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Progress on the vacancies on E Main? *Updated

Updated 1.5.2012

A letter writing campaign urging the owners of the Alhambra Place to develop the Main Street property has been suspended, according to the director of the downtown business association and city officials. In a shift from when the campaign was launched six weeks ago officials said that “significant efforts and plans are being made by the property owner to develop the site."

Originally published 1.4.2012

The Alhambra Downtown Business Association has launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at pressuring a real estate company to develop the Main Street complex which housed the former Mervyn's building. Lubert-Adler owns the Alhambra Place Shopping Center on Garfield and Main. The former Mervyn’s building has stood empty since 2009, a glaring reminder of the shopping center’s vacancies.

“The City of Alhambra has done everything it can to get new tenants in to the buildings, however the owners are not returning the city’s calls,” said Joanna Vargas, the downtown business association president and owner of JayVee Dance. “We want them to return our calls and begin negotiating lease agreements for new tenants and clean up their property."

Vargas believes that Alhambra business owners and residents should now demand a change and direct their concerns to Lubert-Adler directly. "A letter writing campaign may hurt their public image and hopefully it will light a fire on their end,” she said.

Talks of a “big box” store setting up shop in its place seemed to create hope for development earlier this year, but aside from small renovation projects and a painted planter, the plaza has remained virtually untouched.

Lubert-Adler did not return calls for a comment.

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11 thoughts on “Progress on the vacancies on E Main? *Updated”

  1. Build a zipcar garage to help with the traffic problems. A central park with bicycle sharing would also be. New York and Holland use systems like these.

  2. The wall of that building has been hurting business since it was built. No one wants to walk there, the stores that were there were cannibalized by putting shopping in the industrial neighborhoods on the West side of town. (and their own bankruptcy like Mervyns)

    Maybe the city can use it’s powers to eminent domain the property and build an awesome central park!

    1. Adam,

      Do you actually own property yourself? The city can’t just use eminent domain to make a central park. It’s not that simple! If it was, the 710-fwy closure gap would have been finished by now. Any action by government to seize a citizen’s property or take away a citizen’s property rights constitutes a “taking”. That would not only require some sort of compensation (usually monetary) but increases the risk of litigation between the city and property owners. The compensation portion is explicity spelled out in our U.S. Constitution (Fifth Amendment). Is the Alhambra City budget prepared for this? As for the litigation side of things, do you think Lubert-Adler will just throw their hands in the air and give in to a central park? Quite frankly, any imposition against a developer’s legal property rights carries the risk of a “taking”. Alhambra residents need to consider this when development concerns become a real problem (like the City Ventures project in the Midwick Tract area). I’m not saying any developer can just build anything they want in our city, but we need to balance WANTS and LEGAL RIGHTS.

      I’ll agree with you on the void of foot traffic at the Mervyn’s location. I don’t think the stores there were cannibalized however. I feel there will be more pedestrians in this area when mixed-use density and the diversity of primary/secondary uses increases (work/entertainment, residential/retail, etc.), especially on Main St. on the EAST-side of Chapel Ave. This side of Main St. favors the suburban model of living. If you look at all the businesses here (Ralphs site, CVS site, defunct Hollywood Video site, etc.) they all have large setbacks from the Main St. curb with huge parking lots. These places were made to be driven to, not walked to. This is totally opposite to the planned developments on the west-side of Main St. That’s why I see this location (Mervyn’s site) as an important junction of our present and future paths. What gets built here in the near future will definitely influence the rest of the developments along Main.

      1. John, I don’t take Adam’s comments to mean the city would not pay for the property. Of course the city would pay. The value is not all that hard to work out either. Property prices are still heading down so that may actually play into the city’s favor in any valuation.

        There are a number of ways the city could pay for such a park. Bond, park fund, grants, private donors (naming opportunity), etc. In fact, the city does not need to even turn the entire lot into a park. I recall a past thread that discussed such a plan. An idea was thrown out that the property could be used to build a town square, where three sides have businesses that surround a park that opens onto Main St. Such a plan might even make business sense for the property owners/developer.

