Valley Blvd. Is a Challenge for Planners in Alhambra

Times Staff Writer

Valley Boulevard, which had existed for decades in the shadow of Main Street, is coming of age.

The boulevard has always been a busy commercial area but was never the heart of the city. Main Street, where the major department stores were located, was the place to be for shopping and fun.

Some 20 years ago, the Junior Chamber of Commerce even hosted a “Hi Neighbor” parade on the boulevard featuring as the grand marshal Cheryl Tiegs, an Alhambra High School graduate turned cover girl. Organizers had hoped the parade would draw more attention and business to Valley Boulevard.

“It didn’t help any,” said Dick Nichols, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

But in the early 1980s, business began booming on Valley as Asian immigrants and other entrepreneurs established businesses ranging from restaurants to supermarkets to furniture stores.

$1 Million in Sales Taxes

The goods and services attract shoppers from as far away as Anaheim and Sun Valley, raking in nearly $1 million in sales taxes a year for the city and turning Valley Boulevard between New Avenue and the Long Beach Freeway into a regional shopping area.

Development has been taking place so rapidly--since 1980, more than 280,000 square feet of new development has occurred on Valley--that the City Council became alarmed about the effect of uncontrolled growth.

So city planners are preparing a plan that will examine issues such as the environmental and traffic impacts of new developments, minimum lot sizes and the development of commercial “nodes,” described as a more concentrated collection of businesses at major intersections on Valley, such as Atlantic Boulevard and Fremont and Garfield avenues.

“We don’t want these to be arbitrary rules and regulations,” said Mark Persico, an associate city planner. “We want to control development on Valley Boulevard. We don’t want to stop it.”

In addition to concerns such as traffic congestion and building density, some council members are receiving complaints from residents about the boulevard’s appearance.

“Every time you look, you see a junk store going up,” said Councilwoman Barbara Messina, who lives two blocks north of Valley. She cited as an example one tiny store crammed with everything from toys to pots and pans. Business signs have also become a problem, she said.

“It’s not just the Asian signs,” Messina said. Excessive and unprofessional-looking signs have made some businesses look tacky, she said. Improving the aesthetics of the boulevard was one reason why the council last fall approved plans to install medians between Ethel and Garfield avenues, she said.

Historically, the city has paid more attention to Main Street, said City Manager Kevin Murphy. “That’s one reason why you have a low-density hodgepodge look (on Valley) now.”

To get more control over future developments on Valley, the council has directed staff members to draft a specific plan--the first of its kind in the city--which it hopes will help shape development along the boulevard.

A specific plan details what percentage of an area should be devoted to certain uses and what type of projects--hotels, restaurants, apartments--the city wants developed.

City planners have been meeting with a Valley Boulevard steering committee to work out details of the plan, which is scheduled to be presented to the public in late October.

As part of the planning process, the council on Feb. 27 extended a moratorium halting new construction on Valley. The freeze will be in effect for another 10 months, or until the specific plan is completed.

Restrictions on Permits

During the moratorium, the city will only issue construction permits for additions to existing buildings if the addition is less than 20% of the building, or 4,000 square feet, whichever is less.

The city is also denying requests for land use changes that increase the demand for parking.

Exemptions may be granted to developers whose projects have been approved by the Planning Commission, said associate planner Persico. Four to five pending projects fall into that category, he said.

The effort to draft a specific plan is generally welcomed by the business community, which has long hungered for detailed development guidelines.

“The reaction has been favorable,” Nichols said. “Even though none of us likes the moratorium, it (specific plan) is needed.”

Some business owners do have reservations, though.

“I’m in favor of the city’s plan, but not rigid control” said Fred Fong, owner of Fong Realty on Valley. “I don’t know if the city has the right to control what type of business they (entrepreneurs) can get into.”

Valley Boulevard’s three-mile stretch through Alhambra is part of a major thoroughfare cutting across the southern portion of the San Gabriel Valley. Linking communities from Pomona to Alhambra, the boulevard--which predates both the Pomona and San Bernardino freeways--ends just south of Lincoln Heights in Los Angeles.

As it winds through the city, Valley undergoes several metamorphoses, changing from a collection of auto repair shops on the west end to Asian supermarkets and restaurants in the middle to national chain stores and markets on the eastern edge of town.

Formerly Italian Area

The boulevard was where Italian-Americans 30 years ago first opened delicatessens, novelty shops, and other businesses after moving to Alhambra from Lincoln Heights and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Anthony Venti Sr., a barber-turned-Realtor who was raised in Los Angeles, said he had never seen so many fellow Italians until he moved to Alhambra in 1953. He remembers the boulevard as a promising place to start a business.

