by Winston Chua
It’s no secret that commercial vacancies are certainly apparent in the once upscale South Lake Avenue, a product of the downturn in the economy from 2007-08 and a changing macro environment in the San Gabriel Valley. But things could 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.”
Stein Mart, Borders and Express are gone. Passersby observe that once good, solid retailers have gone out of business. In their place are more dining and entertainment-related options, like Trattoria Neapolis, Lemonade Café, the Counter, Cham Korean Bistro and The Cheese Store. Other key factors have caused the evolution.
“The bad news is that 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 for would-be customers. In the past 15 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. Borders can testify to the fact that a good chunk of business has also been lost to online shopping.
The issues is 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 (sometimes inappropriate) lease offer.
“Certain property owners are selective. They want to be proud of the property,” said City of Pasadena Program Manager Robert Montano. “That can be tough in today’s economy when options are lean. Duyshart/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 there actually is. The three aforementioned retailers now gone 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 good 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 new vitality to the region.
Duyshart and Montano say there is a lot of upside to what’s going on right now: there’s more 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 can’t simply can’t simply 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 is to make South Lake a vibrant and attractive and cohesive group of property owners and businesses.
In the past five years, at least 24 new businesses have opened. And 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.