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Vacancies in Alhambra at a time of flux *UPDATED

Alhambra is about to undergo major developments along Main Street, but in the meantime it’s hard to ignore the empty storefronts that dot the city. In the Downtown area, approximately 12 properties are for lease or sale. At a time of change, these images capture the sense of vacancy on parts of Main Street. Perhaps this will disappear with the new development; perhaps it will be a moment to reflect on what it could become?

Photos by Nathan SolisCity officials emphasize that the change will be for the better, with an influx of jobs, housing, and new business on Main Street. Construction projects that the city has valued at $105 million are going up this year, starting with the demolition of the circa-1975 former library. Next is a Spanish Revival inspired four-story structure with townhouses and shops. They are the first of three construction projects on the stretch of Main Street between 2nd Street and Atlantic Boulevard, making way for nearly 200 homes, stores, and offices that the city says will bring more than 600 workers to the area. “I think that Alhambra’s residents will be thoroughly pleased with what we’re bringing to the city,” City Manager Julio Fuentes said. "A lot is going on behind the scenes."

But in the meantime, the old Mervyn’s building has been empty since 2009. This is probably the most glaring vacancy, a reminder of the impact of the recession in the heart of the city. Fuentes maintains a “big box” store is interested in setting up shop at Mervyn's, but as the process is still ongoing no further details were given.

Further west on Main Street, restaurants Bistro 39, Tony Roma's and Coldstone Creamery* have both shut their doors. Fuentes said a couple of them are in talks to lease to new tenants. Another restaurant to the east, Black Angus, has been empty since 2006, sitting like a big empty barn in the middle of Bay State Street across from the post office.

The Tony Roma's on Main Street has recently closedMore recent vacancies are the former AT&T on 500 Main Street, and Baja Fresh and Hollywood Video, all within less than a mile from each other.

Fuentes said that other  vacant businesses are in the middle of negotiations with new tenants, and in the coming months announcements will be made on the status of new businesses setting up shop in Alhambra.

*UPDATE 5.2.11:

Coldstone Creamery has a new franchisee and will be reopening shortly, according to the City Manager's office.  

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25 thoughts on “Vacancies in Alhambra at a time of flux *UPDATED”

  1. If I’m reading the Alhambra zoning map (http://www.cityofalhambra.org/government/development_services/planning_z…) correctly–it’s difficult to scale to a larger size–South Stoneman between Park and Los Higos is zoned as R-3. It’s was just a matter of time for an existing SFR to be demolished to make way for a multi-unit housing.

    I find the argument that Alhambra’s green space is in spite of R-1 sprawl amusing. Our neighboring cities, South Pasadena and San Marino, would like a word about that assertion. Imagine if they built even more multifamily housing. Imagine how many more trees and parks they’d have!

    Still, the water has been spilled, we cannot turn back the clock, and time machine has not yet been invented. The key is how do we move forward from now, how do we alleviate congestion that spill over into residential streets, how do we make our city feel more spacious IN SPITE OF concentrations of multifamily housing. They do, like everyone else, have a right to live and enjoy the city.

    1. Robert, Yes it is definitely zoned R-3, I was aware of that. These new condos that will be built will further strain Baldwin Elementary School, there will never be enough parking spaces for all the new residents, and the growth will continue. I’m beginning Governor Brown’s plan to take the redevelopment funds from the cities is a good idea, I hope he succeeds. Less, or no money in that fund means less growth.

  2. Listen up folks. The big box store coming to Alhambra is likely Wall Mart. Who would want to open a business in Alhambra if they have to compete against Wall Mart? Think about the traffic and congestion. It can be difficult driving down main street now. What will it be like with Wall Mart shoppers.

    1. This city council would never allow WalMart to build here. Besides, there is already a WalMart 10 minutes away in Rosemead, they would not be interested in building another is such close proximity.

