Residential developers are so far the only parties interested in acquiring an empty, 52,000-square-foot property in Bixby Knolls that was vacated by Ralphs about a year ago, according to a real-estate representative for the grocery store.
Community members, however, have expressed mixed feelings about such a proposal, which would require Planning Commission and City Council approvals to change the zoning at the site at Long Beach Boulevard and San Antonio Drive.
The topic was one of several subjects discussed during a packed community meeting hosted by the Los Cerritos Neighborhood Association (LCNA), the Sleepy Hollow Neighborhood Association (SHNA) and the Country Club Manor Association (CCMA) at the Long Beach Petroleum Club on Thursday, May 22.
Addressing the crowd, 8th District Councilmember Al Austin said he wanted to dispel rumors that Porto’s Bakery & Café would be moving to the former Ralphs site after his office and the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association sent out an email blast in March to “spread the word” about the possibility.
“Based on the conversation I had with the [Porto’s] representative, it didn’t sound like it was a serious proposal,” Austin said, adding that the Bixby Knolls site was “last on the list” of many possible locations, including Torrance, Buena Park and West Covina.
Yoshko Prebanda, real-estate manager for Ralphs and Food 4 Less grocery stores in Los Angeles County, confirmed that Porto’s has not submitted a formal offer and neither have any other retailers or grocery stores. There are, however, some offers on the table from residential developers, he said.
“We’ve spent the last 18 months trying to find somebody to sell the property to or lease the property to, but we haven’t had much interest from any retail tenants in the space,” said Prebanda, a Bixby Knolls native. “The offers that I do have for the property are all from residential developers.”
Ralphs purchased the space in 2000 for about $8.5 million, but the store struggled to meet sales goals, he said, adding that losses quickly exceeded $1 million. Though the company tried to turn the store around through advertising and marketing, Ralphs was forced to close the location in June 2013. Prebanda said other grocery stores have expressed worry they might experience the same situation.
“Very early on, the store was very light in sales,” he said. “Eventually, the losses got to a point where we just could not keep the operation open anymore. The supermarket business is a very expensive business to run.”
Prebanda said Ralphs struggled to draw enough customers to the location because of a “small trade area” south of Del Amo Boulevard and beyond the 710 Freeway, adding that there weren’t enough people in the area to support it and other grocery stores may face the same problem. Another large retailer, Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH), which was formerly located at the Bixby Knolls Shopping Center on Atlantic Avenue, closed last year as well as part of a company restructure.
“I’m not sure 52,000 square feet of retail can really be supported given the vacancies that are already up and down Long Beach Boulevard,” he said.
Prebanda said he has reached out to Smart & Final, Gelson’s and Whole Foods, but none have responded with an offer and neither have fashion retailers, fitness gyms or office developers. He said WinCo Foods is not interested since they would require double the space and Trader Joe’s, which already has a Bixby Knolls location on Atlantic Avenue, would require less space in order to relocate.
The first proposal, however, came from Brookfield Residential Properties, Inc., which submitted an offer months ago to build about 100 units on the property, Prebanda said. The developer, however, nixed the deal after getting pushback from the community, he said, adding that it wasn’t clear if the Porto’s rumor had anything to do with the developer pulling out.
Another residential developer that has shown interest is the Seal Beach-based Olson Company, which he said has plans to build “luxury” homes that would be up for sale.
Other residential developers are looking at putting in rental units, which may come with some retail, Prebanda said.
However, any residential proposal would have to get full support of the community before being submitted to the City, Prebanda said, adding that he wouldn’t entertain any plans for low-income housing.
Some Bixby Knolls-area residents spoke out against the property being turned into a residential development, adding that the site is currently zoned for commercial use.
Jacqueline Medina, spokesperson for Long Beach Development Services (LBDS), confirmed in an email to the Signal Tribune that the property is currently zoned as a community automobile-oriented district (CCA), permitting a wide variety of commercial uses, including retail, office and personal services, but it does not permit residential.
She stated that a zone change from retail to residential would be considered “spot zoning,” meaning it would require a zoning change inconsistent with the City’s General Plan, requiring overriding approvals from the Planning Commission and the City Council. Medina confirmed that no proposals have been submitted to the City yet.
Rick Ivey, president of the LCNA, said he is concerned with changing the community’s zoning that may set a precedent for other developers to do the same thing. He said City planning officials and community leaders created the zoning as a way to make Long Beach Boulevard an office and retail corridor.
“We’ve worked really, really, really hard to bring businesses in and to get rid of the cheap hotels and motels on Long Beach Boulevard,” Ivey told Prebanda. “This has been a long, arduous process– the 20 to 25 years of work that has gone into this– and it’s something for you to think about and consider.”
Former 8th District Councilmember Rae Gabelich also chimed in to express her opposition to the residential prospect, adding that a committee of residents that fought more housing on Long Beach Boulevard will continue to resist such a project.
“I’m a little skeptical in believing that you had actually done a lot of outreach and that you continue to do outreach,” she told Prebanda. “You need a zoning change to be able to do this. I’ve got communication from [LBDS] that they were inclined to support commercial for that location, not residential … so I think you need to do a better job of serving the community and being honest with the community.”
Prebanda, however, said a residential development would be better than “a vacant building,” which attracts “vagrants.” He said a recent study shows that traffic at the site would be reduced by 80 percent if housing were built on the property rather than retail.
One resident, who said she’s a parent of local school children, expressed support for a residential project, adding that new residents in the community would bring in more sales-tax revenue by spending at local stores.
“Myself and a few members of the neighborhood are in support of residential,” she said. “[Retail] businesses are struggling right now, and to bring more in doesn’t make sense… I think the people who come in with a development like that are going to support the community, and I welcome the new neighbors.”
During the first portion of the meeting, Commander Robert Luman gave a presentation on crime in the north division, which he said extends from Wardlow Road to north of the 91 Freeway with about 122,000 residents.
While there may be a perception that crime is increasing, he said last year the City overall experienced a 41-year low in violent crime, adding that, through April of this year, violent crime has been even lower.
Luman said there were some issues with homicides in the north division last year, but they were mostly an “anomaly” and mostly not gang-related. He added that homicides in the north division have since reduced.
He cautioned residents to be on the lookout for “knock-knock” burglars, mostly teenage or young adults carrying backpacks who check during the day to see if a resident is home to then burglarize a house. Luman added that the north division has seen a decrease in auto burglaries this year but a slight increase in auto thefts.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Erik Herzog, who leads the Long Beach homicide detail, gave a brief presentation on the police department’s procedure for investigating officer-involved shootings, which he said increased citywide last year.
Other issues discussed during the meeting included the imminent closure of the post office at 4580 Atlantic Ave. and the possible relocation of the Uptown Farmers Market after the owner of the property at Atlantic Avenue and 46th Street has changed hands and has plans to upgrade the property with new investments.
Councilmember Austin, who assured residents that the farmers market would remain in the Bixby Knolls area, announced that his office has organized a community meeting on Thursday, June 12 at 6pm at the Expo Arts Center to discuss a possible new location for the farmers market just days before a proposal goes to the Planning Commission.