Is a Walmart neighborhood grocery coming to La Verne? That’s the 800-pound gorilla that’s been stalking economic development discussions lately.
“As strong as that rumour is out there,” said La Verne Community Development Director Hal Fredericksen,” Walmart has never talked to the city. We have no application from them.”
Fredericksen, however, indicated that the owner of the former Steinmart location at the corner of Foothill and Wheeler, is “close to having a store signed for that space.”
If La Verne residents want shovel-ready projects, they can point with pride to the southwest corner of Foothill and Wheeler, the western gateway to the city and the site of the former Shell gas station that has since been razed and graded in preparation for a new fast-food restaurant.
“The City has approved a new Jack in the Box drive-through restaurant for that location,” Fredericksen said, after acknowledging that some nearby residents objected to that particular use.
“To be honest,” Fredericksen carefully explained, “it’s very difficult to get anything but that type of use there, but I will tell you, I think this will be probably the best-looking Jack in the Box you’ve ever seen.”
The drive-through will be open 24-7, providing night owl La Verne residents with an antidote for late-night snack attacks.
More retail development, or suburban renewal, is slated for Wheeler and Foothill in the former Vons site.
A developer has submitted an application with the city to divide the former Vons into two sites: one will be a Crunch Fitness, the other a Dollar Tree.
According to Fredericksen, the City was hopeful of landing more fashionable, upscale names, but after four years, that search proved fruitless. Indeed, the city, along with the tenants in the old Vons center, had long discouraged discount retailers from nesting there and actively courted a number of specialty retailers, including furniture, appliance and sporting goods vendors, to fill the space.
“Would we rather have a Nordstrom Rack or a Babies R Us or a Best Buy in there?” Fredericksen asked while nodding in the affirmative. “Those are the people who said no on the space.”
Time was finally running out on the city.
“It’s been four years,” Fredericksen noted, “and we were starting to lose tenants in the back of the center. What was once an ‘A’ center is now a ‘B’ or ‘B-‘ center. It could slip to a ‘C’ or worse, and once it slips to that, then we’ve really got problems. Then all we have to consider are thrift stores or indoor swap meets.”
At the same time, the Dollar Tree franchise is a financial powerhouse, with more than 4,500 stores in 48 U.S. states and Canada, compared to the 99 cent Only franchise across the boulevard, which has about 500 stores in California, Nevada and Texas.
The City will impose heightened architectural standards and upgraded signage and lighting requirements in the refurbished center. With regard to The Dollar Tree, Fredericksen added, “I think they’ve stepped up their stores. Their newer ones are a lot cleaner and more presentable.”
Equally important, the 10 different owners of the old Vons Center are embracing the new use, Fredericksen noted. “About a year ago, the tenants in the center were almost entirely opposed to a discount retailer like a Dollar Tree coming in,” Fredericksen said. “Last month, they were almost entirely in support.
“For the first time in four years, we’ve got something here,” Fredericksen added. “Is it the Hope Diamond? No, but we hope we can make it a pretty good cubic zirconia.”
Another diamond in the rough could be the former Bakers Square site in the old Vons center. The current property owner is a franchisee of The Big Fast Greek Restaurant, a national restaurant chain serving Greek and Mediterranean food, with a nearby restaurant in Burbank.
The prospects for this restaurant appear far better than The Patio, which recently closed its doors at 1204 Foothill Blvd. The site, despite being reinvented and repurposed many times as an Italian, Mediterranean, and steak and seafood house over the years, seems to be “doomed,” “haunted,” “cursed,” “damned,” or whatever other synonym you can think of for ill fated.
Among the myriad challenges it faces are a small kitchen and its proximity to a senior mobile home park. The owners invested heavily in remodeling the restaurant, but it appears it just couldn’t ring the register enough with locals to stay in business.
Opening new retail, and new restaurants, in particular, can always be dicey, but Hutton Development believes it has the right formula and is backing that belief by breaking ground on 172 luxury apartments along the eastern Foothill corridor on the former Person Ford dealership. The Verne Village mixed-used development will include 15,000 square feet of retail space and be ready to welcome new tenants and residents in early 2014.
A Home Depot had once been proposed for the site. Fredericksen said the City likes its new partners, who completed College Park Apartment Homes, a similar-style project in Upland about six years ago.
“We kicked the tires of their existing College Park project,” Fredericksen said. “They are very hands-on and neighborhood-oriented and tend to own their properties for a long time.”
Downtown La Verne is also seeing a spike in retail activity. Chases and The House of Wings have established strong followings, and Poppas Artisanal Sandwiches is moving into the space formerly occupied by Dillon’s Barbecue.
Foot traffic is also increasing downtown, which partly reflects inclining enrollment at the University of La Verne. The University has smartly positioned itself as an alternative to the enrollment-impacted University of California and California State College systems.