      1. I don’t think the plan has been to locate a big box store at Main and Garfield. It does not fit the downtown theme the council has been nurturing. However, there are plans for a giant big box store in the redevelopment project currently under consideration for the industrial area next to Kohl’s. In which case, there are only a few extra large big box retailers that are not already here. Walmart is the most likely anchor tenant. Although Home Depot might want a bigger store than it currently has on Marengo.

        BTW: Smaller businesses already compete with Target. Walmart is no different. Smaller businesses will need to continue to fit a niche not served by big box bohemoths.

      2. I think you should check with city council before you say they would never allow it. Check it out.

  3. Michael Lawrence

    Increasing the density of Alhambra by building even more high-density developments certainly does not address the complaints of many Alhambra residents that we have had enough of this non-stop over-development of our city and the added congestion and traffic that comes with it.

    Alhambra is ranked number 19 in the state of population per sq. mile and number 90 in the nation. Why must we keep on building more and more units and adding to our density levels? The argument as Mr. Gacis presents is that if we don’t, we will need to rezone our “suburban tracts” meaning our single family, R1,neighborhoods to accommodate more condos and apartments. I have heard this repeatedly from the City Council and Planning Commission as the main reason to support large developments. The loss of many of our historic neighborhoods along with their craftsman and Spanish houses was caused by the rezoning and real estate speculation during the 70s and 80s. The result is the plethora of shoddy apartment complexes that you see scattered throughout Alhambra. Why are our single family neighborhoods held hostage for development? I don’t know of any other neighboring cities that threatened their R1 residents with rezoning if they don’t support high-density development. How many high-density developments are there in San Marino? None is the answer yet Alhambra has assumed the obligation of providing a never ending supply of housing units for the San Gabriel Valley. The city is caught in a vicious circle of taking money from the state and then being required to build even more housing every year. If we keep this up, we will be number 1 on the list for the highest density city in California. I am not looking forward to the quality of life that will result from that dubious award.

    1. Mr. Lawrence,

      With all due respect, I personally have nothing against R1 neighborhoods and single family homes. What I want to point out is that as our population grows, our suburban model is not going to survive unless we start building denser structures. Now, does that mean we must inevitably rezone ALL our R1 tracts? Certainly not!!! Perhaps we can concentrate multi-units into certain areas of our city and leave the other areas alone. Just look now at Main St. compared to north Alhambra. To preserve our R1 neighborhoods, I feel we must actually build taller structures to accomodate our growing population. Going vertical offsets the necessity to go lateral into R1 zones. Do you now see why I support the City Ventures/Casita Zen projects Mr. Lawrence? I feel these new units will relieve housing demand pressures in our other R1 areas. Look at San Gabriel City (and many other SGV cities) with their illegal SFR add-ons/conversions. These are symptoms of not planning for the future. Our city officials at least somtimes think ahead, whether we like it or not. Or, perhaps we can just tell people who desire to live here to just go away, we have enough residents already!

      I see your point about San Marino, but San Marino’a housing prices are much more EXPENSIVE (I have friends who live there that remind me this often). In addition, when you look at Alhambra’s efforts to provide affordable housing (read their HOUSING ELEMENT) it is very difficult to be like San Marino and keep housing affordable.

      I understand your concerns about the quality of life as our density grows and I respect that. Unfortunately, Alhambra is only 8 miles away from a growing downtown L.A. and we live in one of the largest metropolitan areas of this country. Maybe we can cordon off an area of Alhambra and keep it strictly off limits to high-density development.

    2. Michael,

      Yes, the argument that “we must actually build taller structures to accommodate our growing population” is getting old. I believe at this time the city needs to put a moratorium on population growth in Alhambra. Look at the overcrowded schools, streets such as Mission Blvd. with chunks of asphalt missing and cracks everwhere. Then the infrastructure of the sewer system, water mains, etc. This city is just plain full to the brim and overflowing with people. Driving the other day on Stoneman Ave, between Los Higos and Park ST. I noticed yet another home is set to be demolished next to the two others that were demolished about 1 year ago. The three lots will now be turned into yet another site for many condominium’s which will be occupied by families with many more school age children to put more of a burden on the overcrowded Martha Baldwin school, and high schools. This City Council, the entire squad, needs to be replaced, they have done irreversible harm to the city with their condo and high rise projects already, let’s not allow them to continue these mistakes. If there were no new condos and high rise commercial/residential buildings going up we would not have to worry about “accommodating our growing population”, no where to live, go elsewhere.

