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Long Beach Sees Successes, Growing Pains

Pine Avenue has become a thriving downtown scene, but the changes bring challenges.

September 28, 2006|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Silver-haired John Morris has been the wag of Pine Avenue since the days when downtown Long Beach had more potential than people.

Back when he dropped anchor on Pine Avenue in 1988, "it was a ghost town," said the owner of Smooths Sports Grille. "I'd serve 20 dinners all weekend." Next door was a brothel.

These days, Pine Avenue -- with its new condos in old buildings, its uptown-meets-small-town mix of L'Opera fine dining and Victor's Shoes for the visiting cruise ship set -- can choke with popularity.

And Morris' bar patio has become something of a salon with buffalo wings -- graced by the California governor after a port talk with the British prime minister and by celebs and legendary drivers such as Bobby Rahal after the annual Grand Prix race.

Two decades of public redevelopment and private investment in downtown Long Beach have finally ripened into a place where thousands of people do, as the marketing slogan goes, "live, work and play."

But all that growth -- 10,000 more residents expected by 2010 and thousands more visitors on weekends -- has caused growing strains. And for many early Pine Avenue settlers such as Morris, a newer waterfront restaurant row closer to the bustling Long Beach Convention Center and Aquarium of the Pacific has forced them to adapt or die.

"Pine Avenue has been evolving for several years," said Suja Lowenthal, whose City Council district includes part of downtown, where she has lived for nine years in the historic Kress Building, the first big downtown conversion. "I think the timing now is perfect, and I am hoping that we as a city can buckle down, to contribute to what the identity there is going to be."

Weekend cruising has persisted in clogging Pine Avenue, Lowenthal said, and the waterfront restaurants of the Pike at Rainbow Harbor a few blocks away have drained some dinner-hour patrons from Pine Avenue north of Ocean Boulevard.

To stay afloat, some businesses remade themselves. Morris converted his original fine-dining restaurant -- Mum's -- into a sports bar with giant-screen TVs. The owner of George's Greek Deli farther up Pine Avenue painted an old bus to resemble a trolley and shuttles patrons of the Pike to his restaurant. Others opened nightclubs such as The Vault 350, which draw a later and noisier crowd.

Over the last year, a downtown stakeholders group of businesses and residents has worked with the city on solutions.

The Downtown Dining and Entertainment District was created, along with guidelines that called for businesses downtown to have entertainment permits so "we don't become nightclub central," Lowenthal said. "We need that vitality, but we don't want to drive out family restaurants and business either."

The guidelines standardized the hours that bars and other businesses could stay open. Before, there was a sometimes unfair lack of uniformity in how and when they operated.

Last month, an anti-cruising ordinance was approved by the City Council to help unclog Pine Avenue's weekend traffic. Although the lunch hour also can see gridlock and parking remains difficult in peak times, the mostly youthful weekend cruisers have intensified the problem because they don't park or patronize downtown beyond their dashboards.

"It took me 45 minutes to go from Ocean Boulevard to 3rd Street, because I timed it," Marie Deary, owner of 2000 + Bookstore at 309 Pine Ave., said of the three-block drive. She has had a Pine Avenue business for 16 years and has seen the streets go from deserted to teeming in a few short years. She thinks the area has a shot at becoming "a true urban community similar to the Chelsea district in New York."

In the latest step to create a more inviting atmosphere, Pine Avenue between Broadway and 3rd Street has been closed to vehicle traffic during peak Friday and Saturday night hours since Sept. 1 as part of a nine-week pilot program.

The idea was to woo back the 5 to 10 p.m. diner to a pedestrian-friendly block in which live entertainment is offered. A loading area at Broadway and Pine was created where drivers can pay to leave their cars at a valet center there or at nearby lots.

Morris and other merchants don't yet know whether they will see increased dinner-hour business. But the street closure has reduced noise and cruising traffic as vehicles divert onto side streets, said Kraig Kojian, president of Downtown Long Beach Associates, a private group that represents 1,500 businesses and owners of commercial property.

That group has worked with the stakeholders to trouble-shoot growing pains and address lingering concerns some visitors might have about the urban center, such as fear of crime or finding their way to the right public transit stop.

Morris said additional funding for more police downtown may have left the mistaken impression that crime had increased when more officers are needed simply to handle the swelling population. As a deterrent, surveillance cameras are being installed on Pine Avenue.

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