A city tries to find itself
They used to call Monterey Park “the Chinese Beverly Hills,” a suburb east of downtown Los Angeles that for three decades has been synonymous with the explosion of Chinese immigration and trade in the San Gabriel Valley.
But in recent years, some of the luster once associated with Monterey Park has moved east to newer communities including City of Industry, Walnut and Diamond Bar. And that’s left city leaders debating the town’s future.
Enter developer Jason Chung. He is offering the city the chance to lure jet-setters from Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong to a six-story, steel-and-glass condominium tower. He said residents at the 54-unit luxury complex could enjoy concierge and maid service and would be minutes away from scores of authentic Chinese restaurants.
Chung sees the condo tower as a first step in enticing wealthy immigrants back to the original Chinese suburb.
But is that what Monterey Park wants?
Some city leaders have raised concerns about the development, saying it conflicts with efforts to bring more nationally recognized retail chains to town. They had hoped that Chung’s land could have been joined with adjacent parcels to create a tax-generating shopping complex.
Monterey Park has many small businesses geared toward the immigrant Chinese community that have left the city starved for tax revenue. Finding mainstream retailers and restaurants to reverse the trend has been a chief goal in recent years.
The debate over Chung’s project highlights the city’s search for its identity as it scrambles to keep pace with surrounding communities. If new sources of tax revenue aren’t found soon, Monterey Park’s budget is projected to be in a $2-million deficit by 2011, officials say.
The question now for Monterey Park is how much can it rely on an ethnic economy to move forward?
“We have to build national retail stores for everyone to come to, or we are not going to survive,” said Councilman Mitchell Ing, a third-generation Chinese American. “We are on the fence right now. The city can go either way.”
Major efforts have already begun, none bigger than the 200,000-square-foot Atlantic Times Square project just north of Chung’s parcel on Atlantic Boulevard. A 14-screen theater is planned for the site, and an agreement with the developer ensures that just over half the tenants will be nationally recognized stores as opposed to “mom-and-pop” shops.
By contrast, Garvey Avenue farther south is dominated by restaurants and low-end retail shops selling herbs, vitamins and DVDs to an increasingly working-class mainland Chinese community. Some of the shops cater almost solely to visiting delegations from China.
Mixing national retailers with Chinese mom-and-pop stores is a formula that has worked successfully in Monterey Park’s neighbor to the north, Alhambra. That city also has a large Asian population but has lured movie theaters, big-box stores and car dealerships to create dense, vibrant shopping districts. Costco, Target and Applebee’s are among the chains that located in Alhambra.
Monterey Park has also become a magnet in recent years for senior housing, further complicating its pitch to national retailers who may worry that the city’s demographics may not be compatible. City leaders have countered that argument by citing its proximity to the 60, 10 and 710 freeways, which can bring in shoppers from out of town.
Chung argues that his development, called Mira Resorts, would fit right in with a more mainstream Monterey Park. He said he would have welcomed any qualifying tenant, but he believes the young and wealthy Chinese market was not being served in Monterey Park.
“I’m targeting rich people,” Chung said. “There’s nothing decent to buy in Monterey Park. I want to provide quality housing.”
The developer said a high-end condo tower could help boost Monterey Park’s image among upscale Chinese.
“They come here and think this is farmland,” he said.
Monterey Park’s population was mostly white for much of the 20th century. But in the early 1980s, it saw a large influx of immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Restaurants, banks, supermarkets, newspapers and other businesses catering to Chinese Americans opened up along streets including Atlantic Boulevard and Garvey Avenue. Some Chinese-owned businesses moved into town just to get the Monterey Park address.
But over the last 20 years, the Chinese population has grown and spread north and east. Wealthy Chinese moved into the mansions of San Marino. More recent Chinese immigrants have staked claim in the upscale suburbs of Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar.
Monterey Park faced competition for upscale Asian travelers from nearby San Gabriel. That city has a Hilton hotel that has become a hub of activity for foreign visitors, including upscale Chinese tourists, and has helped spur other luxury retailers to open nearby.
Monterey Park city officials said they are proud of their heritage but want a more diverse array of businesses in town, including more national retailers.
Opposition to Chung’s proposed luxury condo complex underscores this desire for balance.
The project was approved last year, but Chung needed an extension after he failed to secure a construction loan. He blamed the bleak real estate market.
The city’s planning commission denied Chung the extension this month after the panel complained he was taking too long and that he allowed the lot to become unsightly. He can appeal the decision to the City Council.
The site, in the 200 block of North Atlantic Boulevard, used to house the popular Chinese diner Sunday Cafe. It’s now enclosed with fencing. An advertisement boasts of luxury accommodations with a photograph of a doorman carrying shopping bags.
“I don’t want to do low-end,” Chung said. “It’s time for change.”