    3. I concur! There got to be a balance!

  4. Rather than another huge development at the old Mervin’s shopping center. The city should condemn the property, take it over by eminent domain, and plant grass, palm trees, running streams, walkways, etc,. Why allow a developer to build another huge commercial, residential building which will increase traffic, pollution, and unneeded businesses. This city is over congested, and over populated now. Take the whole block from Garfield to Monterey, and Main to Bay State, this would make a great park which I’m sure would be welcome by residents. the city can use the redevelopment fund for the park project rather than use the money to bring in more revenue. A park would beautify Main Street, a new huge development would just be more of the same.

    1. Guillermo,

      You have an interesting idea. Any idea about the costs to purchase the lot and what the debt payments will be for Alhambra?

      Also, there is a way to put in a mixed use project that incorporates a park. One way is to do a plaza style development that has mixed use buildings on three sides surrounding a park but no parking (or parking under the park). The park could be used for public events, the farmers market, rented kiosk spaces, and as a general gathering place for the community. It would need trees, pathways (perhaps an X shape), and pleasant lighting.

      btw: I think such a plan would fit within the scope of a redevelopment project under California Health and Safety Code section 33020-21. Section 33021 states that “[r]edevelopment includes: (b) Provision for … improvements of public or private recreation areas and other public grounds.” Laws related to redevelopment are neatly listed here: http://www.hcd.ca.gov/hpd/rda/rdalaw.html

      1. Dan,

        Although I do not have an idea what the fair market value of the land would cost should it be taken by eminent domain.

        For a park in the heart of the city, one without soccer fields, just walkways, running streams, benches for sitting and trees, a lot of trees. For a project like this I would support a ballot measure for for the issuing of bonds, a modest property tax increase to pay the debt, as we did for the new police station about 10 years ago.

        Anther idea to help pay would be donations for the benches and trees, as the city of San Marino did with the pillars supporting the rose pergola in Lacy Park. BTW, if the city council decided to put statues of themselves around this park, and plaques engraved with their names, forget the idea.

      2. Guillermo,

        I suggest you speak with the City Council now before it too late in the planning process. If the City Council is not receptive, you may put an initiative on the ballot with regard to your park idea. The Alhambra City Charter, Article XXIII – Initiative, provides the rules of the road. I am not sure but I think you might need two separate initiatives for: 1) the park, and 2) a parcel tax.

        If you’re serious about your idea, organize other community members to draft an initial plan, estimate costs, and collect petition signatures. The initiative can set restrictions (no statues or plaques), name the park, and give general or specific plans. Your petitions will need signatures from “fifteen percent of the total vote cast at the last preceding general municipal election.” The last election was canceled because there were no City Council challengers so the number will be based on the Nov. 2008 election (26350 votes cast). You have 40 days to collect signatures and submit them to the city clerk, starting the moment the first signature is collected. The city council can vote to accept the park idea but my understanding is that only the electors can vote on a parcel tax, and even then Prop 13 and subsequent ballot referendums put restrictions on parcel taxes.

    2. I support this idea! Central Park in Alhambra please! I can only give you moral support, since I live in MPK, but I work in Alhambra all the time.

