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L.A. hails its downtown grocer

July 21, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

More than 1,000 downtown denizens gathered Friday for a serious milestone in the history of downtown L.A.: The opening of the first chain supermarket in the city center in 57 years.

They went -- loft-dwelling yuppies, SRO dwellers, office workers and even some homeless people -- for a chance to browse the aisles of the long-awaited, 50,000-square-foot Ralphs on 9th Street.

In a revitalized downtown that is increasingly segregated, with upscale bars, hotels and eateries contrasting with tired residential hotels and shops geared toward Latino immigrants, Ralphs attracted an unlikely cross-section.

Outside the store, they waited in line for it to open, the queue snaking around the block from the entrance at 9th and Flower Street. Inside, they stood in line again: for free samples (soda, sushi, fruit, soup, sandwiches), for prepared food (four deep at a time) and to check out.

But nothing seemed to dampen the crowd's enthusiasm.

Sandra Russo, an octogenarian who has lived at 3rd and Olive streets since 1988, said she was so excited about the opening that she called the number on the flier that Ralphs mailed out announcing the new store.

Initially flummoxed by the automated phone system, she said she eventually got through to a man who answered her questions about when the store would be open and where she should park (the store has underground parking off Olive).

Russo said she wouldn't completely abandon the Trader Joe's at La Brea Avenue and 3rd Street, six miles west of downtown, where she's been getting most of her groceries. But, she said, "I'll be coming here often."

Julio DeLuis, 23, paused for a moment in an aisle that was stocked with toothbrushes and mouth-care products as his mother shuffled through an envelope of coupons.

DeLuis, who works downtown and lives near Venice Boulevard and Hope Street, said the new store is much closer than their former shopping destination, the Ralphs at the corner of Adams Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.

"My mom can walk down here," he said.

"Plus," he said, "it's safer, now that there are more apartments nearby."

Marcus Richardson was giving out tips to fellow shoppers in the produce section about how to pick the perfect nectarine. ("It needs to be a little firm," he said.)

The 35-year-old, who works in the area, was driving by the store, saw the commotion and decided to stop.

"I think it's pretty cool," he said. "And there are lofts upstairs, right?"

Actually, there are six stories of lofts, part of a mixed-use development called the Market Lofts, which also will include a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outlet and Cold Stone Creamery.

The development is at the northern end of South Park, a downtown neighborhood that has been emerging as a residential center, with new steel-and-glass high rises sprouting on the sites of former parking lots, auto dealerships and warehouses.

For many downtown leaders, the arrival of Ralphs is proof that the city center has reached a critical mass, where the number of residents in the area can begin to support retail amenities.

For a long time, the thinking was that boosters would need to attract residents to downtown first and that the amenities for them would follow.

Now, both residents and business leaders hope that the grocery store's success will encourage the arrival of other big-name retailers, including Borders, Barnes & Noble and the so-far elusive Trader Joe's.

As the 11:30 opening time for the store approached, the crowd, chanted, "Open! Open!" Carol Schatz, chief executive of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, did her best to quiet the shoppers.

"We've been waiting 50 years for this," she said.

"You can wait five more minutes."

The huge turnout surprised organizers and spoke to the symbolic value of the Ralphs opening. Traffic officers were called n to direct cars away from pedestrians who swarmed the site.

After decades of decline, downtown is in the middle of a revitalization and building boom, thanks to an influx of more than 20,000 residents, who live mostly in new high-rise towers and restored historic buildings in the central core.

The new residents had complained that there is no major supermarket downtown.

Buzz about the store has been developing for months on downtown-oriented websites. Ralphs mounted a huge campaign, sending fliers and postcards to area residents.

Terry O'Neil, a spokesman for Ralphs, said the company had never before seen such a large turnout for a store opening. "We've had lineups, but not like this," he said.

The store is one of the grocery chain's highest-end facilities and is called a Ralphs Fresh Fare. It features a walk-in wine cellar, a dry cleaner and plenty of organic produce.

O'Neil said he expected the clientele to be a mixture of office workers and residents, lured by the location and a plethora of prepared foods as well as groceries.

Michael Rich was perusing the Ralphs gourmet coffee selection.

The 39-year-old resident of the Gas Co. Lofts, a block from the store, said he had been tracking its progress since he moved downtown two years ago. In the meantime, he'd been shopping at the Vons in the Mid-Wilshire area.

On Friday, he had a digital camera to snap pictures of the event. He said he felt the need to record the day for posterity.

"This is a big day for the downtown residents," he said. Plus, he added, "I'm going to be eating much better."

--

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

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