clock menu more-arrow no yes
A surface parking lot filled with cars anchors a strip of low-rise businesses with large wood signs painted shades of red and blue.
Gower Gulch—one of the rare strip malls with non-utilitarian flair—was built in 1976 at the site of former movies studios.

Filed under:

How LA became the land of strip malls

As car ownership boomed, unremarkable commercial centers became an integral part of the LA landscape

Architecturally, it’s just another nondescript, drab corner strip mall, fronted by a wide parking lot dotted with pigeons (and their droppings). It happens to be on the gray corner of Hollywood and Winona boulevards, in Hollywood’s Thai Town.

Its appearance might be unimpressive, but this strip mall teems with life and culture. It is anchored by the tiny Jumbo’s Clown Room, a locally legendary strip club and bar, where drunken patrons young and old spill into the parking lot smoking cigarettes and vaping. Next door is the Phukaw by Ya Ya, a clothing store that sells elaborate and colorful Thai tradition dresses. Then there is a pet store and Kruang Tedd Thai, a hip restaurant serving comforting som tum and jungle curry.

This is just one of the thousands of aging corner strip malls all over Los Angeles County, so embedded in the landscape that Angelenos hardly notice them, even as they patronize them daily.

“It’s been a very popular phenomenon,” says professor Richard Longstreth, who wrote the definitive book on the subject. “The idea of not having to search for a parking place and just driving up to a store is still an appealing one to many Americans, particularly in a city where pedestrian activity isn’t very strong in most places.”

Strip malls in Los Angeles were not always such a non-event. On October 24, 1924, Los Feliz Boulevard in Glendale was backed up with 11,000 cars, boasting license plates from 34 states. They were there to experience an innovation in convenience, Ye Market Place, the Southland’s first drive-in market—and the grandmother to the corner strip mall.

A restaurant patio on a strip mall sidewalk is shaded by orange and yellow striped awning and curtains. The noses of cars put up against the sidewalk.
The prototype for the modern strip mall was born in the 1920s, as car ownership swelled.

Throughout the day, Longstreth writes in The Drive-In, The Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 40,000 people crowded into the U-shaped, $65,000 structure dreamed up by insurance adjuster C.I. Peckham. The drive-in was his response to the frustrations of automobile-centered life in Los Angeles.

“Peckham reputedly initiated the project because of his frustration at having to drive around a block two or three times in order to find a parking space while running errands,” Longstreth writes.

The task to design this new concept was assigned to Pasadena architect Frederick Kennedy. He designed a U-shaped retail building that surrounded a large parking lot covered in crushed white granite, much like the gravel used at gas stations of the time. There were modern conveniences, including covered walkways that led to public bathrooms and spotlights that lit the complex at night.

Despite the drive-in’s thoroughly modern purpose, the facade of Ye Market Place was highly ornamental. Designed in a style labeled “post-medieval English,” the building “suggested a handsome stable compound of some grand estate,” Longstreth writes. “The image was reassuring—quaint, ornamental, intricate in detail—and would be viewed as an asset to nearby residential tracts then being developed.”

During the 1920s, automobile ownership exploded in Los Angeles, from 161,846 in 1920 to 806,264 in 1930. Soon, drive-in markets were popping up at the intersections of increasingly busy roads across Los Angeles County. In 1927, the Los Angeles Times reported on the first large-scale drive-in market erected on Vine Street: It was designed to accommodate 20 cars and featured a 12-foot canopy to “provide protection from sun and rain.”

Although the vendors in the markets sold unexciting wares—food, gas, and health and beauty staples—the facades were pure 1920s fantasy. Many of the buildings, including the Aurora Drive-In Market in Glendale and Tower Market in Beverly Hills, were constructed in the familiar L-shaped form of modern corner strip malls. They were also ornamented with Moorish, Spanish, Art Deco, Chinese, and Old English motifs so popular at the time.

The Mandarin, at the corner of La Mirada Avenue and Vine Street, was one of the most elaborate drive-ins constructed. Designed in 1929 by Hollywood architect H.L. Gogerty, the complex, according to the Los Angeles Times, was given the “Chinese architectural treatment,” replete with pagodas and bright red and gold ornamentation.

A street view of a strip mall against a blue sky with puffy clouds. The businesses are named: Salon of Beauty, The Phukaw, Jumbo’s Clown Room, and Kruang Tedo.
The strip mall has survived even as big-box stores and chains proliferate.

According to journalist Mary Melton, around 250 drive-ins opened in California by the end of the 1920s. Even modernist master Richard Neutra dipped his toe in the water by designing two speculative drive-ins. According to Longstreth, the first, titled “Los Angeles Drive-In Market,” was a sleek, fantastical semicircular structure surrounding a large parking lot. The second design was a modernist dream of mirrors and lights. Longstreth writes:

The front was to be two stories high, completely open, surmounted by a thin parapet with large illuminated signs… between the supporting cantilevered trusses, probably of wood, were to be a series of mirrors, each tilted at a slightly different angle to form a cove and provide multiple reflections of the scene below, so that from the street the impression would be of a signboard suspended above an ethereal interplay of machine, people and products. At night, the effect would have been more dramatic, with a rotating beacon casting polychromatic light across the signs and recessed fixtures illuminating the mirror plates.