  5. Interesting article Nathan, although I would like to point out a few things that were not mentioned.

    The Alhambra Place that served the now-closed Mervyns store represents the parcel that was sold to the J.H. Snyder Company prior to 2009. From what I gathered from the last Town Hall meeting with the City Mayor, J.H. Snyder abandoned their plans to develop this area due to the recession and sold it to an investment partner. Therefore, the closed shops in this parcel lot represent a “behind the scenes” business transaction between the city/developer and not so much an uncertain outcome that is beyond anyone’s guess. One can actually see the delineated boundaries of this parcel at the J.H. Snyder Company website. Although many businesses have closed at this place, several have closed to only open somewhere else in our city. Two businesses that come in mind are the Mahan Indian Restaurant and Subway, once located in the first picture posted in your article. They are now doing quite well on the southside of Main St., taking advantage of their proximity to other restaurants and surviving. Many businesses have closed in Alhambra Place, but it is better for them to do so and let new ones come in that can better serve the community’s needs. This is not an overnight process. Honestly, I hope the city does not rush this project for the sake of filling in a void (to please the sore eyes of critics). If the Alhambra Place is to be redeveloped, it should be done right and not down-scaled to match the current slow economy. This area should be developed with a future strong economy in mind (large underground parking, etc.) and be ready for the next wave of growth!

    I think the major developments along Main St. will do well for our city. These edifices will be standing higher than some of their other surrounding structures, but it should be no surprise for Main St. If you look at the older pictures of our city, the Alhambra Hotel (burned in 1908) and the Jones Building that once stood ground on Main St. and Garfield Ave. were rather large buildings themselves. They also represented the economic vibrancy of their times. Our developments today (City Ventures, Casita Zen, etc.) will not only provide taller buildings, but give a sense of enclosure along Main St. and thus give our downtown district a greater sense of identity. Unlike Old Town, Pasadena on Colorado Blvd., our Main St. will have the distinct uniqueness of a truer mixed-use community. The proximity of residences and commercial establishments in our downtown area is much more accommodating than the majority of places I have seen in Old Town. And in my opinion, unlike the units above Pasadena’s Paseo Colorado Mall that are only for lease, the multitude of units on Main St. will be for sale. Although we probably won’t be able to avoid investors leasing out units, these projects will entice homebuyers and provide a greater pool of long-term residents. One example are the townhomes near the rear section of the City Ventures project. Not only are they more accomodating for families (compared to smaller condos); a high school for their kids is literally right across the street.

    I agree with Mr. Lawrence’s concerns for the need for public art and green space. However, I do feel that it is the lack of large-scale developments in our city that have reduced our space for art and greenery. How so? Low-density suburban sprawl has already eaten away much of the green space we already once had. Large farm tracts and recreational areas (such as parks with horse stables) that once provided for our agricultural industry in the San Gabriel Valley is now long gone. The hundreds of single-family homes in Alhambra that now sit on suburban tracts have taken their place and provide little room for further development of green space and public art. If, however, we had zoned certain districts for taller denser structures earlier, we could have reserved and zoned far larger areas exclusively for public art/green spaces. It also might have made it easier to protect some of our historical Craftsman homes in our city. Instead, we hear many complaints of people not being able to see the San Gabriel Mountains (or this and that) and our past leaders listened. So today, our city is filled-up with low-density structures that are becoming more functionally obsolete amid our rising population and its associated demands. They now compete with multi-units all over the city. At least with these new developments, concentrating them in specific areas (like Main St.) establishes future core areas of denser structures and away from the lesser ones.

    1. guillermo martinez

      Rather than another huge development at the old Mervin’s shopping center. The city should condemn the property, take it over by eminent domain, and plant grass, palm trees, running streams, walkways, etc,. Why allow a developer to build another huge commercial, residential building which will increase traffic, pollution, and unneeded businesses. This city is over congested, and over populated now, put a stop to this madness just to bring in more revenue to the city’s coffers.

      1. Guillermo,

        Someone asked the mayor in the last Townhall Meeting why there were so many developments going on in our city. His response was that we need more revenues to sustain our growing city. I agree with him.

