Before becoming a contributor to the Long Beach Post and exploring problems and solutions across the city’s urban fabric, I was active in my old neighborhood, the Craftsman Village Historic District (as well as the larger Hellman Area of which it is a part). My neighbors and I planted drought-resistant gardens, did street cleanups, advocated for historic preservation, and fought for new open space. I have since moved to nearby Alamitos Beach but retain a keen interest in the accomplishments of my former neighbors, due to continuing friendships as well as projects still in process when I departed. My old neighborhood continues to rack up impressive achievements, but what may represent the most inspiring development in some time is one for which we can claim little credit.
Just a few weeks ago, Fresh and Easy Markets opened their second location in Long Beach on 7th Street at Nebraska Avenue (between Orange and Walnut Streets), in the middle of the Hellman neighborhood and on the border of the Craftsman Village Historic District. Fresh and Easy represents the United Kingdom-based Tesco grocery store chain’s entry into the United States market. The store concept is similar to Trader Joe’s, in that they do not have the broad offerings of a full-service grocery store like Albertsons or Vons. Instead, these smaller markets offer more limited options, but high quality and reasonable prices.
Six months ago, a rumor grew among neighborhood residents that Fresh and Easy might move into a vacant storefront on 7th Street. The buzz was confirmed as residents called the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency to confirm the rumor, but were surprised to learn that the city itself provided no incentives in order to draw the name-brand retailer to the Hellman area. In fact, City Council staff admitted having not known of Tesco’s interest in the 7th Street site until the lease had been signed and the alcohol sales application had been filed. It was, apparently, strictly a market decision, based upon a combination of estimated market demand from the immediate community and the level of traffic on a busy thoroughfare.
The rationale for building a market at this location is, on the face of things, understandable. According to the latest census, this portion of Central Long Beach is one of the most densely populated parts of the city. While the average disposable income of residents in the area is not particularly high, the sheer volume of potential customers, coupled with a relative dearth available grocery stores, must have indicated strong potential local demand. At the same time, Tesco apparently realized that 7th Street is a major corridor linking Interstate 710 to Long Beach’s mid-city area. Indeed, the volume of people coming home eastbound on 7th Street is second only to Pacific Coast Highway and Anaheim Street in terms of east-west corridors in the southern half of Long Beach.
Despite these logical market factors, residents were pleasantly surprised that Fresh and Easy was entering the community. Those who live in the Craftsman Village Historic District and the larger Hellman Area feel our neighborhood is a diamond in the rough; but too often, we have seen others overlook its potential. Nor has this problem been limited to “outsiders”: at one point, a senior-level city staff member asked a developer why they were interested in the Hellman Area, stating that the area was “blighted.” Of course, part of this staff member’s job was to reduce blight in the city.
There is thus a real history of this neighborhood being dismissed by some Long Beach residents and even officials. Given that history, seeing the “Fresh and Easy” sign light up in September 2009, announcing the arrival of this new grocery store in the community, cannot help but remind the city that we are here. A national chain has set up shop in the Hellman Area, benefiting the community as a whole. The neighborhood is incredibly diverse, and it is wonderful to see the aisles of the market reflect it: young tattooed hipsters picking out produce alongside families trailing small children.
This new market represents a tremendous physical and moral boost to the area, but as someone never satisfied with what’s been done to date, my natural question is: what else can be done to build upon this success? A commercial tenant of this size will draw in consumers that could easily continue spending money nearby (and it bears noting the Fresh and Easy store is located in a small mall, with several other adjacent businesses). Hopefully surrounding business owners will take advantage of the opportunity to reinvest in their shops while drawing new entrepreneurs into the area.
Could the city proactively help by investing money in infrastructure improvements along this portion of 7th Street? Five years ago, Southern California Edison buried the ugly power lines along this corridor, but the city did not build upon that excellent start. Indeed, at that time 7th Street was repaved, but only from Junipero Avenue (a half mile the east of Nebraska) to the eastern edge of town, avoiding the Hellman Area entirely. What kind of statement does this make regarding the city’s priorities in terms of investing in communities? This would be a great time to repave this neglected stretch of 7th Street and even add planted medians and new street trees, enhancing this gateway into the downtown.
Of course, it’s not all up to the City of Long Beach: as a community, we could embark upon numerous beautification projects that would further enhance the neighborhood. The Craftsman Village Historic District (north of 7th Street) and North Alamitos Beach (south of 7th Street) are both exploring opportunities to plant demonstration gardens with native California plants, enhancing the aesthetics of the commercial corridor. I hope that the new Fresh and Easy will inspire us to press on with these projects.
Fresh and Easy is a well-known, up-and-coming national chain, the kind of quality business that most neighborhoods seek. The coming of this grocery store to 7th Street represents private investment on perhaps the largest scale the communities around it have seen for over a decade. Such a coup was based not on city incentives, but on capitalistic market demands. In short, investment in a neighborhood reaps benefits for everyone. This should inspire us all to redouble our efforts to improve this crucial length of 7th Street.