        I also think you generalize too much when you say: “any imposition against a developer’s legal property rights carries the risk of a “taking”.” That is not true as a general rule. Property owners are very limited in locations with zoning codes and professional planning staff. For example, the city can easily tell a property owner not to increase housing density without it qualifying as a taking. In addition, surrounding property owners have property rights that often preclude certain uses for a parcel. In the end, a the property owner has an uphill battle showing a taking due to existing zoning and other property restrictions imposed during the planning process. Wikpedia is not perfect but provides a good overview: Wikipedia: Regulatory Taking

      2. Hi neighbor,

        Of course I know the city would pay. But that’s if they would even consider using eminent domain. When you consider such action by the government more common with regional concerns or a broader area (highway, rail, utility), eminent domain for a park doesn’t make sense here. I do like the town square concept, but I prefer the Main St. side with the continuity of businesses lined-up along the corridor instead of a large opening that leads to a park. This location is at the core of downtown and having more businesses here will help generate more revenues and economic growth. In my opinion, we can situate a park elsewhere or improve the ones we have now.

        That’s fine if you think I generalize too much when I say “any imposition against a developer’s legal property rights carries the risk of a taking”. I do want to emphasize that I was referring to a developer’s LEGAL property rights. And if it violates planning and zoning limitations then it probably isn’t a legal property right the owner can bring suit to. In addition, I don’t see too many things (especially in real estate) that carry no risk.

        Now, when you say “the city can easily tell a property owner not to increase housing density without it qualifying as a taking”, how always easy is that? For example, the City Ventures project in the Midwick Tract area plans to build about 93 units there. From what I recall in last year’s city council meeting, the property is zoned R-3 and can legally accomodate about double the units what CV is proposing. I understand the residents nearby are upset about this, so can the city of Alhambra just say to CV “You can’t build more units” even if current zoning allows them to? What if CV is told “You must build less units”? Keep in mind that CV is well within the planning/zoning restrictions and was not aware of any pending changes before their collaboration with Front Porch. If the city just changes the codes on the fly, can the owner bring suit against the city for confiscatory down-zoning? Do you think the developer will just say “Ok, you win…”? Depending on the circumstances, some cases can constitute spot zoning. I just think using the word “easily” in your statement oversimplifies things.

      3. John, the answer depends on a number of factors. For example, impact on neighboring properties, traffic, density, and design all play a role. I do expect the city has strong enough control over zoning to limit density in the city. That’s why it divides the city into R-x zones of varying density, commercial, and industrial. When I say “the city can easily tell a property owner not to increase housing density without it qualifying as a taking,” I’m referring to a change in density on that particular lot. If the prior use of a particular property was 30 dwelling units an acre then the city generally can tell the developer not to go over that number. If the prior use was under the usual density value for that zone, the city can still limit the new density to a reasonable amount based on other properties in the neighborhood or city within that zone. In which case, there is no taking. The property still has value.

        As for the CityVentures project, I admit to not having much detail; however, the same principle applies. Also, going back to the original question, if all surrounding properties are no more than 50 dwelling units per acre, the city discourages larger developments in that sector, and the city does not arbitrarily provide variances, then I’d say it is likely the city can tell the developer to drop the density of the project. The actual answer does really depend on a variety of factors, but most likely will militate to the city’s favor due its master plan, professional planning staff, and involvement in projects throughout the city. Proximity to single family homes will only help. In addition to limiting density, the city could also exact promises from the developer for permission to build. For example, traffic will all enter and exit from Fremont or the property will have set backs so as to not unreasonably impose over lower density housing in surrounding properties. Note that when I say the city, that also means voters who may place project approvals on the ballot.

