By  on February 15, 1994

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. -- When MEPC American Properties Inc. bought Northridge Fashion Center here two months ago, the Dallas-based retail and office developer intended to launch a major renovation of the center in January 1995.

Last month, after the Los Angeles earthquake leveled the center's Bullock's and ripped through a parking structure, it became clear the renovation would be done much sooner and at Mother Nature's timing, not MEPC's.

Located a mile from the quake's epicenter, Northridge Fashion Center became an often-cited example on national newscasts of just how destructive the earthquake had been.

The pile of rubble that was left where Bullock's once stood also served as a dramatic sign of how many people would have been killed if the earthquake had struck during business hours instead of 4:31 a.m.

At 1.55 million square feet, it was the largest mall in the San Fernando Valley, a section of Los Angeles sometimes credited with the birth of the mall and mall culture.

Stores at the center rang up $360 million in sales last year, a 5 percent increase from 1992, despite the lingering California recession. MEPC president David Gruber had expected a similar or greater increase this year.

In the weeks since the quake, mall general manager Lloyd Miller has spent a lot of time fighting persistent rumors that the mall would not be rebuilt or that its anchors were abandoning their stores.

Working from trailers located in the parking lot of the fenced-in property, Miller's days have been plagued by phones that cut off in the middle of conversations and lost files that have been transferred from offices to portable boxes.

Construction on mall repairs is expected to begin this April and continue through the end of the year. While Bullock's and the parking structure have been condemned, Miller points out that most stores in the center connecting the six anchors suffered only minor damage.

MEPC plans to reopen the mall connecting the anchors during the summer. The center's six anchors -- The Broadway, Bullock's, J.C. Penney, Sears and two Robinsons-May units -- own their buildings and will repair and rebuild according to their own timetable, Miller said. The Broadway is planning to reopen by Christmas, and all remaining anchors are expected to reopen by summer 1995.Miller said repairs to the mall will be made according to new earthquake standards, which currently are being developed. While the center had been updated as standards changed since 1971, the power of this temblor showed a strong quake could rattle even a building thought to be "earthquake proof."

Virtually all of the 200 specialty stores at the center are expected to open in the new mall, Miller said. The renovations originally set for next year -- including sky lights, new escalators, elevators, a new food court and marble floors -- will be included during earthquake reparations.

Whether shoppers will return to Northridge Fashion Center in such large numbers, however, is open to debate. It will take years for the neighborhood surrounding the mall to recover. Today, blocks of abandoned apartments and tourists with cameras have replaced a community. Corner markets are closed while guerrilla retailers sell "I survived the Northridge quake" T-shirts on street corners.

Miller said he believes the center will bounce back stronger than it was because renovations will take it from the Eighties to the Nineties.

While some may always associate Northridge Fashion Center as the place hit by the great quake of '94, Miller said, "Human nature is such that some people may be a little leery. But my best guess is when people see the new stores, they'll be excited to be back in the mall."

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