Longstreth speculates that the prolific Wright may have been inspired by Neutra’s drawings when he was designing the modernist Yucca-Vine Market, which was completed in 1930. But it was the fortress-like Chapman Park Market Place on Sixth Street, in what is now Koreatown, that would take the humble drive-in and turn it into a prototype of the modern outdoor mall.

Designed by the architectural firm of Morgan, Walls and Clements (architect of El Capitan Theater), the Moorish-Spanish style structure, spread over two acres, boasted 28 commercial market spaces and a post office. Borrowing from Spanish architectural forms, the markets surrounded not a park-like courtyard but a parking lot.

But the Depression soon stunted the growth of commercial development in Los Angeles. The advent of pioneering supermarkets like Ralphs took business away from drive-ins, and many were torn down, converted into body shops, gas stations, and even furniture stores. “A number of drive-ins have survived,” Longstreth says. “But they just weren’t built anymore, and many were converted to other other functions.”

Then came the mammoth shopping mall, with its supersize conveniences and giant parking lots. “In the postwar years, the regional mall—pioneered in Southern California with the Broadway-Crenshaw Center (now Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza)—came to replace the neighborhood-serving drive-in market as the dominant new retail space,” writes Benjamin Schneider of the Urbanist.

An aerial view of a major Los Angeles thoroughfare lined with strip malls and a motel. Hills in the background.
By 1985, Southern California had been dubbed “the mini-mall capital of the world.”
Close-up of a business in a strip mall. Customers lined up outside. Flowers—roses, baby’s breath—spill out of a window box in the forefront. A church is in the background.
The idea of not having to search for a parking place and just drive up to a store is still an appealing one.”

It was a worldwide political crisis that would resurrect the drive-in market, this time dubbed the corner strip mall or the mini-mall. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973-’74 and the subsequent gas crisis caused hundreds of Los Angeles-area gas stations to go bust.

“Those abandoned sites, surrounded by chain-link fences and strewn with ripped-up chunks of concrete, were usually at busy intersections chosen with the motorist in mind; oil companies were eager to get rid of the properties, and they were priced to sell,” writes Jade Chang in Metropolis magazine. “Later, in the mid-1980s, Standard Oil sold off the last of its iconic gas stations in Los Angeles, again providing a bonanza of cheap real estate for developers.”

According to Melton, the first modern LA “mini-mall” was constructed in Panorama City, in 1973. Located at Osborne Street and Woodman Avenue, the Italian-themed strip mall was designed by La Mancha Development Co., which would become a leader of corner strip mall development in Southern California.

“Our original concept… was to building convenience centers that you could get into and out of without having to drive miles into a parking lot,” Sam Bachner, president of La Mancha, told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve taken these stores out of the large shopping centers because you may not want to go to the supermarket if you only want to buy a bottle of milk. The buying habits of people have changed.”

These new strip malls, sometimes one-story, sometimes two, almost always L-shaped and surrounding a small parking lot, were a far cry from their gilded, glamorous predecessors. An exception was the Western-themed Gower Gulch at Western and Sunset in Hollywood, which was built in 1976 at the site of former movie studios that cranked out Westerns. But most of the new strip malls were purely utilitarian, and these unremarkable commercial centers soon became an integral part of the LA landscape.

“In the 1980s this is going to be the architectural symbol of our city,” Rick Joseph, a member of the Architectural Revitalization Coalition of Hollywood said in the Los Angeles Times in 1984. “You have the red roofs of Paris, the piazzas of Rome, the beautiful Victorian homes of San Francisco—and in Los Angeles… the convenience shopping center. They are everywhere.”

His prediction was correct. That year, the Los Angeles Times reported that there were an estimated 2,000 in Southern California.

From 1974 to 1984, the number of gasoline retailers in Los Angeles dropped by 32 percent. Bachner, dubbed the “mini-mall king,” would snap up many of these old gas station lots, and by 1997 he had built an astounding 650 strip malls in Los Angeles County. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The company’s signs, “For Lease, La Mancha Development, New Shopping Center,” festooned with a Picasso-esque silhouette of a bowlegged Don Quixote grasping his lance, were raised at so many construction sites in the ‘80s that they became more than one Valley kid’s first exposure to Cervantes.

But La Mancha was not the only one in the game. Other firms became prolific strip mall machines, including T.W. Layman and Associates, which would design approximately 400 strip malls in the Southern California area.

“They were not popular from a planning point of view, but the public voted with their feet,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “They were very convenient, and that’s why they got built. They rented to businesses which served the needs of people, and they made money for the developers.”

