In The Godfather II, there is a famous scene where Hyman Roth discusses his friendship with a character that was based on real-life gangster Bugsy Siegel.
"Later on he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for GI's on the way to the West Coast. That kid's name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn't even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town!" Roth says with disgust.
In practically every large and mid-sized city in America, there are testaments to the visionary genius of Bob Symonds, the developer who built Valley Plaza in North Hollywood. It's called the suburban American mall. And like Siegel, there isn't so much as a public plaque or signpost or statue anywhere dedicated to his vision.
Symonds was no gangster, just a hard-working salesman and real estate developer whose continued vision, optimism and leadership led to the creation of the Valley Plaza mall, one of the big ideas of American capitalism in the 20th century.
Valley Plaza was the first outdoor mall ever built west of the Mississippi River, the first mall built in the suburbs, the first built with off-steet parking and the first mall built specifically to be located near a freeway.
"This is where the freeway was coming. And Dad was aware of the freeway maybe coming up here, and it was one of the reasons he thought, 'This is an ideal situation,'" said Gregg Symonds while looking over a map of the Valley Plaza area that was sprawled out on his kitchen table. "Because here comes the freeway. It gets right off here at Victory. And here is an opportunity."
Gregg is now 90 years old, retired and living on a beautiful plot of land in Calabasas. He worked for a while as realtor for his father's company but spent most of his life as a general contractor.
The idea to buy up an empty field on the outskirts of North Hollywood and build a mall there was the end result of many years of his father's hard work and salesmanship, Gregg said.
Bob Symonds was born in 1898, grew up in Iowa and had been involved in real estate in Oklahoma, Santa Monica and Florida before he and his family returned to California for good in the early 30s. Symonds worked as a realtor and car salesman in the growing Wilshire District. Ever the deal-maker, he was always looking to trade up by any means necessary.
"Dad was a salesman. He would work anywhere to sell. He had a real estate office at Wilshire and La Brea. I‘ve lived in — you name it. Burbank, Glendale, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, West L.A., Beverly Hills. We moved a lot. Dad was a realtor," Gregg said. "Wherever he could sell something, sometimes he’d sell something and he couldn’t get a commission, but he’d get a house. He was always looking."
During the middle of the Great Depression and still always looking, Symonds saw an opportunity in the rural San Fernando Valley and opened a real estate office on the corner of Magnolia Boulevard and Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood. He also brought his family and they moved to a home on Magnolia west of Laurel Canyon. Gregg was in the 7th grade when they made the move and he said he spent the rest of his childhood in the North Hollywood area and attended nearby North Hollywood High.
At the time, the region around Laurel and Magnolia was farmland.
"We leased a five-acre place on Magnolia Boulevard. And that was nothing then. Five acres on Magnolia between Laurel and Whitsett," Greg said. "There was lots of open space, and maybe a house on two acres or five acres. It was country land. Magnolia was paved, a two-lane road. Laurel Canyon was paved, a two-lane. Whitsett was paved, two lanes most of the way. All the roads in-between were dirt."
On the northwest corner of Magnolia and Laurel Canyon, where he had his office, Symonds also developed a small L-shaped mini-mall that still stands today. The wasn't there at the time, but in its place was a restaurant that would become famous.
“Right on the corner was where the bank is now was Randy’s Donut stand—which had the giant doughnut on top of it; that doughnut was at least 25 feet tall on top of the building," North Hollywood local Kent Willard said. "And that doughnut got moved down to Manchester and the 405 Freeway. That is an icon now. That was there in North Hollywood first."
Symonds called the commercial area he had developed at Laurel and Magnolia "Valley Village" and the name stuck. Soon, the entire surrounding area, including the residential section, became known as the Valley Village neighborhood of North Hollywood. Through the years it formed its own identity as a more upscale area of North Hollywood and in the 1990s Valley Village become its own official neighborhood, recognized as separate from North Hollywood by the Los Angeles City Council.
One thing Valley Village and the rest of the San Fernando Valley didn't have was a large department store. In those days, not only in Los Angeles but also all over the country, you had to go downtown for that.
"Lankershim became the major boulevard (in North Hollywood) and there were a certain number of shops, but the big stores – Sears, May Co. Broadway – I can remember many times, Christmastime you went downtown to look at the department stores and look at the Christmas decorations in the windows," Gregg recalled. "They didn’t come out to the outskirts. Well, Dad’s idea was, he got Sears to come here. It was the first time Sears ever came out of a downtown area. That Sears was their No. 1 store for many years, drawing people from Bakersfield and all over."
Sears anchored the Valley Plaza, which was built in the early 1950s, and later on, Symonds convinced the May Co. to move out near the Valley Plaza. In the book "City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950," author Richard Longstreth credited Symonds with several revolutionary ideas, including being the first developer in Southern California and perhaps the country to recognize the importance of the freeway to the modern retail development. This was the dawn of the Eisenhower Administration and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the 41,000-mile interstate highway system, the largest public works project in American history.
