When Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association (BKBIA), speaks about the overall state of retail and development in his district, he often vacillates between two metaphors.
Sometimes, he likens it to a chessboard– a game of moving pieces and strategic maneuvers. Other times, he uses the word “crossroads,” since the direction of certain projects is often uncertain.
In an interview at his office on Atlantic Avenue early Tuesday morning, Cohn, who is approaching the 10th anniversary of overseeing the business district, first used the latter.
“I think every time we meet, I keep saying we’re at a crossroads,” he told the Signal Tribune. “Well, we’re at another crossroads– which is good– […] things are moving around and/or are ready to come to fruition.”
An example is the anticipation of getting a particular warehouse-style retail store to move into the neighborhood. In a June 2016 interview with the Signal Tribune, Cohn had indicated that a Smart & Final store was expected to move into part of the property formerly occupied by Orchard Supply Hardware. That move is one that is still in the works, he said Tuesday.
“Well, the best that we can get through the corporate chain and the PR and information offices is just that they’ll be open sometime in 2018,” Cohn said.
He then used the other metaphor.
“Just when I think that our chessboard is set for a little bit– no, something else happens,” he said. “For instance, it surprised us all that Tuttle Cameras said they were moving after all this time.”
Saying it was “a shame,” Cohn explained that, after 70 years in Bixby Knolls, the camera business moved out of the district because of escalating rent at its longtime location.
“The good news is there’s a serious tenant looking to lease the space, which would be great,” he said. “It’s premature– way premature– but, hopefully, that letter of intent was submitted yesterday or today.”
Nevertheless, he lamented the loss of Tuttle because it was one of the last iconic businesses in the area after the Nino’s Restaurant family retired and fires forced Hof’s Hut on Long Beach Boulevard and George’s ‘50s Diner on Atlantic Avenue to shut their doors. There’s potentially good news though.
“George’s is on the edge of starting their construction,” Cohn said. “We’re hoping to set up a meeting with (owners) the Ramirez Family to talk about the new era and what we can do to help– suggestions for the restaurant– but we really want to see them come back, build and be successful, obviously.”
Focusing on another, newer eatery, Cohn mentioned that The Merchant, which serves coffee and baked goods on Long Beach Boulevard, has been doing well ever since opening its doors a few weeks ago. He added that its owners also have a dry goods/provisions shop next door.
The executive director said that having a coffee shop on that street is helping to activate the area, even attracting regulars, and that those shops are connecting a corridor of new and existing businesses.
“The boulevard has gotten a lot of energy now,” he said. “And [there’s] more to come.” He added that Steelcraft, refurbished shipping containers that house various eateries, is “gangbusters.”
A few blocks north, the former Hof’s Hut space is still vacant– after two fires ruined its kitchen ventilation system in January 2015– but Cohn said the building’s new owner is “aggressively looking for a restaurant tenant,” which he is happy about, since he hopes to see more “destination” places, rather than medical or service businesses, in order to stimulate more foot traffic and neighborhood engagement.
Another restaurant, 4262, which had previously been Atun, on Atlantic Avenue, is temporarily closed while it is in escrow because the chef there is buying it.
Across the street and four blocks south, at the former Nino’s Restaurant property, a warehouse behind the facility and a kitchen annex have both been demolished, and a new building, which could possibly accommodate up to four tenants, is being constructed.
Two blocks south of that site, work has begun to open a Liberation Brewing business.
Cohn said that patrons of that brewhouse will be able to buy food at nearby Patricia’s Mexican Restaurant and take it to Liberation to enjoy with their beer.
He also said that Summerjax, a design and marketing firm, bought the location at 4047 Long Beach Blvd.
“We’re going to work with them to put up all new security lights because, as I’ve said before, safety is No. 1,” Cohn said. “Lighting up the district– front and back– making sure the buildings are safe […] They bring the young, hip, new creative business types that we’re looking for.”
In discussing those improvements, Cohn also said that the new owner of 3440 Atlantic Ave. is gutting the inside of that property and “getting it fixed up.”
Starr Video, which had been located at 3976 Atlantic Ave., for over two decades, recently closed. Cohn called it “the end of an era” but also an indication of the times, as many people now use Netflix, Hulu and Redbox to watch movies.
“There, you had a small-business man who had a small business, but not enough business,” Cohn said. “I know people who were loyal [to the video store]– people we walk with on Saturdays– that was their place.”
Cohn added that he has not had luck reaching anyone who owns or manages that building, which he said is in a “prime location.”
“We have people looking for a place like that,” he said.
Nearby, West Bistro, formerly Café Bixby and The Breakfast Club, is undergoing renovations to its roof, and the tower has been lowered, but, beyond that, Cohn said he is not clear on what will happen inside the restaurant and could only speculate based on second-hand information at the time of the interview.
Another addition to the area will be Niky’s Sports, a specialty soccer store offering high-end uniforms and gear that will occupy the space left by Metropolitan Furniture on Atlantic.
However, another business that has closed is Covent Lane, 3734 Long Beach Blvd., which Cohn described as “a beautiful retail shop” that only lasted a year. Cohn cited it as an example of a great business that did not succeed because of a lack of outreach to the community.
Another problem Cohn encounters when he and his staff try to help local businesses is unresponsive landlords.
When Castle of Books got its “walking papers” from the owners of EJ Malloy’s, who wanted to utilize the space the bookstore had occupied, the BKBIA staff tried to find another location for Castle. Despite their efforts, the book retailer ultimately moved to the Wrigley area. Cohn regrets losing Castle of Books and said he wishes property owners would be better about responding to his staff so that they can match up landlords with business owners to retain retailers.
On the plus side, Goodwill will open its new Edgar & James specialty store in the former Trader Joe’s space on Atlantic. The BKBIA is hosting a reception on Friday, July 14 at 8am with a ceremony at 8:30am. Cohn said he’s excited that the shop will now occupy the vacancy left by such an “anchor” store like Trader Joe’s.
“We hope that the neighborhood will embrace it and that it serves the neighborhood and extended neighborhoods well,” he said. “I think it should be interesting enough to attract folks there. It’ll help because Trader Joe’s was such an anchor tenant right there that it created a buzz around that whole area. When they left, it quieted things down. If [Edgar & James is] there, and if people are coming and going, it will help the other retailers across the street […] We hope that it truly becomes a destination spot.”