Old Town will further benefit from the reopening of the Farmers’ Market for the Spring-Summer season on Thursday, March 7. The ever-popular Cool Cruise, which annual attracts about 10,000 classic car lovers to Old Town, relaunches Saturday, March 30.
Gearheads won’t be the only visitors to downtown. Downtown merchants are offering their first “Sip of La Verne” Wine Walk on Saturday, April 6, hoping to attract a different element to the historic city hub.
For $30, participants receive a dozen tickets entitling them to sip their way through town. With their monogrammed glass in hand, they can visit 15 to 17 different pouring stations. Different restaurants along the way will offer different food pairings, as well.
“Having attended Claremont’s event a couple of times, I can tell you it becomes very much a social event,” Fredericksen said.
On the residential housing front, La Verne might be experiencing a boomlet, which, in these times of tight inventories, should be positive news for house hunters.
Slated to come on board is Oakgrove Walk, a residential development of 66 single-family homes by The Olson Co. The project is located behind the Edwards Theater complex on Foothill Blvd., and sited at the west end of Dover St. The site will use a portion of the theater’s parking lot, which became expendable after the theater converted to stadium seating.
Melia Homes, a small developer based out of Century City, also has won approval for the construction of 14 luxury homes near Marshall Canyon. “These people are here every day and focused on building quality homes,” Fredericksen said.
Also on the near horizon is the Cedar Springs mixed-used development that will be located on the south side of the David and Margaret campus on Palomares Avenue. The 36-unit project includes a two-story multi-family, low-income apartment complex, a community center and a retail store for the David and Margaret facility.
Additionally, the City anticipates moving forward with approvals and permits for the first few homes of the Puddingstone Hill residential project, which is a 15-lot subdivision that was approved a few years ago. The homes will flank the base of Puddingstone Hill, a landmark visible throughout the city. Some of the homes will be visible from the proposed La Verne Technology and Trade Center that is expected to commence grading this summer.
When the 23-acre vacant parcel of land is completed by developer Trammell Crow, the Tech and Trade center will include 11 new industrial buildings ranging in size from 14,600 square feet to 73,300 square feet for a total of about 380,000 square feet. The project will include a new internal street, and will be responsible for the extension of Wheeler Avenue to Puddingstone Drive.
“It represents a significant expansion to the 1.5-million square feet we already have in San Polo business park,” Fredericksen said.
The occupants likely will likely represent small manufacturers, import/export businesses, electronics firms and other “clean” and “white-collar” industries and hail from the surrounding foothill communities.
“They’ll like it because they can come down and check on their business or work at their business on a Sunday night if they want to,” Fredericksen said.
On the other side of Wheeler below Arrow Hwy., the University of La Verne’s Campus West athletic facility will occupy about 15 acres that were purchased from the City. It will eventually be the home of the University’s nomadic baseball and softball teams. The City will also have limited access to the facility for youth and sports programs.
“Like everything, it’s been a little slower in getting started than we’d like to see,” Fredericksen said. “The university has been gagging on what construction costs are, but that’s the nature of everything nowadays.”
Long range, the City looks forward to the Gold Line light rail system reaching La Verne, but says realistically La Verne is looking at a 10- to 15-year window because of a lack of transportation funding to complete the Azusa-to-Montclair leg of the project.
At the same time, Fredericksen, who has been the City’s planning director for 14 years, recognizes how quickly national and regional politics change. Because a mothballed project can quickly land on the front burner, it behooves the city and its transportation partners to proceed as if the project were pulling into the station sooner.
“That’s how transportation projects usually get funded,” he explained. “There’s no money, there’s no money, there’s no money, and then all of a sudden a transportation bill passes at the federal level. It’s those projects that are worthwhile and ready and have environmental impact reports done that move ahead.”
Despite the Gold Line delays and the dissolution of the City’s redevelopment agency, which Fredericksen conservatively estimated as about a $6 million loss to the City, La Verne forges ahead on the economic front.
In terms of permits pulled, “this past year has been our busiest in 10 years,” Fredericksen said. In step with the times, the City, which used to boast that it was the San Gabriel Valley’s best kept secret, now has a Facebook page. Its begun to market itself vying for business that once went exclusively to Glendora’s Marketplace and Upland’s Colonies, La Verne’s two main retail competitors.
Meanwhile, the City has maintained a customer service focus and has earned a reputation with incoming businesses as being fair to work with. “I’m proud of that,” Fredericksen said.
Counting Fredericksen, the City has 4.5 planners (the .5 represents a part-time planner). “We lost some seasoned veterans through early retirement when the City was trimming back, so we lost some institutional memory and skill,” Fredericksen said, “but we have a real energetic staff that is committed to preserving the quality of life here in La Verne in balance with economic development.”
A resident of La Verne since 1976, Fredericksen said he bleeds “green” and couldn’t think of a better place to live or work.
“I always think if we could just turn the temperature about 20 degrees lower in August and September, we’d have it all, but if we could, everyone would want to live here.”