Young people walk through a parking lot in a small, beige stucco strip mall.
The corner strip mall survives and thrives, especially in immigrant communities.

By 1985, it was estimated that there were around 3,000 strip malls in Southern California, which was dubbed “the mini-mall capital of the world.” A vigorous backlash to what many saw as cheap, ugly, utilitarian concrete blocks—whose parking lots attracted “undesirable” loiterers—began to grow throughout the 1980s.

“What really bothered urban planners, and me, was that most of them provided parking on the front side of the mini-mall, and that broke up the pedestrian character of the streets they were built on,” Yaroslavsky says. “Historically, parking for retail stores [was] provided in the rear and the stores were more conducive to pedestrians. I viewed the new mini-mall model as troublesome.”

In 1986, Proposition U, a slow-growth initiative sponsored by Yaroslavsky, then a member of the Los Angeles City Council, was passed by 70 percent of voters. Opposed by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, the proposition limited the amount of commercial development in Los Angeles.

“Prop U was not a response to mini-malls,” Yaroslavsky says. “It was a response to massive buildings like the Beverly Center, Westside Pavilion, the Fujita Building on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. It was the massive shopping centers, massive office buildings, the consequent traffic, shade and shadow problems. People were fed up with the changing scale of new buildings in commercial zones adjacent to residential neighborhoods.”

Although Prop U was not targeted specifically toward strip malls, it did mean there was less available space to build. “Of the 29,000 acres zoned for commercial and industrial uses throughout L.A., 70 percent saw their development capacity sliced in half,” according to Better Institutions.

Measures designed to curb strip-mall construction were enacted in earnest in the late 1980s. “A series of retaliatory anti-mini-mall edicts went into effect all over L.A. County,” Melton wrote in the LA Times in 1997. “In May 1987, a two-month halt on mini-mall construction in Hollywood; a yearlong moratorium in Eagle Rock; blanket bans in San Marino and West Hollywood, restrictions in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.”

That same year, Bradley, facing a potential election battle with Yaroslavsky, changed his tune. In April of 1987, Bradley called for vigorous enforcement of Proposition U and the passage of a “mini-mall” ordinance to further combat their rapid growth. “These mini-malls, are frequently the site of loitering, littering, noise, not to mention traffic congestion and unsightly parking lots,” he said.

People young and old file into Mario’s Peruvian Restaurant in a small strip mall. The buildings are clad in yellow brick. Next-door is Ramen Koo.
Strip malls are home to some of the best food in LA.

In November 1988, the Los Angeles City Council passed the rather weak “mini-mall ordinance.” It set basic guidelines for future mini-mall projects, which included the planting of one tree for every four parking spaces. “We passed a mini-mall ordinance to give us discretion over their approvals,” Yaroslavsky says. “After the ordinance went into effect, mini-mall construction slowed, but I’m not sure it was the reason or whether the city had simply been overdeveloped with them.”

What opponents of the modern corner strip mall overlooked was that their relatively affordable rent meant the many small-business owners were able to flourish. New entrepreneurs, particularly recent immigrants, opened (and continue to open) convenience stores, doughnut shops, laundromats, and a diverse selection of some of LA’s best restaurants. In 1992, during the Los Angeles Uprising, the mini-mall become a symbol of strife. Approximately 30 corner strip malls—many with stores owned by Korean-American proprietors—were damaged or destroyed.

In the current era, the corner strip mall survives and thrives, especially in immigrant communities like Koreatown and the San Gabriel Valley. However, many of the older examples have fallen into disrepair, and business has been leached in some part by Target, Walmart, and luxury mega-outdoor malls. The website Better Institutions blames Proposition U, which limits new commercial development in many areas: “It’s the reason that so many commercial corridors in LA are still characterized by 1960s and ’70s-era, single-story, dilapidated strip malls. All those arterial corridors were the ones permanently frozen in time by Prop U.”

Even at their most dilapidated, corner strip malls are home to restaurants with some of the most delicious food in the city, including such institutions as Versailles, Zankou Chicken, Palms Thai, and Mario’s Peruvian and Seafood. As Schneider notes, the late food writer Jonathan Gold was dubbed the “poet of the Strip-Mall Eatery” because of all the amazing restaurants he found in the unobtrusive L-shaped buildings.

“Mini-malls manage to be at once pervasive and low-key, filling your neighborhood with Sri Lankan spice stores and Korean hot-pot joints—while you’re busy bemoaning the steady march of chain restaurants,” Chang writes in Metropolis.

For now, for better or worse, Los Angeles remains the capital of the corner strip mall. Next time you are grabbing a Slurpee or dropping off your laundry, take a look around—what seems like an architectural nonentity means more than meets the eye.

Downtown

The stories behind LA’s famous (and strange) street names

South Bay

The story of Smilin’ Jack, Wilmington’s huge pumpkin-shaped oil tank

Santa Monica

The surviving beach shacks of Los Angeles

View all stories in History