Alhambra is about to get a $130-million shopping and housing complex that could give one of Los Angeles County's oldest communities a new lift.
The city, named after a popular 19th century book by Washington Irving, has seen the arrival of new shops, restaurants and theaters in recent years, but still suffers from vacant storefronts in its business district.
Now work is underway at the key intersection of Main Street and Garfield Avenue, where a long-defunct Mervyn's and other empty stores and offices were a dark spot for years.
The community can support more business, developer Andres Friedman said.
"Alhambra has an underserved downtown with a lot of potential," said Friedman, vice president of acquisitions and development for Shea Properties, which is building the complex called Alhambra Place. "It hasn't seen a new project for the last decade."
Shea Properties' plan calls for knocking down all the old buildings on the 10.5-acre site at the southeast corner of the intersection except for the former Mervyn's. The old department store structure will be renovated and incorporated into a 140,000-square-foot retail complex with shops, restaurants and a specialty grocery store.
The project also calls for a four-story apartment complex with 260 luxury units that will be wrapped around a garage. New residents and stores should help perk up local street life, Friedman said.
"We believe mixed-use can bring the energy downtown Alhambra is looking for," he said.
Apartment rents haven't been set, Friedman said, but the residences have been conceived to compete with modern rental units in downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena that are intended for single professionals and young families.
Residents will have use of a clubhouse, gym, pool and spa. The apartments will include mostly one- and two-bedroom units, along with a few studios and three-bedroom units.
Apartments on the south side of the property facing East Bay State Street will have classic brownstone features with well-defined cornices and arched entryways. Around the corner on Garfield, the architecture will transition to a contemporary design, using the materials found in the commercial portion of the complex.
Occupants at the new mall will probably be well-known national brands looking for a foothold in a densely occupied neighborhood, real estate broker Dan Samulski of CBRE Group Inc. said.
"There is clearly tenant demand for infill projects right now, because that's where the population is," he said.
The Alhambra Place block has been mostly dormant for about six years, Alhambra Mayor Gary Yamauchi said. Another developer planned a project there but backed off when the last economic downturn hit.
"We are happy the cycle has come back to this point," Yamauchi said. "We have always wanted a mixed-use project on Main Street to make it pedestrian-friendly."
The development fits into a strategic plan the city adopted 15 years ago to make its downtown more lively, Yamauchi said. He hopes to see more new development on East Main Street.
"I think we're kind of on our way," he said. "Fingers crossed."
The land that became Alhambra was part of a Spanish grant made in 1771 to Mission San Gabriel. It was subdivided in the 19th century and in 1874 developer Benjamin Wilson named his venture "Alhambra" at the urging of his daughter. She had been reading "Tales of the Alhambra," Washington Irving's book about the famous Moorish palace in Spain. Irving is best known for his short stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
By the 20th century Alhambra, which lies south of San Marino and South Pasadena, was "a charming Midwestern-style community," Los Angeles historian Greg Fischer said, with a great variety of homes including many inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement.
It was primarily built out by the 1960s, by which time more than half the population lived in multifamily structures. The retail district "became tired," Fischer said, and is finally recovering in a hopscotch fashion.
The official center of town is Main and Garfield, and Shea's Friedman hopes that Alhambra Place will elevate its prominence by filling in a key gap in the city's street life. The retail portion is set to be completed by summer and the first apartments should be available in fall 2016.
Alhambra "has energy at night," he said. "You feel a little of the vacancy, but the density and the demographics are there. You just need the right plan to execute."