Spotlight/ 25 inches/LK1st/mark2nd Porter Ranch Year Founded: 1964 Origins: Benjamin Porter purchased 1,100 acres of land in 1870 and built a ranch on it, which was purchased by a savings and loan company in the 1960s. A decade later Shapell Industries Inc. purchased the 1,300-acre parcel in partnership with Liberty Building Co. Business Profile: The Porter Ranch Towne Center includes big-box retailers with more large discount stores expected to come in. By JOAN OSTERWALDER Staff Reporter Long stymied by the recession, Porter Ranch’s retail center is finally off the ground, with stores like Toys ‘R’ Us and Best Buy opening in time for the holiday season. Soon to follow are a 130,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, a Party City, Sports Chalet and a Ralphs supermarket, which are being built as part of a 300-acre retail center known as the Porter Ranch Towne Center. “It’s a growth area,” said Allen Young, senior vice president of CB Richard Ellis Inc., the leasing agent for the center. “It is, in our opinion, the last freeway-commercial-zoned property It’s a big draw.” While the developers are happy to get the long-stalled project going, many Porter Ranch residents, whose homes cost as much as $700,000, are less than thrilled. Their dreams of attracting upscale merchants such as Nordstrom or Gelson’s evaporated when they got the big boxes instead. “I think the center is a blight on the face of the earth,” said Walter N. Prince, 63, who lives in Chatsworth near the shopping center and is a longtime leader of the Northridge Chamber of Commerce. “It’s just another collection of big boxes tossed on the back of a parking lot.” Located north of the Ronald Reagan/Simi Valley (118) Freeway on Rinaldi Street between Winnetka and Corbin avenues, Porter Ranch still consists primarily of open space. Traffic lights are being installed and several construction sites dot the dusty hillside. Shapell Industries Inc., which is developing the retail center with partner Liberty Building Co. under the name Porter Ranch Development Co., originally planned a $2 billion development with 11,000 people and jobs for 20,000 by the time it was completed in 2010 but then the bottom fell out of the real estate market. The commercial portion of the project originally featured 6 million square feet of space, including a hotel and a 10-story office building. But the plan ultimately was reduced to 660,000 square feet of retail space to be built on 300 acres. The first phase, which includes the Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Toys ‘R’ Us and other uses, takes in 53 acres and is scheduled for completion in fall 1999. Young said Porter Ranch represents the last opportunity for a power center in the north Valley. The center’s customer base is expected to come from the surrounding areas, such as Northridge and Chatsworth, as well as from Simi Valley. The nearest real competitor to Wal-Mart is the year-old Wal-Mart store in Panorama City, he said. “It’s the north Valley location (that attracts) a lot of these retailers,” Young said. Despite opposition from some neighbors, the Towne Center is being built with community input. The Porter Ranch Design Review Board, which oversaw the current development, and the Porter Ranch Specific Plan Review Committee, which will make recommendations for the remaining expansion, both were appointed by the City Council back in 1995 when the project was downsized from the original plan. Disillusioned residents, however, said they continue to be concerned about increased traffic and decreasing property values for their homes. “You don’t build a Wal-Mart the first year and get a Nordstrom the next year,” said Prince, who is on both community oversight panels. “Wal-Mart has a long history of driving little guys out of business. Their purchasing power is tremendous. “This and the rest of it reflects on home values,” he added. “It’s not a snob thing. You should try to enhance it and not drag it down I’ve heard of nobody who is happy.” But there seems to be nothing angry residents can do. If it is permitted under existing commercial zoning rules, “you cannot dictate what stores are going to be built,” said Ali Sar, spokesman for Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents the area. “Of course, we’d prefer the high-end stores. At the beginning we were opposed but we can’t regulate that.” Some customers don’t seem to care whether the warehouse-type stores fit into the area. “It’s about time they do something up here,” said Toys ‘R’ Us shopper Evelyn Ing from Northridge. “I don’t think it ruins the area.” Others disagree. “The quality of the stores doesn’t seem to match with the quality of the neighborhood,” said William F. Powers, an attorney in Chatsworth and chairman of the Porter Ranch Specific Plan Review Committee. “(Residents) are not going to be satisfied with the shopping center.” Whatever residents think, the two new stores, both sprawled over 45,000 square feet, are happy with their location. “Things are going pretty good,” said Best Buy merchandise manager Daphne Ikner. “Our sales are average for a new store. Our customers are happy that we’re here.” She brushed off any complaints from the neighborhood groups, saying the remarks weren’t directed toward her store as much as at the Wal-Mart that is coming in. “Porter Ranch residents will see we will be able to take care of their needs and the high end of their community,” Ikner said. David Gunski, assistant director of Toys ‘R’ Us, said he has only gotten positive feedback so far. “I’ve only heard ‘glad you’re here,’ ‘it’s a beautiful store’ and ‘the service is impeccable,’ ” he said. “We’re happy to be here. We’ll do what we can to make the community happy.” In November, the Los Angeles City Council approved a name change so that Winnetka Avenue will be called Porter Ranch Center Drive. “That gives them free advertising on that freeway,” Prince said, adding that the city now has to change the freeway signs for the shopping center’s new exit.