        Although the idea of a park at the Old Meryn’s site sounds good, I think placing a park there is not the best utilization of space for our downtown district at this time. However, I do agree perhaps on a plaza-type development as suggested by Dan. I would definitely support that concept. The main downtown areas on Main St. is still in transition. Placing residential units there is important because it places residents within walking range of many business establishments. We need to continue developing our downtown urban core and a large park, right smack in the middle of Garfield/Main would basically place a stop-gap of growth along the Main St. artery. Look at the auto-zone row on Atlantic and Main. Where the BMW dealership begins, heading west towards Freemont, the sidewalks are void of pedestrian traffic. You might think a park is great on Main and Garfield, but other than aesthetical looks, I can assure you the sidewalk frontage on Main St. (from Garfield to Chapel) and eastward will look like auto-row. Sure, you will still people walking through, but it will provide a buffer zone that will hurt future businesses to the east. Unless you already have a high-density core, making a park on Main/Garfield will no way compare to a highly-used park like Central Park in New York City.

        By providing more businesses at the Old Mervyn’s site, I think we will allow the following:

        1. Continue the growth of the Main St. Corridor and further attract diverse businesses to suit the community’s needs.
        (think of it as the Law of Attraction).

        2. Centralize the geographic region as a high-density location and promote the further use of high-density development in the area (which relieves burden of zoning variances on other suburban tracts, which will hopefully further protect our historic Craftsman homes and provide more relief to the Alhambra Preservation Group!).

        3. More revenues for the city to perhaps develop future parks WITHOUT BURDENING Alhambra residents with MORE TAXES in maintaining them!

        You seem very averse to our high-density population. I am not. With more people, our city becomes more interesting and fascinating. It also FUELS our HUMAN CAPITAL. Look at what our “OVER-CONGESTED” population has already experienced:

        1. An Alhambra resident who will now have her own OPRAH Coooking Show.

        2. An Assemblyman (Mike Eng) attracted to our city who now has his district office here.

        3. A major move for the Los Angeles Community Development Center to establish their headquarters here on Atlantic/Main.

        These 3 things (and many others) are major events that will provide strength in our community and place it on the map with other city “movers and shakers”.

  6. Blaming folks is not constructive. I’m not sure Asians are entirely to blame for the vacancies or for failing to support local non-Asian businesses.

    The vacancies and business troubles go well beyond lack of Asian support. Here are some of the reasons I am aware of:

    1) Bankruptcy. Mervyns and Hollywood Video were big chains that are out of business. They were liquidated. Most other Mervyns reopened as Kohl’s, but since Alhambra already had a Kohl’s that did not happen on Main St. Hollywood Video failed to adjust to a changing market.

    2) Competition. Cold Stone Creamery was put out of business by Fosselman’s. Who around here bothered to go to Cold Stone when we could get better ice cream down the street? Also, Fosselman’s cost less if I remember correctly. Moreover, Fosselman’s has done a great job adjusting to the changing market by selling flavors that appeal to the Asian palate, including taro (yum).

    3) Bad food/service.

    4) Price. In a down economy, fewer of us can afford more pricey things or watch our finances a bit more. Many small businesses have small profit margins in the best of times and fall through the ice when business drops just a little. Big chains pull up stakes if same-store sales don’t meet certain year over year goals with regard to revenue and profit.

    5) Redevelopment. The Mervyns plaza has been slated for redevelopment. My understanding is that many of the businesses were either forced out by the landlord letting the lease expire or helped out of the complex. I’m not sure what happened to the project but the credit market dried up and the developer (Radkovich?) apparently put the brakes on its project until the financial crisis/recession ended. Something was mentioned a a city council meeting a couple months ago that the developer is now engaged in the redevelopment project next to Kohl’s.

    That said, I do think that by nature people are habitual and avoid the unknown. We look for things that are familiar to us or that we can easily understand. Quite a few less-assimilated Asian folks won’t venture into non-Asian restaurants because it is foreign to them in the same way that quite a few white folks will not venture into Asian restaurants unless made to look more familiar and food modified to fit that groups’ tastes (e.g. P.F. Chang’s) The same happens with Mexican food (e.g. ChiChi’s). And sometimes, after being introduced to a new cuisine, folks will often stick to only the items they know on the menu. I know people who only order Pad Thai at Thai restaurants.