After envisioning a faster and more convenient way suburbanites would be preferring to get to a large department store, Symonds also realized they were going to need somewhere to park their cars once they got there. Longstreth credited the Valley Plaza Sears as being the first major department store of its kind to put the parking lot in front of the store, offsetting it from the street. This had never been done before.
"Dad had on one of his trips seen a small shopping area with a block of buildings that was off the street with the parking in front. Up until then there was no off-street parking. This was, I don’t know, in Dallas or St. Louis or somewhere. Dad’s idea was off-street parking," Gregg said.
According to Longstreth, Symonds was warned by many, including the Urban Land Institute’s Community Builder’s Council, that putting the parking lot in front "gave an unattractive impression of the whole complex."
But everyone was dead wrong. Even if it made the building less attractive, it made it easier and more convenient to get in and out of, and in Eisenhower's car-cruising culture, this was the preference. Within a few years, many other developers started to catch on to the concept.
"Once the barrier imposed by conventional thinking was broken and retailers no longer conceived of a shopping center in terms of street front stores, the shift to large front car lots was rapid," Longstreth wrote. "Valley Plaza stood as an anomaly in the metropolitan area when its first units opened in 1951. Within three years, dozens of large centers that gave primary space to parking were in the course of realization."
'We Think Dad’s Turning in his Grave'
Through the 50s, 60s and 70s, the Valley Plaza was one of the most successful and influential malls in the country. When Bob Symonds passed away in 1971 from a heart attack, the Valley Plaza was still in its golden era.
According to Gregg, his father left the Valley Plaza land he still owned to 16 members of his family. The will stipulated that the land should be sold, but it took decades to accomplish this.
"When Dad passed away actually it became involved in the trust, which included 16 people. Sons, daughters, grandsons, that sort of thing. Different families," Gregg said. "They all had a piece and the way Dad’s will was written, it said we should sell it. But we didn’t sell it for many years trying to get it squared away. But eventually it had to be sold, because of the estate, the way the will was written."
Today, the majority of the mall is an abandoned, boarded-up eyesore. A place where John F. Kennedy once visited while running his optimistic campaign for president again became a stopping place for a presidential hopeful exactly 40 years later. This time it was Mitt Romney who used the Valley Plaza as a potent symbol of the crumbling American economy.
The sight of the Valley Plaza now makes Gregg Symonds sad.
"We think Dad’s turning in his grave. We don’t go out there very often," Gregg said.
The Valley Plaza was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and as a result, J.C. Penny's left the mall. Gregg and other Symonds family members told Patch they tried to spearhead a plan to completely redevelop the plaza, but the Los Angeles Unified School District killed any chance of that happening. LAUSD decided it wanted to build a school on part of the Valley Plaza. Gregg said the ensuing legal battle between the school district and the Community Redevelopment Agency ground any plans for a new development to a halt. He is still bitter about it to this day.
"It was criminal what (LAUSD) did, in my mind. They could have put a junior high school in the area that would have not have damaged this or the residential area. Somebody should have their head examined about that school," Gregg said.
Gregg's nephew, Jeff, also blames LAUSD for the failure of any redevelopment of the mall happening in the 90s when the family still owned most of it.
"It was the Los Angeles Unified School district decision to build a middle school in the center of the proposed redevelopment that killed the project. The parking garage on Bellingham Street and the ultimate failure to develop the Plaza was a direct result of the school district's foolish choice to bifurcate a civic project that had City Council support and was on the verge of becoming reality," Jeff said.
In the late 90s, the Symonds family finally sold their portion of the Valley Plaza to developer J.H Snyder, who promised a bold redevelopment of the plaza, but those plans never came to fruition, and today the plaza, once one of the greatest retail centers in the world, resembles a boarded-up wasteland.
"Our family is quite distressed over what has happened to the Valley Plaza. It should never have turned out this way," John Symonds, son of Bob Symonds and Gregg's brother, told Patch. "When we sold the property to the Snyder Co. we felt that this was the best way to go rather than to wait for inverse condemnation which have delayed everything much too long. As it turned out there was a whole list of delays that we could not have known about that has resulted in this blighted area."
Last year, after more than a decade of failed attempts to redevelop the Valley Plaza, Snyder gave up and sold the land to iStar Financial. According to Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian, iStar is working on a redevelopment plan for the area.
Jeff Symonds hopes that any redevelopment will include a spot that will remember and honor his grandfather's revolutionary vision of the great suburban American mall so that he will no longer be the Bugsy Siegel of real estate.
"J.H. Snyder had promised to include a brass plaque in honor of my grandfather's vision of the shopping center built around the automobile," Jeff said. "Now that the property has gone back to (iStar), I hope that any future development will still include a memorial to my grandfather who worked hard to bring good things to the community."