are starting to turn around -- such as in Panorama City and along Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood.

Meanwhile, such areas as Lankershim Boulevard have reported a more robust recovery.

Here's a look at how some areas hit hard by the quake have fared over the years and what the future holds for each:

El Portal Theatre in the North Hollywood Arts District, 1206 Weddington St.

An effort to revitalize Lankershim Boulevard as an arts district had been underway when the earthquake struck.

The temblor's shaking damaged the historic El Portal Theatre, which was undergoing more than $300,000 in renovations to restore it back to its original role as a live theater venue.

The Actors Alley Acting troupe, the company housed at performing arts center at Lankershim Boulevard and Weddington Street, was set to debut a play on Feb. 3.

The quake damaged the ceiling, taking with it the art deco-style chandelier that was to have served as the centerpiece of the venue's rebirth.

The stage survived. It had been retrofitted for earthquakes about two years before, according to Jay Irwin, the current general manager for the El Portal.

"There was no roof over where the seats were," he said, "but over where the stage was, was perfect, more or less."

The former vaudeville and silent movie house had gone through many incarnations since it was built in 1926, including being operated as a burlesque venue during World War II, and then later as a movie theater.

Interest in the area grew in later years, and the theater was designated a historic landmark in 1993. Public officials saw the theater renovation project as a way to help spur on what was then a burgeoning theater scene in North Hollywood.

Thus, there was a big push to get the El Portal Theatre rebuilt with the help of FEMA funds, following the earthquake.

The theater eventually re-opened in 2000, six years after the earthquake to some fanfare about its role in growing the arts district. It also had the distinction of being the only theater venue in the San Fernando Valley where performers were represented by the Actors' Equity Association labor union, Irwin said.

But when the theater re-opened, Lankershim Boulevard had not yet begun looking the part of a revitalized neighborhood.

"The front page of the L.A. Times said (Lankershim Boulevard) was a blighted neighborhood, two weeks after we had opened," Irwin said.

Pegge Forrest, managing director of the El Portal, recalled the streets in the area looking neglected and downtrodden. "It was a slum," she said. "Rats (were) on the street."

But the seeds of change were also present, including the North Hollywood Metro Red Line subway station that opened at the corner of Lankershim and Chandler boulevards the same year the theater re-opened its doors.

Soon, many of the buildings that had lined the streets were torn down, and new mixed-use apartment and commercial buildings took their place.

With those changes came more restaurants, art galleries, theaters, and coffee houses.

But the most apparent indicator that things had changed was that "rental prices have gone way up," increasing the stakes for businesses in the area, according to Irwin.

"You've got to be good," he said. "You can't have a bad business."

As for the El Portal, which continues to book a steady schedule of live music and theater shows, it can be a bit tough getting the newer, younger residents of the area to come to support the venue.

The season ticket holders tend to be older, while the "millennials" are less predictable, Forrest said. They have more of a habit of dropping in at the last minute to catch shows.

But while Lankershim Boulevard has seen many changes, the El Portal offers a link back to the area's "old Hollywood" roots, Irwin said.

"We end up being kind of the historic relic in the neighborhood that hearkens back to that old time," he said.

Panorama Tower, 8155 N. Van Nuys Blvd.

Severely damaged by the big jolt, the 13-story Panorama Tower has stood vacant for 25 years.

During the intervening years, the former office building has frequently been cited as an eyesore and symbol of the urban blight that has plagued the Panorama City area.

City officials have made some attempts to revive the tower:

In more recent years, things have started to look like they might finally take a positive turn.

The Panorama Tower property was purchased in 2015 by developer Izek Shomof, who is planning to convert the Welton Becket designed office building into more than 190 units of "live-work" lofts, with retail on the ground floor.

There were plans introduced in 2017 to build an open mall next to the building, but they were withdrawn a year later, according to city records.

Retrofitting work is underway to strengthen the building, according to Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who is eyeing an economic comeback for the Panorama City neighborhood.

She said the challenges faced by Panorama City in 1994 ran deeper than a natural disaster, because around that time jobs that had supported the community were leaving along with the manufacturing companies moving to other parts of the country or overseas.

"To be honest, the biggest disaster in Panorama City was 100 percent man-made," she said.

Martinez said she recalls a time when Panorama City was the place to go. The Panorama Mall was where "all the cool teenagers used to hang out," she said.

She believes the area might become that again. "Panorama City is on the cusp of an economic revival," she said.

Also figuring prominently in Panorama City's economic future:

-- Recently approved plans for The ICON at Panorama, a mixed-use project with more than 600 residential units at the old Montgomery Ward site;

-- Efforts by a new owner of the Panorama Mall to expand and bring in fresh tenants;

-- And a projected light rail line along Van Nuys Boulevard.

Laurel Plaza and Valley Plaza shopping centers, near Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Victory Boulevards

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Laurel Plaza and Valley Plaza along Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood served as models for then-trendy, car-oriented shopping centers.

But by the 1980s, those sites were showing signs of age and decline. Competition from newer shopping centers nearby were drawing away customers.

The Northridge quake delivered a major setback for those two retail sites that has lasted more than two decades.

The earthquake cut short attempts to revive the area, because it hit just a week before city officials were to consider redevelopment plans for Laurel Plaza, according to Los Angeles Councilman Paul Krekorian.

Krekorian said investors "were ready to move forward with a plan for redevelopment, and then the earthquake struck, and it just put the brakes on everything. In fact, they lost interest in investing in it because of the earthquake."

The earthquake prompted some of the stores to close permanently. And it led to a "downward spiral that would end up really affecting Valley Plaza and Laurel Plaza for the next couple of decades," he said.

Among the biggest and more symbolic losses for the community was the Ice Chalet ice skating rink, which closed a year after the earthquake.

The majority of the department store buildings on the Laurel Plaza site were demolished as well.

All that remained was the building that housed a Macy's department store until 2016.

But recently, a mixed-use project at the Laurel Plaza site, at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Erwin Street, has been underway. The project, known as NoHo West, was approved by the Los Angeles City Council in 2016 and is expected to bring a movie theater, retail shops, restaurants, office space -- and more than 600 residential units.

The years have not been kind to the Valley Plaza site. The earthquake shut down two longtime retail giants -- while the Sears store re-opened, JCPenney ultimately closed for good.

A redevelopment effort led by the city -- to be handled by developer JH Snyder -- was approved in 2009. But it ultimately fell through.

Meanwhile, vacancies were never filled after tenants left the Valley Plaza site to make way for that project.

Complicating matters, Krekorian said, was the property's multiple owners, each of whom had different goals and interests.

But he said the push is still to assemble the various parcels under one identity.

"You don't get very many opportunities to identify a piece of property for development that big in such a strategic location as that," he said.

Krekorian spoke hopefully about the Valley Plaza site, confident that the success of NoHo West project, which is "going to be essentially a new neighborhood," will rub off on its neighbor.

"(NoHo West is) going to be an exciting destination," he said.

"As soon as people see the success of that development," he said, "I'm sure they will be clamoring to get in on the action by investing in Valley Plaza as well."

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