Clashing visions of street's development
By Don Jergler
LONG BEACH - Growth is painful. Just ask business owners along downtown's Pine Avenue, a street that was once envisioned as Long Beach's version of Santa Monica's popular Third Street Promenade.
Instead of new upscale retailers and restaurants paired with thousands of new upper-middle income residents to elevate the demographics of downtown, Pine Avenue has a new discount shoe store, possibly a 7-Eleven and a growing homeless population.
But it's not all bad, and some would even say it looks like the street could turn the corner and begin fulfilling the promise of a becoming a destination where Southland residents come to eat, shop and play.
A swanky concert and dining venue and a trendy Spanish tapas bar are among a handful of new businesses that have signed leases for Pine storefronts.
With that in mind, one could say the continuing Pine Avenue saga has got it all the good, the bad and the ugly.
Taking it to task
No one seems to knows if Pine will finally become the heart of downtown's ongoing renaissance.
So business and property owners, who have complained that the city has focused too much attention on other "pet projects' and ignored Pine, have banded together to create a report card to keep track of elements of the street's development namely security concerns, homeless panhandlers, storefront vacancies and efforts to market Pine.
The Pine Avenue Coalition Task Force, a group of business and property owners with vested interest on Pine headed by Jeff King, owner of King's Fish House on Pine, have been meeting monthly to help steer progress along the street.
The task force has been formed at a time when restaurants on Pine are beginning to recoup customers that were lost for a period after a string of national restaurant chains opened at the Pike at Rainbow Harbor.
At least three new businesses have signed to go into Pine Square, which houses AMC Theatres. Two of those businesses will be fast-food restaurants to fill out the food court.
Leonardo's, an on-again, off- again nightclub in a landmark building, was recently sold for $3.8 million to a company that plans to turn the building into an upscale club similar to the House of Blues. It's tentatively being called The Vault.
Also set to open on Pine is Cafe Sevilla, a semi-swanky Spanish style restaurant that serves tapas (appetizers), with a bar setting and flamenco dancer. It's other locations are in Riverside, Carlsbad and San Diego.
When some people heard by word-of-mouth that a tapas bar was opening on Pine, it raised some eyebrows.
"Some people, they hear the word and they think its a topless bar,' said Melanie Fallon, executive director of community development.
Part of that worry stems from John Morris's announcement earlier this year that he planned to close Mum's and sell the establishment to a businessman who owned strip clubs in other parts of the city. Morris, considered a pioneer of Pine, has since decided to stay.
Gulp, discount shoes?
Some businesses that are opening Pine are raising more than eyebrows; they're raising the ire of more than a few.
Coming to Pine at Third Street is a $9.99 Shoes, a discount retailer that some believe does not fit the "high-end' retailer profile that should be opening there.
Retail recruiters hired by the city had convinced Blockbuster Video to lease the spot for one of their stores, but the owner of the property, Bernard Rosenson, declined the lease offer and opted to bring in his own tenant. He's within his legal rights to do so.
"The property owners have a right to lease to who they want,' Fallon said. "We had Blockbuster for there, and he didn't want them there. He didn't want a national credited tenant.'
Rosenson's decision has frustrated those working to improve the image of Pine.
"There was outreach to Mr. Rosenson in hopes of him embracing the strategy that we have endorsed,' said Kraig Kojian, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Long Beach Associates (DLBA). "The property owner really does have the final say with what to do with his own property.'
Rosenson, who also owns the Sky Room on Locust Avenue, could not be reached for comment.
Then there's the proposed 7-Eleven going in place of the now-defunct Leader Drugs at Pine and Broadway.
When the pending lease agreement was made known to business and property owners along the street, the finger-pointing began, and blame was affixed on the city, on the owner of the property for failing to live up to a better image.
Still, the city has hopes that the 7-Eleven can serve the dual purpose of catering to a growing downtown residential population and sporting a look appropriate with the vision for Pine.
The 7-Eleven, which is being called an "urban walk-up store,' one of a handful in the 5,800- unit chain. The store will have a modern look, and serve low-carbohydrate, Atkins-type foods as well as sushi, and signature Big Gulps, too.
The chain has gone through several design steps with the city to ensure it's got the look, said Rob Zur Schmiede of the city's Redevelopment Agency.
The firm has been in a design review process with the city over the last several months and "we feel comfortable with the appearance,' he said, adding that 7-Eleven could be issued a permit to begin building in as few as four to six weeks.
Home(less) on Pine
One of the biggest hurdles to getting upscale tenants to Pine, say those trying to market the street is the homeless population.
Panhandling and the image of Pine as a hangout for the impoverished has dissuaded some companies from coming here, and is hurting night-time foot traffic, some say.
The blame for growth in the area's homeless population is being placed on nearby Lincoln Park, next to City Hall. The park has become a gathering spot for homeless, who come there to be fed by people. Cars and vans with loads of food can be seen pulling up to the park at lunch hour, some are college students, others are from churches.
While many of the homeless population at Lincoln are not criminals, others there have generated more calls to authorities for violence, drug dealing and possession and panhandling, Long Beach Police officer say.
"I'm not anti-homeless,' Sgt. Ernie Kohagura, who patrols the area on bike, recently told business owners, "but we have created our own major crime factory down here.'
The amount of crime being generated by the park's homeless population is drawing too much on police resources, and there's no way for police to remove the homeless from the park, Kohagura said.
"The police are basically hamstrung,' he said. "If you stop the feeding at Lincoln Park, you'd reduce the homeless population by 50 percent.'
