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Time for a Change? : Gentrification of Bixby Knolls Spurs Effort to Update Business District

November 24, 1991|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bixby Knolls is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Long Beach, and it looks it. If you want to travel in time back to 1948, take a stroll around the Bixby Knolls Shopping Center, which has not changed in physical appearance since Dewey thought he beat Truman.

The elderly residents of the greater Bixby Knolls area have been dying off in recent years, and young professional families have moved in by the scores. But one would be hard pressed to tell it from the looks of the businesses along nearby Atlantic Avenue, where you can get an artificial limb or a wheelchair with no problem. But a cappuccino? Forget it.

"You can literally walk by some of these storefronts and feel as if you are back in the 1950s," said Beverly Crim, marketing manager of the Bixby Knolls Parking and Business Improvement Area, which has been working for more than a year to give the business community an image on a par with Pasadena's Lake Street or Santa Monica's Montana Avenue. "This area is really a sleeping giant."

Some of Long Beach's most affluent residents live in the rambling two-story homes of Bixby Knolls, the sprawling mansions around the nearby Virginia Country Club and the quaint Spanish cottages in California Heights.

The area is packed with prominent judges, lawyers, architects and ranking city officials. Young families stroll with their babies along the tree-lined streets at dusk, perhaps secretly longing for a supermarket with a fresh bakery and gourmet cheese, a bookstore that plays classical music, a croissant.

"When I want a cappuccino, I go meet friends in West L.A. It's discouraging," said Kelly Sutherlin-McLeod, an architect and Bixby Knolls resident.

In a recent survey of 500 area homes that was conducted by the Bixby Knolls Parking and Business Improvement Area, only 9% believed that Bixby Knolls was the best around for overall quality of merchandise and services. Only 17% said they would shop there for clothing.

And, officials of the organization say, no wonder. The sidewalks outside the main supermarket are sticky. Anthony's department store--a 1950s relic that went out of business in January--remains an empty shell. There is no movie theater, no live theater, no cultural center. Longer ago than anyone can remember, the C fell off a sign at the community's main shopping plaza, which now reads: "Bixby Knolls Shopping enter."

"What's lacking in this area is a keen interest by a majority of merchants to maintain an image conducive to attracting the yuppie," said Joe La Rosa, for 20 years the owner of Victor's, an Atlantic Avenue diamond in the rough that carries some of the finest lines of china, silver and crystal.

Many Atlantic Avenue merchants have been in the same spot for decades, and they have failed to keep up with the changing demographics of a community in transition. Yet, recent census information suggests that Bixby Knolls is filled with dollars begging to be spent:

* The average per capita income shot up 60% between 1980 and 1989 and is projected to rise another 20% by 1994.

* Total income for all persons in the area catapulted 90% from 1980 to 1989 and is projected to rise another 31% by 1994.

* In 1980, 8% of the household incomes in the area were over $50,000; by 1989, 29% of incomes were above that mark.

And Bixby Knolls is clearly getting younger, with the median age between 1980 and 1990 falling from 42 to 38.

But most Bixby Knolls-area residents go to Lakewood or Costa Mesa to shop. Why hasn't the business community reached out for their business?

"It's a lack of pride," La Rosa said. "The merchants who have been there a long time figure as long as they're making enough business, why suffer any expense? They could be saying: 'Maybe I could attract more, spruce up the block a little.' There aren't any real entrepreneurs around here."

In 1989, the Long Beach City Council authorized the formation of the Bixby Knolls Parking and Business Improvement Area in an attempt to upgrade the much-neglected district. Since then, the sidewalks have been cleaned up, merchants have been encouraged to spruce up their storefronts. Graffiti is wiped away almost as quickly as it goes up. And crime statistics fell considerably the first six months of this year compared with the same period last year, a trend that the improvement group attributes to recent efforts to improve relations with the local police.

Last week, the organization held two seminars that allowed business representatives and residents to pore over giant maps and dream up the sorts of places they would walk to for breakfast on a Sunday morning.

"Bixby Knolls is Santa Monica five years ago," said Kimi Mann, executive director of the improvement area group. "What is an area with demographics like this doing with an Anthony's department store?"

Although there seems to be considerable support for making the business district more highbrow, there remains formidable resistance from the Old Guard.

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