Downtown Hasn’t Shaken its Vacancy Problem

The number of For Rent signs in downtown hasn't changed much in more than five years (photo by Megan Barnes).

Downtown San Pedro looks a lot different than it did half a decade ago. Trolleys run up and down cleaned streets under crisscrossing lights that have given the area new charm. Just two months ago, the streets were blocked off for a festival celebrating the town’s 125th anniversary that drew thousands.

But despite all the momentum, there remains an undeniable, and quite visible problem: a number of “For Rent” signs still hang in shop windows up and down 6th and 7th streets. In August, Williams’ Book Store closed its doors after more than 100 years, and Jolly Burrito packed up and moved to Pacific Avenue.

“Nobody’s going to rent an empty space when on both sides of it is a business that’s suffering or another empty space,” says Warren Gunter, owner of P&M Management, which houses businesses like Niko’s Pizzeria and The Surplus Guy. He says two of his 12 spaces are currently vacant.

Gunter himself owned the former San Pedro Jewelry Mart on 6th Street. He thinks a lack of advertising to attract new day-to-day customers is what keeps tenants with staying power, and who will increase property values, from opening up shop.

“You could fire a cannon down the sidewalk. There’s no traffic downtown because there is no effort to bring in new customers on a day-to-day basis. The idea of these two-day parties that bring a lot of people downtown — well what happens the rest of the 365 days of the year?”

But others say the pre-Del Amo Mall days of residents doing much of their shopping downtown are over and it’s time to find a new brand or niche market to draw visitors. With the success of the First Thursday Artwalk and two new theatre companies moving into an already theatre-rich area, downtown seems to be shaping itself as an arts and dining district.

“There’s a certain charm around here. I think more and more people will think of this as a place to come eat and retailers will be more of the funky stuff,” says Alan Johnson of Jerico Development, another major commercial real estate company downtown, and one of the developers overseeing the makeover of Ports O’ Call Village. He estimates vacancies are about what they were when the Business Improvement District, or PBID, was formed six years ago, but says the area is making progress finding its new identity.

“Galleries and funky little shops will appeal to a crowd that’s looking for something different because we’re not going to be Hermosa Beach, we’re not going to be Long Beach; we have to carve our little niche.”

But downtown’s thriving community of artists and galleries isn’t necessarily open to the public on a regular basis, adding to the number of closed storefronts. Some are only open during First Thursdays.

“I hear a lot of concern about that, but otherwise they might not be occupied, so I think it’s actually a real plus,” Johnson says. “I think they really are central to the community we are.”

Inconsistent business hours are a problem among businesses downtown across the board. Some of downtown’s strongest businesses are restaurants with regular hours.

“I think the businesses that are going to survive are going to be the ones that create regular hours and a product that people will want to buy,” says Eric Eisenberg, owner of the Renaissance Group, which owns much of the commercial real estate downtown.

He estimates his vacancies might be better than what they were six years ago. The Renaissance Group recently hired a new marketing director who’s brought in a surge of inquiries through online marketing. A new vegan smoothie shop recently moved into the old Jolly Burrito location on 6th St.

“Do we have more vacancies than we’d like? Absolutely. But the reality is we’ve started a new type of advertising and I think if you talk to me in two months you’re going to see a lot of the vacancies rented.”

Eisenberg’s glass-half-full view of the vacancies is shared by others who stress that downtown’s transformation will take time.

“For the first five years we’ve concentrated on infrastructure, making the district an appealing place to come to, and now it’s time to start marketing,” says Valerie Goodman, PBID’s marketing director. “There are a lot of communities that have been really successful in reinventing themselves and attracting businesses, like Pine Street in Downtown Long Beach, but it takes time and doesn’t happen over night.”

PBID has received some criticism for its focus on beautification.

“No potential business is going to say, ‘I’m going to open a business because there’s twinkle lights and a red trolley car that runs up and down the street empty most of the time,’” Gunter says.

Johnson, who has also been doing business downtown for 30 years, however, thinks it’s a logical approach.

“To me, you don’t just market and scream at people 100 times to come down here,” he says. “You make something that people are going to want to come to and then you market it, so I think we are doing it in exactly the right order.” spt

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Angela Romero

Angela Romero is the owner of Townee Tours, offering tours through various historic San Pedro locations. For more information, visit TowneeTours.com.

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