LA CRESCENTA — More empty store fronts have emerged on Foothill Boulevard than at any time over the last decade, with at least 20 vacancies on the 13-block commercial stretch between Briggs Avenue and Moore Street, merchants say.
While some merchants blame slumping consumer demand for bringing about the demise of businesses in the corridor, even shops that seemed productive have suddenly shut down and moved out, prompting questions about the commercial sustainability of the area.
The best example, merchants say, was Tofu Village, which closed less than a year after opening up at 3839 Foothill Blvd.
“It was always jam-packed,” said Karen Rodriguez, a sales representative for K.R. Nida Communications, which has an office on the same block as the now-vacated restaurant site.
She often saw visitors looking for parking and walking to the restaurant, which had “good prices and food,” she said. But even the draw of the store’s menu and affordability was apparently not enough to sustain it at that address, where a string of other restaurants have failed in recent years, she said.
“It was just all of a sudden, it was gone,” said Jean Maluccio, president of the Crescenta Valley Chamber of Commerce. “We thought it was busy.”
Representatives from Tofu Village could not be reached for comment, but Kookhwa Lee, a listing agent for the property, which is managed by Dickson Podley Realtors, explained that rent eventually became a challenge for the restaurant owners, who had simultaneously expanded to another location after just six months of opening in La Crescenta.
“They were paying a lot more rent than the current rent right now because they were doing so well and there was no problem and if they were using their heads they would probably still be in business, but they were just overextending themselves,” Lee said.
While other factors may have affected Tofu Village prior to its problems with rent, its eventual struggles were not news to Foothill merchants, who explained that high rental rates have combined with the recession to put overwhelming pressure on some store owners.
Rent has become the main concern for store owner J.J. Jenkins, who opened American Folk & Fabric on Foothill Boulevard last year after she decided to sell a space in Arcadia and downsize to a smaller location, she said.
But dwindling demand for her vintage upholstery and rental rates that have not dropped to match shrinking profits during the economic downturn have forced her to plan for a move, she said.
“I’m going to go to a less expensive area,” Jenkins said.
She spends $1.50 per square foot a month in rent, but could pay half as much for a space of equal size in other nearby areas, like Sunland, and likely still get the same amount of sales because most of her business comes through the Internet, she said.
Other businesses have likely opted out of their spaces and associated rents because of low foot traffic, merchants said.
Foothill Boulevard has frequently presented challenges for new stores attempting to build loyal customer bases on a “fast street,” where consumers drive quickly past retail outlets to get to their destinations, Maluccio said.
That dynamic creates a problem for new business owners hoping to benefit off of walking traffic from consumers who might be on their way to other destinations, she said.
“It’s a fast-moving street,” she said. “It’s not somewhere where you walk to see what’s there; it’s not something like a Montrose. You’ve got to really know [about a store].”
The Crescenta Valley Town Council and other community leaders hailed the recently adopted design guidelines for the unincorporated portion of the business drive as a major first step toward creating more a walkable environment, but have acknowledged it could take years to implement.
Too few opportunities for drivers to pull over is also a major problem for local vendors, said Faith Cartland, the owner of Curves on Foothill.
“Parking is a tremendous issue because everybody’s right on the street,” said Cartland, whose Curves is the only business in an otherwise empty strip mall at the corner of Boston Avenue.
Aside from high rents and low consumption, small “mom-and-pop” stores have trouble attracting business on their own or in strip malls with assortments of other small stores, Cartland said.
“Those little tiny stores, they’re so specialized. They don’t draw people,” she said. “You go some place where you can do two or three things at the same time.”
Local strip malls don’t have major retail tenants that might get shoppers to step out of their cars and explore neighboring outlets, she added.
While Curves might benefit from having neighbors to draw more consumers to her mall, they might also cut into the parking supply that Curves gym-goers currently use freely, she said.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22 because when there’s no other businesses there, then we don’t have a lot of people coming in and some people think we’re not open,” she said. “On the other hand, if we had a lot of businesses there, we would have trouble parking, so I’m not sure what I wish for at this point.”
In an effort to boost consumer awareness about area shops that residents may not be aware of, the chamber has held several events, like its upcoming business expo at Verdugo Hills Hospital on Sept. 9, Maluccio said.
“There’s a lot of places that [residents] can use here, other than your maybe luxury items,” she said.