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Sunland Tujunga's "invasive retail" problem and its southern neighbor

Joseph Mailander elsewhereemail

It is fair to say that the first truly direct testing of the community of Sunland Tujunga by Home Depot tomorrow is being watched anxiously in many sections of the City---and even outside of Los Angeles as well. Nervous new retail operators from Sunland Tujunga's neighbor to the south, the City of Glendale, already concerned about the downturn in the economy, are wondering if the "invasive retail" sentiment will spread to their largely white, largely suburban edge city with the same kind of fervor that the movement has cultivated in LA's most northeastern---and most isolated---community.

Glendale and Sunland Tujunga have a reciprocal relationship across the Verdugos that straddle the communities (the Verdugo mountains, however, belong mostly to Glendale). Sunland Tujunga shops Glendale nearly as much as it shops its own community, and Glendale reaps the benefit of the revenue, while Sunland Tujunga gladly pays the price for its isolation from "invasive retail"---a concept completely opposite to Glendale's approach of using retail to entice customers from nearby middle-class Los Angeles communities like Sunland Tujunga, Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glassell Park, Atwater, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz, as well as the cities of Burbank and Pasadena.

While Sunland Tujunga is mostly a pure middle class community with a pronounced predisposition to the bucolic, especially on its northernmost fringes, Glendale has a large section of upper-tier neighborhoods and even not one but three very wealthy pockets, all significantly detached from the retail zone below the 134 and east of Glendale Boulevard. Glendale is already oversaturated with retail development, all along Glendale Boulevard, Central, and Brand, and is getting even more. As a consequence, its tax base is enormous for its size, enabling it to service not only a large Armenian immigrant community but also to offer many top quality community services to the elderly and physically challenged and to staff seven libraries and many parks, three of the libraries are excellent and one of the rec centers, Pacific Park, is an architectural marvel. It is blessed by being able to consign its industrial services to its southwest, as adjacent San Fernando Road, following old railroad tracks along the LA River, belongs not to Glendale but to Los Angeles, and is zoned for commercial and industrial use. There's a Home Depot on San Fernando, barely tucked into City of LA limits, and Glendale has organized the streets surrounding it to make sure the traffic is all directed to San Fernando.

In Sunland Tujunga, there is none of this careful planning; there is only community in its tightly-packaged frontier sense. Historically it has accomplished community planning by circling the wagons and shooting outwards. And it's easy to see why: cut off from elsewhere as a narrow valley between two oddly imposing mountain chains, the service street is also the main street of the valley: Foothill. This is more important to the debate and the community than outsiders realize. What looks like a banal strip of stucco retail boxes and gas stations also doubles as the community's main artery hosting the Library, Council office, and all the restaurants in the neighborhood; you can't get anywhere without using Foothill, which is not nearly so well equipped for heavy use as San Fernando with its adjacent railroad tracks is.

There really is no earnest debate regarding the Home Depoting of Sunland Tujunga: the community doesn't want this store, and the corporation does; a "win-win" as the survey instrument calls for would simply necessitate the impossible, cutting the baby in half. Via a nearly frivolous lawsuit that should have been tossed out (and would be, were the City of LA to fight it in earnest), the corporation has blackmailed the City into a "mediation" that can only result in further polarization and enmity between the community and the global retailer. But holding their collective breaths are the developers who have their mixed use eyes on Glendale, which has bent over backwards to accommodate Rick Caruso's Americana at Brand, which, like most of Glendale's top retailers including its auto dealers, will depend on consumers from the adjacent middle class LA communities.

Should the community of Sunland Tujunga cause further trouble tomorrow and down the line, the developers and new retailers of Glendale will have to rethink their town as a development safe-haven, insulated from developer-hostile community activism. Perchance they will even be obliged to rethink the traditional Glendale formula of servicing hyper-consumptive retail culture itself.