Iconic Chinese mall in San Gabriel to be renovated, worrying longtime tenants
Since 1990, Focus Plaza has been a landmark in the San Gabriel Valley.
One of the first malls in the area to cater to Chinese customers, it remains a one-stop shop, offering groceries, eyeglasses, jewelry, herbal medicines and cuisines from many provinces.
With competition from online retailers and glitzy shopping centers, the aging, 218,661-square-foot mall at West Valley Boulevard and Del Mar Avenue will soon get a face-lift, described in a leasing book as “bringing Bryant Park and Soho to San Gabriel.”
The faux Spanish mission architecture will be replaced with clean modern lines, putting the mall in sync with the San Gabriel Hilton across the street, which prior to the COVID-19 pandemic attracted wealthy Chinese tourists. Upgrades will include new bathrooms, children’s play areas and more escalators.
San Gabriel’s growing reputation for Chinese food and services has made it a destination for visitors from China, boosting revenue for the city and creating some hassles for residents.
The mall will also get a new name: Tawa Gateway, emphasizing its anchor tenant, 99 Ranch Market, which is also known by its Chinese name, Tawa.
But the mall’s 50 or so tenants, many of whom are Chinese or Taiwanese American and have operated there for years, fear that they will be displaced in favor of hipper, upscale businesses. Some have been asked to relocate during the construction, and rent increases seem likely.
Many tenants acknowledge that the mall is due for a remodel, the first in about 30 years. It is pocked with empty storefronts, and half of the indoor shopping area is vacant.
“It’s just the time to refresh it,” said Debbie Oung, marketing director at Sunny Skies Terrace, the Buena Park firm that manages the mall.
The San Gabriel city resolution approving the renovation identifies the property owner as Universal Shopping Plaza, whose registered address is also the same as that of 99 Ranch Market and whose agent is Alice Chen, 99 Ranch Market’s chief executive officer.
Oung said Sunny Skies Terrace operates independently of 99 Ranch Market. Negotiations are “active” with many tenants, and the company is not violating the terms of their leases, she said.
“We wouldn’t kick anybody out,” she said, noting that a hot pot restaurant opened in the mall a few months ago. “We are working hard to make sure the tenants aren’t disrupted.”
Construction will take place in phases to minimize the effect on tenants, she said.
Rumors of massive rent increases — as much as 150% — are overblown, she said, and the company has yet to finalize details of the construction, which limits how much information it can share with tenants.
Aldo Cervantes, San Gabriel’s community development director, said the city has reached out to about half of the tenants to help them relocate, identifying vacant spaces and expediting the permitting process.
But that is small comfort to many tenants of a mall that hosted presidential candidate Bill Clinton for a fundraising luncheon in 1992.
The city has evolved into the region’s new center for the Chinese community, and now even has a mayor who shares its cultural heritage.
Ben Hong, a manager at the 800-seat Five Star Seafood Restaurant on the fourth floor, said customers have canceled reservations because of rumors that the mall could close at any moment. He worries that more cancellations could crater the dim sum restaurant’s revenue for the holiday season.
Hong said he has been told to move out by the end of January. Oung said the company is still negotiating with Hong.
Over roast duck with shaved truffle, Jimmy Ha showed a video of the opening reception for his restaurant, HK VIP Kitchen, last year. The Hong Kong-style eatery replaced Sam Woo Barbecue, a mainstay for decades until it closed during the pandemic.
Ha, a 55-year-old Rosemead resident and first-generation Chinese American who also runs a seafood import business, said he and his partners “took a gamble,” spending $300,000 to $400,000 on renovations.
Despite having a long-term lease that lasts until 2026, Ha said, the restaurant is being pushed out for a year. If he had known, he said, he wouldn’t have opened at the location.
“Everyone doesn’t know what to do in January,” Ha said. “A year and a half of employees walking on the street?”
Sunny Skies Terrace has offered to defer the restaurant’s rent for a year, Oung said.
Vivien Chen, a manager at Eve Aesthetics medical spa, said she and others bought an existing skincare shop last year, spending more than $100,000, including renovation costs.
They were told to move out a few months ago as their lease was expiring, after unsuccessfully requesting a longer one, said Chen, 50. When she asked the landlord for rent relief to recoup at least some of what she would spend on relocating, she was refused.
“Considering this is our people — that bothers me the most. You don’t treat your people that way. You protect people,” she said. “It’s not right.”
Oung said Sunny Skies Terrace denied the spa’s request for rent relief because its lease was expiring.
Several tenants have shown up regularly to San Gabriel City Council meetings, demanding that the Design Review Commission revoke its approval of the renovation. They say they were not notified of the commission’s meeting in March and argue that such an extensive renovation should be brought before the City Council.
Speaking at a council meeting in October, architect Simon Lee wondered what could be next for the mall he designed, where he has maintained an office for nearly 30 years.
“Without an opportunity to share the ideas of all the tenants and all the possible suffering that each tenant is going to [have], this project was approved,” he said. “I don’t feel that’s fair.”
In interviews, Cervantes and Councilman John Wu said they don’t see how the city can revoke the approval, given how long ago it happened. But Wu said he sympathizes with the tenants and has asked city staff to come up with ways to help them.
“Adding the escalators or something, it’s OK, but what does that have to do with asking the tenants to leave?” Wu said. “We love to see Focus Plaza improving shopping centers ... but they should reduce the turbulence about the whole business atmosphere.”
On a recent Monday morning, almost all the 700 or so spaces in the mall’s parking lot were full.
Customers rolled shopping carts in and out of 99 Ranch, which teased a $198.88 Chinese-style Thanksgiving dinner for eight to 10, including four pounds of salt-and-pepper shrimp, five pounds of Sichuan dry-fried green beans and a dozen Hong Kong-style egg tarts.
Aaron Lu, a 20-year-old sophomore at Boston University, waited outside Golden Vision while his father’s glasses got fixed.
Growing up in San Gabriel, Lu visited the mall twice a week, grocery shopping and eating at a Korean tofu house upstairs. The renovation will attract more customers, he said, but he doesn’t want existing tenants to be pushed out.
“If you live around San Gabriel, this is a popular and comfortable place to go,” he noted.
Chanh Au, a 44-year-old bookseller from Eagle Rock, said he visits about once a month on the way to see friends in the San Gabriel Valley. As he sipped tea, Au wondered whether the renovation is necessary.
“You walk around, you see the stores that you want to shop in,” he said.
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