        Lastly, you do not need to refer to “legal property rights.” “Property rights” on its own refers to legal rights in property. Real estate has a large number of property rights, often referred to as the bundle of property rights. Any of those rights can be severed from the bundle and sold to another person. Sometimes, property owners will sell most property rights and retain a select few rights such as the right to water or the right to drill oil. Property owners, tenants who lease, cities/HOAs, or complete strangers can hold any number of property rights in a particular parcel. In fact, if I owned a neighboring parcel, I’d take a close look at my deed and the deed for the CityVentures parcels. 🙂

      4. Neighbor,

        Thanks for taking the time to respond and explain the issues involved with takings. I understand the basics of what you are trying to say: It’s about overall conformity and the compatibility of surrounding properties. Residents don’t like to see drastic changes in their neighborhoods and the city wants to make sure everyone is happy. I don’t know if you own property or have ever tried developing one, but I still have to disagree with you when you say how “easy” it is for the city to tell a property owner to limit how many units he/she can build, especially when that limit is below what is already legally allowed. When you say the property still has value that is quite an understatement. Building less units than legally entitled to does not only raise the cost per unit, but now you just forced a lower capitalization rate on the land for what a developer could have received in income/sales. The property has LOST value. I don’t think this would sit well with large developers. Most of them will do their research before being vested in a project. But once vested, it’s not as “easy” as you make it seem. And the developers can have as much professional staffing and expertise as the city. Many of them have decades of experience in real estate transactions, have worked on master plans, and have project management backgrounds from colleges to hospital development.

        The City Ventures Midwick project will be replacing The Alhambra, a retirement community now out of business. You state that the city can likely tell the developer to drop the density of the project and the actual answer does really depend on a variety of factors. I’ll agree with you on the “variety of factors” part but not the “likely” part. I feel that the city really is not going to “tell” the developer anything. Rather, collaboration and negotiations will play a critical role in this issue rather than telling a developer this or that. The real easy part is to make things either so difficult that creates a lawsuit or have a developer just walk away. Workable solutions should be our goals and that, my neighbor, is not always easy. Although proximity to single family homes will help, keep in mind that the property in question already ran a business enterprise consisting of 127 units. This area housed not only the tenants, but the 140 people on staff who operated this community on a 24/7 basis; not to mention the visitors as well (Mercurynews.com 6/11/2011). I don’t know if a proposed 93-unit residential project will reflect an increase of congestion and traffic to the previous 127-unit community that existed here, but the fact is The Alhambra has demonstrated a land-use density compatible with the surrounding community for years. Is a 93-unit residential development (non-commercial) on an R-3 lot that already ran a 127-unit retirement community a major change? For many living there it is. It is good to know both the community and CV are having meetings to address their concerns. This brings me to the last issue.

        You state I do not need to refer to “legal property rights” and that property rights on its own refers to legal rights in property. Perhaps I was being redundant. In my opinion, a property right on its own doesn’t necessarily imply a legal property right. Property can encompass legal and natural rights. Legal property rights are bounded by government systems whereas natural property rights can be grounded on natural rights to liberty. Why do you think people feel threatened by high-density projects? People feel the need to be free from things like traffic, noise, and congestion – even from projects that are entirely legal. Even if all legal rights are followed, that won’t stop the concerns and litigations from stakeholders. Our legal system can’t define and recognize every possible situation. I understand your “bundle of rights”; reminds me when I was studying for my real estate license. But my experience tells me there is a lot more to it than just a bundle. Bundles work well when our city is chopped up into specific and separate land-use designations (the R-x zones that you mention). However, with urban growth and sustainable communities, we need to be cognizant of the realities and foster an environment of collaboration in our city as our zoning changes to accommodate growth. Mixed-use developments and the transportation grids growing in our county (Metro light rail, projected HSR, etc.) are connecting us in ways never seen before. I think property rights will be an interesting issue in the years ahead as our community grows.

      5. @John,

        Just to clarify, eminent domain refers to a government’s ability to seize PRIVATE property. The 710 freeway issue you’re referring to has more to do with local municipalities (e.g., South Pasadena among others) who have been opposing the freeway through their neighborhoods, which has nothing to do with your analogy. BTW, Caltrans owns a number of properties along the original proposed route. I believe these were taken by eminent domain, but I’m not 100% sure.

        There is precedence of using eminent domain to transfer private property from one owner to another (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelo_v._City_of_New_London), though given the economics, the current council (or future ones) may not be receptive of using eminent domain.

      6. @ Robert,

        Its not only about seizing private property but an owner’s “property rights” as well. And such “property rights” can transcend beyond just the property in question but into the ENTIRE COMMUNITY. I referred to the 710-fwy closure gap as an example of this complexity (“not as simple”) and not just a strict analogy.