Kohagura cited the need for a temporary shelter, "even a tent,' any way to find another place for homeless to be fed.
One idea being tossed out is to more strictly enforce health codes. Feeding people en masse requires a health permit. And that is not being enforced at Lincoln Park.
Councilwoman Bonnie Lowenthal, whose district includes Pine Avenue north of Third Street, believes that requiring health permits for homeless feedings will work toward addressing concerns of Pine businesses and ensure that the food given to homeless is safe.
The permit requirement "needs to apply across the board to all people,' said Lowenthal. "For a number of years the city has hoped to reclaim Lincoln Park for general use ...The issue here is there are competing public policy concerns.'
In fact, a plan to reduce downtown's homeless population has already been formed. Late last year the International Downtown Association sent a group of homeless experts to Long Beach to study the problem.
A resulting report cited several challenges, namely the absence of a year-round emergency shelter in the city.
The New Image Emergency Shelter, the area's only shelter, is open just during winter months. Operators of the shelter, which was temporarily located in a warehouse on the westside near Pacific Coast Highway, say they've had trouble finding locations because of restrictions placed on them.
Other challenges identified include land-use laws that prevent development of low-income housing, lack of funds to build shelters and insufficient resources to inform the homeless of available services.
The last challenge is beginning to be met by the Downtown Guides, paid bicycle-riding security officers who patrol the area for the DLBA.
One reason the homeless problem may be drawing attention is that there aren't as many people in downtown Long Beach as there are in other urban downtowns.
"I'm pretty sure you'd find more homeless on Third Street Promenade,' said Todd Cutts, DLBA's economic development manager. "The difference is the number of consumers walking up and down Third Street."
And that transformation is just what Cutts believes will happen when people begin to move in to the more than 3,000 housing units under construction or recently completed downtown.
As people begin moving into downtown, storefront vacancies will start being filled, Cutts said.
The city does not track square footage available for lease along Pine, but an unscientific survey of Pine from Ocean to Sixth by the DLBA not including CityPlace frontage, which is being filled with the likes of Contours and Quiznos shows there is roughly 63,000 square feet of ground floor space for lease.
Nearly half of that space is under negotiation for lease, Cutts said.
Until now, a problem with filling vacancies on Pine is that there hasn't been much interest from the commercial real estate community. But that's starting to change.
"Retail brokers, they're starting to get more involved as they're seeing these demographics moving into the area translate into dollar figures for them,' Cutts said.
A new retail tenant is about to sign up for Pine and First's Portofino, which closed in January, said Dave Co, with the Grubb & Ellis offices in Long Beach.
"The deal's pretty close to happening,' said Co, who tracks commercial real estate deals in the area.
Another spot on Pine that is getting new retail tenants is the Walker Building, on Pine between Fourth and Fifth streets.
The building, which has pricey condominiums on its upper floors, is getting a furniture store and a day spa, according to sources familiar with the pending deals.
"We are currently meeting with tenants for the street; there are a couple of key retailers that we are trying to make fall into place,' Cutts said. "If we do work it out and we do bring them into downtown, we feel like the dominoes will fall and they will come.'
Some have ideas to make those dominoes fall even faster.
"Closing down Pine Avenue for foot traffic only,' is an idea being thrown out by Becky Blair, owner of Blair Commercial Real Estate, which is leasing several properties on Pine, including Pine Square.
Her idea is to close Pine between First and Fourth streets on weekends, and placing kiosks along the street, or holding art fairs.
The closure, which Blair argues would generate greater foot traffic and make the street more of a destination spot, could eventually be made permanent.
More foot traffic will attract high-end retailers, who so far avoided Pine, she said.
"The clothiers aren't coming in, they're afraid to come in,' Blair said. "It's an island out there. We're trying to find something higher-end, but we end up with the 7-Elevens of the world and we end up with this $9.99 Shoe store.'
Twist of bitter, sweet
Pine has already had success, to a degree. On Fridays and Saturdays, lines of people can be seen waiting to get into bars like Club Cohiba, Mariposa, Alegria and New York Bryan's.
But that success has been bittersweet for Pine, as it has attracted crowds that sometimes get a little too rowdy, and are threatening to keep patrons out of other nearby establishments, such as King's, Mum's, L'Opera Ristorante and the Madison, those owners say.
To keep the peace, police have had to place extra patrol cars on Pine during bar closing times on Fridays and Saturdays.
Police records show that in one reporting district on Pine a nine-block area bordered by Fourth Street on the north, Broadway on the south, Long Beach Boulevard on the east and Pacific Avenue on the west there were 21 crimes reported in December.
Those crimes included two aggravated assaults, three commercial burglaries, one auto burglary, two grand thefts and one auto theft.
Things came to a head on a recent Saturday night and Sunday morning when three fights erupted almost simultaneously on the street one fight was reportedly near New York Bryan's, another near Club Cohiba and the third in the rear of Mariposa.
Officers who patrol the area have been told by their commanders they need to start preparing for summertime, "when more people will be out drinking and causing trouble,' a police source said.
Others see Pine's evolution as more slow and painful than necessary.
"It is an evolution, one caused by the bad planning by the city,' said Morris, who was the first to put a restaurant on Pine Avenue when he opened Mum's 16 years ago. "It's unfortunate that were having to do things backwards.'
He added, "About three to five years from now, there'll be another evolution on Pine Avenue. It won't likely be an entertainment-driven street, because that's what it's become. Issues like noise and too many people will be resolved big time when you have residents.
"Residents vote and council people seem to react differently than when they're dealing with business owners.'