    Also, customers are not entirely to blame. Businesses need to adjust to the marketplace. Those that don’t will have a tougher time. Certain businesses have been very good at attracting less assimilated Asians by catering to their tastes. Again, Fosselman’s comes to mind. It introduced flavors for that market segment and watched its reputation improve over time. In that way, The Diner on Main can follow in Fosselman’s footsteps by identifying some Asian dishes that it can easily duplicate, hire Chinese speaking wait staff, and advertise its Chinese dishes. Fusion is in.

    Lastly, there are varying levels of assimilation within the Asian community. The more assimilated someone is then the more likely they will venture beyond the cultural boundaries. This has been happening for more than 200 years in this country and it will continue to happen as long as new people arrive on our shores.

    1. Dan… these are the exceptions and not the norm.

  7. As an Alhambra resident and homeowner for six (6) years now… my observation has been… very few of the Asian community support the local business’ unless they are Asian owned… I see it all the time! My wife & I were at the “Diner on Main” for breakfast and saw one Asian family eating there… but several of the Asian restaurants on Valley Blvd. had lines of people waiting to get in… and the food at the diner is above average!! I see this all the time… then I hear complaints the business’ are closing… all the places that were mentioned in this article were NOT supported by the local Asian community… there is your problem, open your eyes and you’ll see it on a daily basis… I know I do and I’m Irish and support Asian and others!! Remember… nothing changes if NOTHING CHANGES!!

    Tommy Wilson-O’Brien

    1. @Tommy,

      Did you know, that at some places you can buy 3 Vietnamese sandwiches for the price of 2, and each sandwich costs about $2.50? So for $5 + tax, one can buy 3 sandwiches. You can also buy 2 boba ice teas for the price of one. For less than $10, 2 hungry guys can get gorge themselves. This is just one example.

      My wife and I have breakfast at Twohey’s on certain mornings (I prefer Twohey’s–we walk there) and sometimes we talk about things like this. I can tell you it comes down to preferences in taste and price. Taste, because believe it or not, some people find non-Asian food to be exotic and bizarre, like some people find Asian food to be exotic and bizarre. It’s what people are accustomed to eating, and old habits die hard.

      Price, like I mentioned above, is another factor. Believe me, I don’t understand how some of these places stay in business. We checked out Noodle Guy on Valley after reading an article on this website. Kobe Beef Pho, for about $9 (IIRC). I recall the owner/chef saying he loses a bit of money on each bowl of Kobe Pho sold. So the more popular he gets, the more money he ends up losing–some business plan. Yet, there are many places just like this–losing one each bowl sold notwithstanding, they rely limited menu, very low overhead, and quick turnovers.

      This is the competition some of the places face: Business owners who aren’t afraid to lose on each item sold, who sell meal for two for less than $10-$20, who profit perhaps pennies on each dollar earned. When you have competitors like this, coupled with eating preferences that lean toward Asian, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that you don’t see many Asian diners at Diner on Main.

      Personally, I think it has a lot more to do with price than preferences in taste. Take a look at Costco on any weekend afternoon. The food court is filled with people munching on $1.50 hot dog combos and $2 slices (big slices) of pizza. You’ll find me and my wife there with our shopping cart–it’s called “date night.”

    2. @offcenter Sadly the word support is not the word that pops into people’s heads when they think of shopping or eating, we look for low cost good food and in older generations, comforting food that they are used to. I doubt you walk into the Diner on Main thinking I better give them my $15 so they can stay afloat.

    3. Tommy,

      I see your point and I admire your patriotism. However, we gotta admit that preferences are what drive consumer behavior and most of the time, it can’t be controlled. I do hope there are enough business to keep all Alhambra businesses open! BTW, there are also many Asian businesses with little or no business throughout the SGV so that one business you spotted, with a line, must be outstanding.

  8. Michael Lawrence

    I hope the city would work with the developers to include some pocket parks and public art for these large blocks of development. Alhambra has a great need for more green space and areas where people can gather. It makes sense with such a large scale of high density units going into the downtown area to provide some innovative thinking along with the development. Thanks for the pictures and article Nathan.