As you read in Side A of this story, Suja Lowenthal and Kraig Kojian are excellent sources on the subject of Downtown Long Beach. But with titles like "2nd District Councilmember" and "CEO/President of the DLBA," respectively, this is not where you're going to find the strongest and most open criticism of the City of Long Beach. Hence, we have this B-side take on Pine Avenue, where we hear from various real-estate agents, brokers, and even one City insider, all of whom were offered anonymity so they could speak without fear of repercussions.
But one broker who spoke to the Long Beach Post for attribution is Scott Hamilton, founder and president of DOMA Properties, the primary real-estate player on Pine Avenue.
"It's very difficult to lease in Downtown right now, [because] there are tremendous expectations—higher than what the market's actually willing to bear," Hamilton says. "And it requires an awful lot of attention."
With Pine Avenue lease rates running between $2 and $3 per square foot per month, a quick bit of mathematics reveal that you better be doing damn brisk business if you've got a 10,000-sq.-ft. space. Hamilton says that dilemma has led to strategizing with the likes of Brian Ulaszewski of City Fabrick "on how to best utilize these big-box spaces" that have had trouble finding tenants to take as-is (Ulaszewski is also a writer on urban planning for the Post).
"City Fabrick is helping us to divide the large spaces into bite-sized spaces that help create a better map of available properties," Hamilton explains. "So instead of showing a 36,000-sq.-ft. box, we're breaking that box into several boxes."
Hamilton says the prime candidate for this strategy the old Z Gallerie space, and that DOMA is currently sorting through various proposals for both restaurants and retail for the best fit.
"We actually have a really interesting [proposal] for a distillery with a speakeasy kind of vibe in the basement," he says. "But it's a licensing issue that we need to get clarified before we can move forward with those guys. I think that would be a cool thing to have on Pine Ave."
"Rea," an agent, spoke on condition of anonymity, even though she is relatively optimistic about the current situation on Pine.
"It's definitely gaining momentum," she says. "It's a lot better since last year, and last year was better than the year before."
Rea says that as a result of the Downtown Community Plan, "There definitely has been a more accommodating attitude towards small businesses—and businesses in general. I think [Senior Planner] Derek Burnham has sort of changed the reputation of the City. My feeling is that it's gotten a lot better, as far as assisting […] in the process of getting businesses open."
Rea also expresses relative content with the DLBA, which she says she tries to use as an ally for wooing possible out-of-town clients.
But just as I encountered when compiling my original article last year, the Long Beach real-estate community at large harbors plenty of discontent with the DLBA.
"That organization is flushing about $2 million a year down the toilet," says broker Bob (a pseudonym). "And it's a shame, because that money is collected from Downtown businesses. […] I haven't seen anything to indicate [the DLBA] is actually going to become a force on Pine Ave."
Bob repeats a charge I've heard several times over the years concerning the DLBA: that the organization is light on original ideas and heavy on taking credit for others' good ideas after the fact.
"The goofy thing about the DLBA is that if a successful program gets traction, what ends up happening is that the DLBA will throw in $10,000 after it's done and say they took part," Bob says. "Anything good that happens is going to happen from the grassroots or from ownership or from a broker. It's going to some from somewhere other than the DLBA, [and] they'll want to take partial credit for it by throwing some money there at the end. […] What that organization was built to do was to promote businesses down here and create a business-friendly environment, but they don't do that. […] When someone bring an idea to them, their first answer is always, 'No, we don't do that.'"
One City insider we'll call "Ivor" went rogue for this article and was willing to point a critical finger at the our current City government as a whole. Ivor says there is "an overall shortsightedness among the policymakers currently." For example, says Ivor, City Manager Pat West is often called upon by the mayor and the city council to address an immediate problem, with none of the players taking the long view on the issue in question.
"Whether it's graffiti, whether it's somebody who's had trouble with permitting, whether it's someone who has a question about walking their dog in a certain area, it's completely reactive, when he should be taking a more proactive approach," says Ivor. "It should be, 'Here's where I want to take this city.'"
When asked about what's going on at the Pike, those outside the City are just as in the dark as are Lowenthal and Kojian. Rea hypothesizes that perhaps DDR is focused on targeting only "name-brand" operators, whereas "maybe they should track down the B or C-level operators—the mom & pop shop, the start-up—to get a deal done, as opposed to just going after the A-level, corporate operators, because those companies [have a set of] analytics—and if the Pike doesn't fall within that box, they don't pull the trigger. […] I would like to see more retail—and not necessarily the name brands that you can find at a mall […] get something creative, something you can't get at the mall, you know? But I think the owners of the Pike, they're not looking for that. They have numbers that they feel they have to try to meet with rents. And they don't want to take the risk [with independent operators]."
Ivor thinks the problem on display at the Pike—which has for lease at least one space under 1,000 sq. ft. and at least three others below 2,005 sq. ft. (along with some relatively cavernous spaces)—is not confined to south of Ocean Boulevard.
"Pine Avenue right now is a dead zone for retail," Ivor says. "[…] If we had somebody down here like [Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association Executive Director] Blair Cohn, who created his own thing to activate [Bixby Knolls], that would be incredibly helpful."
It seems no one disputes that Downtown Long Beach has changed for the better over the past year. Not only is the vacancy rate on Pine Avenue down—not only because of restaurants, but also because of creative additions such as WE Labs, a suite of fully equipped workspaces occupying the second floor at Broadway and Pine that provides "entrepreneurs and start-ups with the amenities of a well funded corporate operation, while allowing them to maintain their business independence"—but a thriving Promenade, an East Village up-swing, and various other projects that will increase population density points to a promise of sustained growth.
The questions awaiting answers concern the Pike, as well as whether those who visit Downtown will ever find as many shopping opportunities as they do places to ingest. That Pine Avenue has progressed is beyond question—but no more beyond question than how much more room for progress remains.