By Nick Diamantides
When the bucket of the 100,000-pound excavator smashed into the wall, cheers and applause rose up from the approximately 100 onlookers. They were there to observe and celebrate the beginning of the demolition of the old Roberts Department Store building last Thursday (October 15) morning. The building, located in the Bixby Knolls Shopping Center, has been vacant for about 11 years, and many people consider it to be an eyesore that discourage would-be shoppers from even entering the center.
The building’s demise will make way for the construction of a new Marshalls department store that is expected to open by autumn 2010.
As one might expect during such an occasion, local dignitaries were on hand to talk about the demolition and plans to revitalize the shopping center.
“We certainly like to celebrate what we feel is a milestone in moving forward in new development,” said Craig Beck, executive director of the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency (RDA). “But it also is the demolition of a property, and many people who have lived in Bixby Knolls a long time remember this department store. It was originally opened as a W.T Grant Department Store.” (The RDA has been instrumental in plans for the shopping center’s revitalization.)
Beck noted that 8th District Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, who also spent much of her time during the past several years bringing a Marshalls store to the shopping center, had already made plans to vacation with her family before the demolition date was announced and therefore could not be there on that day. “Trust me, she really wanted to be here,” he said. “This has been high on her list for a number of years.” He added that Gabelich did not want to postpone the event just so she could attend.
Former 8th District Councilman Rob Webb was there too. “This is a project that I worked on for many years,” he said, adding that Gabelich had invited him to attend the demolition. “I am honored to be here,” he noted.
Another former 8th District Councilman, Jeff Kellogg, was also present. He thanked Gabelich for inviting him and added, “It’s a great day for the neighborhood. I don’t view these as demolition days. These are really the days of a new beginning for this area.” Kellogg also praised all the city officials and members of the Bixby Knolls Improvement Association (BKBIA) for working together over many years to revitalize the entire Bixby Knolls area.
Another councilmember, Tonia Reyes-Uranga, whose 7th District borders Bixby Knolls, was there, too. “I just want to thank Rae for all the hard work she put into moving this forward,” she said. “It always takes a woman to clean things up.” Reyes-Uranga added that a revitalized Bixby Knolls Shopping Center will benefit the entire city. “We are going to build up this site to be fantastic,” she said. “This is a transforming of history into a place where we can shop, live and play.”
The next speaker, Blair Cohn, executive director of the BKBIA, told the audience he was very pleased to see the shopping center revitalization plans moving forward. He thanked the residents of the Bixby Knolls, California Heights and Los Cerritos neighborhoods for getting involved in improving the area. He also thanked all the city officials who worked for many years to bring a new anchor store to the shopping center. “I am just happy to be here,” he said. “All the hard work was done before I got here.”
Next, Long Beach Vice Mayor Val Lerch addressed the audience. “This is a long time coming,” he said. “I am looking forward to going to Marshalls and shopping here.”
The Bixby Knolls Shopping Center is owned by GGF, LLC and managed by Gaska Inc. (Both are based in Glendale.) Aida Norhadian, a spokesperson for those companies, also attended the demolition. “This is a very exciting and meaningful day for us and the shopping center,” she said. “We are so pleased to be working with the City of Long Beach on this long-awaited development project.” She noted that in spite of the ongoing national economic recession, Marshalls had decided to move forward with its plan to open a store in the center. “Today we break ground on a project that will create new opportunities and synergy within the shopping center,” she added.
Jonathan Kraus, Gabelich’s chief of staff, took the microphone next. He echoed Beck’s comments on why Gabelich could not attend, and he read a message she had written to those in attendance. “This is a time of renaissance for Bixby Knolls,” she said. “We are seeing exciting stores and restaurants open up.”
In her written message, Gabelich noted that the repaving of Atlantic Avenue, the installation of new traffic lights and the work of the BIA have already brought new energy and a stronger connection between residents and businesses in Bixby Knolls, and she expected even more positive things in the near future. “Today, as we remove the old Roberts store to make way for a new Marshalls, we are starting a new chapter for this shopping center and making a major step forward in the ongoing revitalization of the Atlantic Avenue retail corridor,” she said.
After Kraus read the message, Norhadian, accompanied by several city officials, broke a bottle of champagne on the front wall of the soon-to-be demolished Robert’s store. Then Beck said, “And now we are going to bring forward the transformer (excavator) to do a little damage.” The audience cheered and clapped as the demolition began. By the day’s end, the old Robert’s Department Store was gone forever.
Crews are currently working on the building’s basement and the steel girders that hold it together. Once that work is complete, the excavator will continue the process. City officials expect the edifice to be knocked down within the next week or so. Meanwhile, the demolition of the shops adjacent to the Roberts building is continuing.