In its glory days, the Robert’s Department Store in the Bixby Knolls section of Long Beach bustled with customers and served as the center of the community known as “uptown” Long Beach.
Thirty years later, the department store is an abandoned shell, with sunlight cutting through the empty space that once housed rows of clothing.
Bixby Knolls has long been considered one of Long Beach’s most desirable addresses, with tree-lined neighborhoods of 1920s bungalows as well as imposing Tudor mansions and sprawling ranch houses. But the main business district, Atlantic Avenue, is struggling to revitalize itself.
“You’re looking at half-a-million to a million-dollar homes, and they have this,” Councilman Rob Webb said, pointing at the department store. “I’m frustrated with the pace of the development ... but things don’t change overnight.”
The avenue was once known for its elegant shops and vibrant night life. But now, several landmark buildings, including a large restaurant, several stores and a car dealership, are vacant.
Community leaders formed a business improvement association and redevelopment agency to help fix up the area, but they acknowledge progress has been slow. While some new businesses have been lured to Atlantic Avenue, community efforts to lure other desirable stores -- notably a bookseller and a department store -- have so far failed.
Office Depot recently submitted a letter of intent to rent a portion of the abandoned Robert’s Department Store. Webb was hoping a clothing store would take over but said Office Depot is better than nothing at all.
He said many major chains are reluctant to move to Bixby Knolls, reasoning that they can generate more business in a shopping center than a more old-fashioned business district.
“When you look at the residential housing stock here, you see our business corridors are not a reflection of that,” said Mary Coburn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Assn. “That’s our goal. We want the business district to be a reflection of our residential community.”
Located four miles north of downtown Long Beach, Bixby Knolls, with a population of about 30,000, was first developed in the 1920s with the discovery of petroleum in nearby Signal Hill. But the history of the area starts before that, in Rancho Los Cerritos, the area’s historical center. It was here that John Temple built an adobe hacienda in 1844 that served as the headquarters for his cattle ranch. Temple sold his 27,000-acre ranch to the Bixby family, who would later develop the area. With the oil boom in Signal Hill, the population rapidly grew and new homes popped up by the hundreds until the late 1930s, when most of the construction was completed.
Houses were built in a variety of styles including European Revival, California bungalow and the popular Spanish Colonial Revival, which was made of stucco with a red tile roof. Many of the homes have been preserved and the tree-lined streets and original street lamps remain.
Bixby Knolls, which includes the neighborhoods of Rancho Los Cerritos and California Heights, thrived in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“We would have 45-minute waits and a line out into the parking lot,” recalled Ray Johnson, owner of Arnold’s Family Restaurant, which has been in business on Atlantic Avenue since 1951. “In nine hours we would serve 1,800 people. Sunday was our big day.”
At that time, Atlantic Avenue had a night life and people had access to restaurants, two movie theaters, a bowling alley and cocktail lounges.
Bixby Knolls “was considered a real premium area in Long Beach,” Johnson said. “There was always activity until late at night. That’s all changed.”
Bixby Knolls’ luster started to fade in the 1960s and early 1970s when many restaurants and the two movie theaters, the Towne and the Crest, closed their doors.
In the last decade, the neighborhood’s vintage homes lured a new generation of young families.
“The neighborhood feeling, the style of homes and the affordability of them, too, that’s what brought me to Bixby Knolls,” said David Rodriguez, who moved to California Heights from Laguna Beach six years ago.
“We need to create that strolling atmosphere for the people who live in the area,” he said of Atlantic Avenue.
The approach by community leaders has been to give the area a face lift while aggressively recruiting new retailers. In the last five years, a tree-planting project was launched, a landscaped median was built on a portion of Atlantic Avenue and, with the help of the North Long Beach Redevelopment Agency, a facade-improvement program was started.
The biggest accomplishment, so far, has been luring a Trader Joe’s grocery store.
“My vision is that we have a mix of larger national chains, like Trader Joe’s, and smaller stores,” Webb said. “Sports Chalet, Border Books, Barnes & Noble, these are the type of businesses our residents want to see here.”
The effort to bring in the specialty food store started with former City Councilman Jeff Kellogg, and was achieved, in large part, through a letter-writing campaign by Bixby Knolls residents, Webb said.
Businesses such as E.J. Malloy’s Restaurant & Tavern, a pub that also has a location in Belmont Heights, and Four Olives Restaurant, a trendy eatery, opened within the last year.
Four Olives was opened by Rodriguez and three other residents of Olive Avenue in California Heights.
“Most people want to stay close to where they live,” he said. “They just want to find a comfortable relaxing place they can walk to, and that’s what we are providing.”