by Winston Chua
It’s no secret that multiple commercial vacancies are apparent in the once upscale South Lake Avenue, a product of what many point to as the downturn in the economy from 2007-08 and a changing macro environment in the San Gabriel Valley. But things appear to be changing for the better.
“When South Lake Avenue was at its peak [in the early 1980s], most shops were independent boutique businesses with Bullocks as the anchor department store,” said Pasadena Economic Development Manager Eric Duyshart. “There were not a lot of different retail options in the region. But the nature of retail has changed.”
South Lake mainstays Stein Mart, Borders and Express are now long gone. Passersby observe that once good, solid retailers have shut their doors. In their place are more dining and entertainment-related options, like Trattoria Neapolis, Lemonade Café, The Counter, Cham Korean Bistro, a relocated Le Petite Vendome and The Cheese Store. Other key factors have caused the evolution.
“The bad news is, this is a very competitive retail environment in a region that is over-retailed,” said Pasadena Councilman Terry Tornek, whose District 7 area encompasses the South Lake region. “Chains that went out of business have left significant holes in the fabric of the street.”
There are simply more options today for would-be customers. In the past fifteen years, South Lake has had to compete with an expanded Westfield Santa Anita, the birth of the Americana, a revival of Old Pasadena and a revitalized Downtown Alhambra – among others. Borders can testify to the fact that a good chunk of business has also been lost to the online marketplace.
The issues are also complicated by a mix of existing property owners – some of whom hold out for just the right tenant – and others that take the first and sometimes inappropriate lease offer.
“Sometimes there is a different point of view between the tenant and landlord,” said Coldwell Banker Commercial Alliance Senior Vice President Colleen Carey.
“Certain property owners are selective,” said City of Pasadena Program Manager Robert Montano. “They want to be proud of the property.”
That can be tough in today’s economy, when options are lean. Duyshart and Montano also added that some property owners are not willing to make the necessary investment in building improvements that are needed to secure good tenants.
“But the trend is positive,” said Tornek.
It may appear as if there is more vacancy than actually exists. The three aforementioned now-gone retailers had a combined 77,000-square feet in retail space. By comparison, most retailers who have had to fill the typical 3,000-square feet spaces have found success. Perhaps patience is the key for the larger properties. A new owner of the Borders property has recently stepped in. New property owners give the impression they will inject a new vitality to the region.
“Most small vacancies have been re-leased,” said Carey, who hinted at the possible upcoming arrival of Paul Martin’s popular American Grill where Coldwater Creek used to be. “But it will be difficult to re-lease the Borders or the Express [spaces] to new tenants because of the big floor plates. Also, Borders didn’t own their parking space.”
Duyshart and Montano say there is a lot of upside to what’s going on right now: gradually, there is a renewed interest in the region from independent businesses and the upcoming openings of boutique establishments and artisan shops. Two to three restaurants are coming in (though they can’t be named at this time), business acquisitions are on the way, more office hiring and the increased willingness of people to buy real estate.
For those who were hoping South Lake might become a sort of Rodeo Drive, the city simply can’t choose who a given property owner or tenant might be. But the purpose of the Business Improvement District, established in 2007, and the South Lake Business Association (SLBA) is to make South Lake a vibrant, attractive and cohesive group of property owners and businesses.
“The dynamics of our current economy do not support a place strictly for upscale retail stores,” said Carey. “Businesses have to appeal to the masses and the specific socioeconomic demographic of Southern California.”
In the past five years, a total of twenty-four new businesses have opened on South Lake, a majority of the dining variety. There are talks to have Caltech be a stronger presence on Lake Avenue. Negotiations between business, the SLBA and the city continue to take place to help make South Lake more attractive for customers by upgrading parking, landscaping and promoting events. The façade on the corner of Lake and California, Tornek said, is just one example of the beautification.
“The challenge for Lake Avenue is for it to find its niche, a combination of neighborhood services and regional attractions,” the councilman added. “There is no silver bullet that will magically transform South Lake.”
“I completely believe that South Lake can become the street where unique, local serving retailers, restaurants and high-end boutiques line the street,” said Montano.
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