        Also, do you think the 710-fwy closure gap issue has “more to do with local municipalities” only? It has also involved the entire state of California and the Federal Transportaion Highway Administration. Its more than just “through their neighborhoods” and has much more to do with how issues like this might be handled in future cases in ANY neighborhood (with this type of problem).

        Cal-Trans bought those properties (compensation) through eminent domain. An ongoing issue has been the maintenance of these properties (Pasadena Weekly – Corridor of Shame by Chip Jacobs).

        I agree with you on the current council not being receptive of using eminent domain (but not because of the economy). Eminent domain must be strongly analyzed and justified before it is excercised. It’s not just a simple “Hey, let’s use eminent domain to make a central park!”.

  3. Todd makes some very good points.

    The economic downtown has hurt many people, not just business owners but property owners as well.

    Developing a huge lot like the Mervyn’s location will cost big money. Unless we know the true financials of Luber-Adler, we are limited in their motives. Sit and wait (until the economy gets better) may be their strategy, but that also means they have alot of holding power. But holding power doesn’t necessarily mean being greedy or wanting to hurt others. Large development investments have to make sense. Putting money into this place has to provide long-term economic benefits.

    It’s unfortunate that the empty store fronts on Main St. and the empty Black Angus/Titus Medical Supply buildings reflect poorly on the business climate in our city. But I would rather have it sit there empty until a time comes when a larger project can come along. This is a very important location. The corners of Main St. and Garfield Ave. historically reflects the economic growth and vitality of our city. Prematurely placing tenants in this area (by downscaling this project) to meet short-term concerns would seem practical. But its effects will be stuck for us for years to come. Why push for a single family residence on an R-3 lot when a multi-unit makes much more financial sense? A larger project commensurates the current lot size and is very suitable for the area. It would also have a very major impact for the rest of Main St. in terms of retail attraction. This is very critical for our Main St. corridor and the city council/residents should take this issue from a comprehensive perspective.

    What we should want here is something that will strongly integrate and reinforce our downtown community!

    I think writing letters will help, but won’t be very effective. Unless the property owner is breaking the law by not providing legal entitlements for the tenants, I don’t see them obligated for further actions at this time. Hopefully, they will decide (with their due diligence of community input) what will be best for this place when the time comes.

  4. Whatever happened to knocking that entire place down? The reason why Black Angus left was due to the entire shopping center was supposed to be demolished and that never happened. You guys chased out a great place to eat. Then you chased out all the businesses inside of it to due to it was supposed to be torn down. The only place that stayed was that Bobba Tea For Cha place. Who the hell wants to move into a place that was supposedly going to be torn down? So I guess this is not the case anymore?

    Honestly what will fit inside of that location? Even if they cut it up and made it into a mini-mall? Retail is dieing. In this economy no one is buying anything. So many stores are closing. K-Mart & Sears tried joining forces and they failed. They are closing more stores. People are losing more jobs. The cost of rent & taxes for these retail locations is insane. It’s cheaper for the owner to leave the location vacant then to put someone inside of it most of the time. This is why there are tons of empty spots everywhere.

    Most Big Chain stores are dead or slowing going away. Mom & Pop shops can’t make enough money to pay the rent. They open up internet businesses out of their homes to make ends meat. Just drive around Alhambra and you will see UPS delivering tons of product to houses.

    Hell, people are using sheets and seperating living rooms inside houses to rent to 15-20 people inside their home to make money because the need money.

    There are TONS of empty shops in every mall you go to. People would rather buy products like an Ipad 2 case online made in China for $9.99 rather then support the local economy and pay $29.99 – $59.99 for it. Most of retail stores are becoming museums where customers do their research and get all the information from the salespeople and then screw them over by buying online. Soon, they will have no one help them.

    There is a reason Lubert-Adler West isn’t renting that location. They wouldn’t just let a building sit there while they could make money from it. It usually comes down to not coming to terms with the city on certain things. Everything in life is usually blocked by politics and money in one way or the other. I have a certain feeling this may just be the case.