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Signs of Life : The Slow-Moving Renewal of Downtown Long Beach Picks Up Steam


It is a Friday night on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach. The stamp of flamenco dancers echoes out the door of the garlic-strung tapas bar. Diners sip wine at sidewalk tables, while teen-agers line up nearby for cinematic mayhem at the 16-screen theater complex.

After years of gestation, this is a street scene aborning, a few blocks of urban promise, stalwart restaurateurs and hopeful merchants.

A wanna-be Old Pasadena or Santa Monica Third Street Promenade, Pine Avenue could not be mistaken for either place right now. The dreams of what-could-be still shimmer far more brightly than the reality at hand.

But it also couldn't be mistaken for the downtown Long Beach of the past, in which the seediness of Navy dives gave way to the barrenness of stalled redevelopment.

Just ask Alma and Tom Maltby of Woodland Hills, who on another, quieter weekday night, were strolling down Pine after dinner at a new restaurant. "We were just saying how nice it is and how much it's changed," Alma Maltby said as she glanced around at the shops and eateries.

The couple, in town for a home show at the convention center, can remember the district twodecades ago, when they would not have dreamed of heading there for a decent meal.

With last year's expansion of the nearby convention center and the opening of a 3,600-seat movie theater complex in late 1992, a night life of sorts has begun to develop on Pine. Business is up significantly at long-struggling restaurants and banners announce the imminent arrival of new ones.

Well-known retail chains, such as Crate & Barrel, are starting to set up shop. Merchants are even sighting exotics on the streets--people from Orange County and Belmont Shore, an eastside beach neighborhood that has long considered itself the hub of the Long Beach universe.

"I still hear it everyday," said John Morris, a pioneering downtown restaurant owner who is finally detecting the sweet scent of profit. He recounted how one recent morning, when he was breakfasting in Belmont Shore, a man came over "and told me, 'My wife and I were downtown for the first time in 10 years and we were shocked.' "

Indeed, it probably is shocking to Long Beach veterans to encounter in their long-shunned downtown one of the largest movie theater complexes in the state, new apartments, a blues club and restaurants offering everything from cumin-bathed Spanish tapas to duck-stuffed artichoke ravioli.

An ethnically diverse crowd of about 1 million filmgoers a year is buying tickets at the AMC Pine Square 16 Theatres, making the complex one of the 10 best-attended AMC theaters in the nation, according to Nora Dashwood, vice president of western operations for the company.

Although they can hardly boast the same figures, executives of other recently opened businesses are similarly happy. "It's doing better than we thought," said Gordon Segal, chief executive officer of Crate & Barrel.

The Z Gallerie home furnishings store has been so successful that the Los Angeles-based company is expanding and buying a landmark building a few doors down the street from its current location.

"It's just an area that people are underestimating," said Z Gallerie President Joseph Zeiden, who runs 25 stores in the West, including ones in Pasadena and Santa Monica.

Having also operated shops in Westwood and on Melrose Avenue before those districts lost some of their luster, Zeiden is a practiced observer of urban street scenes--and the capricious crowds that create and then abandon them.

"Los Angeles is so fickle about what's hot," he said with a slight air of exasperation.

The temperature is still pretty low in Long Beach, but Zeiden sees sparks. "Nothing happens overnight," he added, predicting that it will take four or five years for Pine Avenue to become another Santa Monica or Pasadena.

With its mix of historic buildings and new high-rises, downtown has a flavor unique in the monotonous postwar suburbs of southeast Los Angeles County. "There's nothing like that in this area," Zeiden said of the district's appeal. "You have character."

Along with the new movie complex, the other driving force on Pine is the $111-million, port-financed expansion of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center.

This year, the first since the glass-atriumed addition was completed in October, there are 57 conventions booked at the center. At least half of those gatherings will attract 5,000 or more people, many of whom will wander up Pine in search of food and entertainment.

When 10,000 language teachers swooped into town in March for one of those conventions, they packed the hotels and restaurants--offering Morris a glimpse of the future he has been waiting for since he opened Mum's restaurant eight long years ago.


Likewise, at the Pine Avenue Fish House, President Sam King's predictions of success are finally beginning to ring true. "I kept telling [my partners], 'Things are going to happen.' We just sat it out and we're really happy we did," King said.

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