Formed in Frustration : Pine Avenue Merchants Take Trendy Tack

Times Staff Writer

From all appearances it was an innocuous meeting.

At one end of the table sat the owner of Birdland West, a trendy year-old jazz club on Pine Avenue. Other businesses represented by the more than 20 merchants munching on lemon bars and cranberry coffee cakes included System M, a hip coffee house next door to the jazz club; Overeact Gallery, a facility--scheduled to open later this week--devoted to the works of emerging artists, and the 3-month-old Justina's restaurant, which was acting as host for the gathering.

On the agenda was a discussion of a Christmas promotion the group is planning for Dec. 4.

But that is where the innocuousness ends. The promotion, which will consist of storefront decorations and giveaways, is nothing less than the first organized effort of a newly formed movement that may have raised some hackles downtown. Its name: the Pine Avenue Merchants Assn. The goal: to make Pine Avenue the Melrose of Long Beach.

"We want to bring back the Pine Avenue of old," said John Morris, the association's newly elected president, referring to a period in the 1920s and 1930s when the street was the retail center of the city.

"We want this to be an 18-hour operation, not just 9 to 5. We want Pine to be the center of a revitalized downtown."

Formed Out of Frustration

Morris, who owns Legends in Belmont Shore and plans to open an Italian restaurant on Pine Avenue early next year, said the group was formed out of frustration at what he termed the ineffective efforts of the Downtown Long Beach Associates (DLBA) to attract upscale retail traffic downtown.

"The kinds of promotions they've done in the past have been discount-oriented," Morris said of the city-sponsored agency charged with promoting the downtown area on an annual budget of about $200,000. "Western Days and elephant walks are great for the kids, but what do they do for business? There's a blind spot concerning retail in the DLBA; I don't think they understand the needs of retailers."

DLBA board members deny that the older organization is insensitive to the needs of retailers. And because the two groups have different focuses, they say, there should not be any conflict.

Yet at a meeting of the Pine Avenue Merchants Assn. two weeks ago, according to several members who were there, DLBA president Loren Brown strongly criticized the Pine Avenue group, urging its members--most of whom are also in the DLBA--to move slowly to avoid working at cross-purposes. And some of the Pine Avenue merchants openly wonder whether the recent decision to seek new applicants for the job of DLBA director Laura Winger, who has been with the organization only six months, had anything to do with her membership in and strong support for the new association.

Winger would not speak directly to a reporter regarding the matter, replying instead through an intermediary who would say only that Winger is no longer involved in the Pine Avenue Merchants Assn.

And Brown denied any connection between Winger's situation and her involvement in the Pine Avenue group, saying instead that the DLBA was simply looking for a director with more experience.

Regarding his appearance at the recent meeting, he said, "They got the wrong interpretation. My intent was to ask them to slow down and see if they couldn't work with us. If there are some changes they want to make, they should make them within the system instead of reinventing the wheel."

Members of the new association, meanwhile, say they are looking forward to working with the DLBA. Mostly, they say, they are looking forward to a bright future on Pine Avenue.

Keyed to Restaurant Opening

What they refer to as the burgeoning renaissance of that street began about a year ago when Birdland West opened at Pine and Broadway.

"They were the pioneers," said James Bradley, owner of the building that bears his name and houses the jazz club. A short time later, System M opened up. Then the Yogurt Works and Justina's. And in addition to the openings of the Overeact Gallery and Morris' Italian restaurant, the street will soon be the home of the Pine Avenue Grill, to be operated by the owners of the posh 555 restaurant several blocks to the east.

"The street is very diversified in terms of adult entertainment," said Al Williams, owner of Birdland West. "I think Pine Avenue will be one of the centers of the new Long Beach."

The job of the Pine Avenue Merchants Assn., according to Morris, is to populate it with the same kind of consumers that frequent Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles or Main Street in Santa Monica: upscale free-spending yuppies with enough cash to make it all go.

Group Wants a Logo

The group hopes to accomplish that, he said, primarily through member-paid advertising campaigns and promotions designed to portray Pine Avenue as the city's hippest new hot spot. As a first step, he said, the association--which after two months of existence has 34 members--plans to develop a logo that captures what it regards as the street's charming combination of old and new architectural styles.

But already there have been minor clashes with the DLBA. During a recent discussion of the new logo, for instance, one member who is active in the larger organization urged the Pine Avenue group to hold off on adopting its own logo until the DLBA completes plans now under way to adopt one citywide.

The Pine Avenuers decided not to wait.

On another issue, however, they deferred to the older group.

"Do you want to have a Santa Claus?" Morris asked during consideration of the upcoming Christmas promotion. After some discussion, the group decided to leave that honor to the DLBA.

"There's no point in confusing the kids," one member said.

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