“Anything that opened on Valley Boulevard instantly became a success,” said Venti, now president of Anthony Venti Realtors. It’s even more so today, he said, adding that entrepreneurs snap up retail space and offices faster than they can be built.

“We lease them out before we even finish with them,” Venti said. “You can’t do that on Main Street.”

He said the secret to Valley is its status as a major artery through the San Gabriel Valley, even after the San Bernardino and Pomona freeways were built. Business owners had worried that the freeways would siphon off traffic and customers, Venti said.

“But it never happened,” he said.

Asian Market

Immigration during the past eight to 10 years has pushed the city’s Asian population to almost 30% of the city’s 73,126 residents.

Situated less than a mile from Monterey Park--the San Gabriel Valley’s original hub of Asian immigration--Valley Boulevard became a natural choice for business owners interested in capturing the Asian market.

The new immigrants opened businesses that both revitalized and altered the look of the boulevard. Crawford’s Market at Atlantic Boulevard, for example, has given way to the M. W. Asian supermarket, and the Garfield Theater at Garfield Avenue now features Chinese-language films.

Interspersed with Bob’s Big Boy, Shakey’s Pizza and Pioneer Chicken are Asian delicatessens, beauty salons and bookstores.

The corner of Garfield Avenue and Valley Boulevard is a stark juxtaposition of cultures. On the northeast corner sits the Hong Kong bakery, which offers Chinese sweets, such as almond cookies and, during the Chinese Autumn Festival, little “mooncakes” filled with lotus or sweet red beans.

A Bit of Old Alhambra

Across the street sits a bit of old Alhambra--an open-air sandwich and hamburger stand called The Hat.

The place hasn’t changed much since the day it opened in 1951, old-timers said. It is still where residents can grab a hot pastrami sandwich--billed as the best in the world--and a 15-cent cup of coffee.

Former Alhambra residents, many of them from out of state, stop in at the stand when they are in town, said manager Susana Williams.

“They’re happy to see the place standing,” Williams said. When she was growing up in Alhambra, Williams said, she used to go to the movies at the Garfield Theater and afterward, stroll across the street to The Hat for a pastrami sandwich.

Property owners and developers have approached Michael Paules, assistant city manager, with ideas about how the boulevard should be developed.

Crystal Ball Time

“They are coming to us asking us to use our crystal ball to see what the plan will say about their property,” said Paules, who said their input will help him draft a plan the community will accept.

To help collect data needed to compile the specific plan, the council has hired three consulting firms at an estimated cost of $83,000.

Michael Brandman Associates of Los Angeles is the planning consulting firm; Keyser Marston Associates is providing economic analyses, and Willdan Associates has been hired to provide traffic analyses.

Parker Williams, a Chamber of Commerce representative on the Valley Boulevard steering committee, said that because it is difficult for the city’s section of the boulevard to thrive on just retail businesses, he envisions some apartment and condominium complexes and two-story office buildings.

“I think we’ll have a mixture of residential, commercial and retail,” Williams said.

City planners said more detailed planning will make it easier for them to evaluate development proposals from entrepreneurs.

“It was all done through the zoning ordinance and the General Plan, which are good planning tools, but they are very broad,” Persico said of the city’s method of assessing development proposals.

Downtown Plan

Developers contemplating projects on Main Street, about a mile north of Valley, say they wish a specific plan could also be produced for downtown.

Andrew Cherng, president of Panda Management Co., left a recent redevelopment agency meeting feeling frustrated, not because his proposal to build a Panda Inn restaurant/retail center on Main Street was rejected, but because he said the agency did not offer any clues as to what type of project it wants.

“I didn’t get any idea what you are allowed to develop there,” Cherng said of the site at 5th and Main streets. “There is no indication. That, I think, makes it difficult to conduct business.”

Storefront Renovations

While the city is mapping out the future of Valley, some property and business owners are already busy renovating storefronts.

For example, Alhambra Valley Center, a 32-year-old commercial center carved out of an old airfield near Almansor Street, is now undergoing a face lift and will soon be renamed The Market Place. Instead of Zody’s, a discount department store that went out of business there about three years ago, the shopping center now features HQ, an office supply store.

City officials and members of the business community are all anxious to see a final draft of the plan.

Said Williams, of the Chamber of Commerce, “The business owners, they are looking forward to the upshot of all this.”