Retorts: Getting ahead of retail curve

ORANGE COUNTY PLAZA’S eastern side, late 1950s (File photo).

It is – as James Baldwin said – “the evidence of things not seen.”

Sometimes what’s not there, or visible, can reveal more than what your eyes can detect.

This is the Christmas holiday season, and what I am seeing is the piles of boxes on doorsteps, easing the shopping strain on shoppers, and tempting porch pirates.

What I’m not seeing is piles of cars at the malls, autos endlessly circling in search of the holy grail of any empty parking space. There’s room to roam, both outside and inside those meccas of consumerism that used to dominate the gift-buying landscape. ‘Tis the season to notice what’s different.

If you look at local malls, you’ll find the times they are a-changing. At Westminster Mall, vacancies are widespread. The Sears store is closed – most of them around here are – and foot traffic is thin on the ground compared to the heyday of 20 or even five years ago.

At the Bella Terra in Huntington Beach (originally Huntington Center), the relatively recent makeover has not lifted all boats. The “Village” part of that outdoor mall is under constant revision as management tries to find the right formula, the right mix of restaurants, retail and entertainment.

Garden Grove’s own The Promenade, which dates back to the mid-50s as the Orange County Plaza, seems to be doing relatively well. The impact of the Walmart and the 16-screen Regal Cinema has given new life to that commercial area at Brookhurst Street and Chapman Avenue, but in a fast-changing economic environment keeping up isn’t enough, you’ve got to stay ahead of the curve.

Which brings us to the potential hinted at by the convergence of certain forces which may offer some interesting opportunities.

If you shop, eat or seek entertainment at Chapman and Brookhurst, you can probably see the good and not-so-good sides of that area once known as “Uptown.” The Promenade on the northwest side (all the way to Gilbert Street) is holding its own despite a few vacancies. It lacks a few things which most successful shopping centers have – onsite management, adequate security and any kind of marketing – but judging from the parking lot, it’s doing OK.

REGAL CINEMAS has been a big boost to The Promenade (File photo).

However, its neighbors are throwing the area into the shade. The Pavilion Plaza on the south side of the street is clearly struggling. The long-vacant supermarket building – over 75,000 square feet of nothing – has been sitting vacant for decades. The nearby shops, including a CVS drug store, an El Pollo Loco fast food eatery, and a gym, battle against encampments of the homeless, indifferent maintenance and rapid turnover.

Even worse, across Brookhurst (on the east side) there’s a non-descript strip mall that looks like a “before” image in a before-and-after study in an urban planning textbook chapter about what not to do.

Taken together, this is Garden Grove’s major commercial area. It poses big challenges and big opportunities. What piqued my interest is the suggestion at a recent city council meeting that a planned bike and hiking trail from the Main Street area (along the old Pacific right-of-way) to Brookhurst might be extended all the way to Chapman Avenue, i.e. making a connection between the downtown and the uptown.

Here’s what’s changing and what’s different.

  • Although Californians still love their cars, we are seeing an uptick in the number of people who prefer to walk or ride bicycles to get around. The reasons include exercise, environmental concerns, traffic congestion and high transportation costs.
  • Planned expansion of bike and walking paths and trails that offer more safety and a pleasant experience will pull more people out of their cars.
  • Online shopping is cutting deeply into traditional in-store retail purchases.
  • People are spending more money on dining out than on groceries, so (some) restaurants are flourishing more than (some) supermarkets.
  • A lot of folks are seeking a place to congregate, socialize and recreate in a safe, appealing location.

For all the attention focused (and generally rightfully so) on Harbor Boulevard’s hotels and downtown’s foodie revolution, it might be time to give more love to the potential third leg of the “triple crown” of the Big Strawberry’s rise toward world – or at least local – dominance.

We’ll have more specific notions on this in the first column of the new year.

Jim Tortolano’s  Retorts is posted on alternate Wednesdays. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Season’s Greetings, Happy New Year, etc.




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