A masked woman walks by The Federal Bar in Downtown, which permanently closed its doors over two years ago due to challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Over the past two years, Downtown Long Beach has seen many shifts, with both long-time and newer Long Beach businesses either closing their doors or relocating.

In 2020, Rock Bottom Brewery closed after 23 years in business, signaling the first major Long Beach restaurant closure after the pandemic hit, and in May of this year, Pier 76 Fish Grill closed after nine years.

Other businesses, such as Gold’s Gym, Waters Edge Winery, and Romeo Chocolates all decided to relocate away from Pine Avenue this year, with plans to reopen in other Long Beach locations.

The changes come largely because hospitality sector businesses in Downtown are dependent on business from residents, city visitors, conventioneers and office workers—many of whom were absent from the area amid the pandemic, said Downtown Long Beach Alliance Chief Operating Officer Broc Coward.

“We’ve seen over the last two years, a number of our longtime restaurants and businesses have to either close for a long time, shift their business model or close entirely,” Coward said. “A lot of these independent operators—some of them are putting their life savings into this. They’re cashing their 401(k) out and putting it into an idea, a coffee house, a restaurant, a small retail store. It’s been tough seeing those individuals leaving our Downtown or struggling as much as they have.”

While the DLBA and the city have made efforts to provide grant opportunities to struggling businesses over the past two years, Coward is hopeful that business owners will get an added boost soon as conventioneers and tourists return to Downtown.

“These legs of the stool are hopefully rebounding,” he said.

As for office workers, who primarily make up lunch and happy hour revenue for local restaurants, “that one remains to be seen,” Coward said. “That business model may have changed forever in terms of office workers and remote work. Where we see that loss, we’re going to have to figure out a different way to reach those individuals.”

A challenging time

The loss of daytime office workers, combined with rising costs and staffing troubles contributed to the closure of Pier 76 Fish Grill, owner Chris Krajacic told the Long Beach Post in May.

For other Downtown business owners, such as Thai District co-owner André Anglès, the rise in homelessness—a 62% jump from 2020 to 2022, according to city data—has been a challenge.

Since the pandemic hit, outdoor dining has become increasingly common, and customers seated on Thai District’s patio on Linden Avenue have witnessed frequent outbursts and instances of public nudity, Anglès said. One customer even had his wallet stolen off the table, he said.

“We just live with it, we have no choice,” Anglès said. “Whenever an instance happens, we apologize to the customers, we try to make it OK.”

Property crime has also been a concern. Anglès and other local business owners have requested a fund from the city to assist businesses that have experienced broken windows and vandalism, but the efforts have been unsuccessful, he said.

“We saw someone not too long ago—he had a big stick in his hand, and he was just breaking every window on the way, just like that,” Anglès said. “If (the city) can’t take care of homelessness, they have to take care of the businesses and residents.”

Anglès has also advocated for the city to fund public bathrooms and showers, as well as a medical truck.

“We have to do something, the solutions we have right now are bandaids,” Anglès said. “Everybody is raising money for so many other things . . .  but how about people?  We can not take care of the people.”

A representative for the Long Beach Health Department, which manages the city’s homeless services, did not respond to a request for comment.

Coping with harassment and violence has become commonplace, East Village resident Rosemary Palermo said, and it’s affecting local businesses as well as customers’ ability to enjoy outdoor spaces.

“The city is able to say crime is down, but vandalism and car break-ins and quality-of-life issues and attempted break-ins are not down,” said Palermo, who has lived in the historic Cooper Arms building for the past 10 years.

Over the past two years, and particularly since the lifting of pandemic restrictions, she has seen the problem grow increasingly worse, she said.

“In order to go to the garbage, I have to carry pepper spray on my wrist,” she said.

Both Palermo and Anglès expressed frustration with a lack of response from the city, local police and the DLBA’s safety ambassadors and homeless outreach teams.

The Long Beach Police Department, for its part, acknowledged the challenges.

“The primary goal of the Long Beach Police Department is to preserve the safety of our community and we will continue to enforce the laws and regulations in accordance with state and local laws and ordinances,” LBPD officer Paige White said in an email.

“However, while someone experiencing homelessness may commit a crime, homelessness is not a crime,” White continued. “The intent of our contacts with anyone experiencing homelessness is to promote public safety, cultivate trusting relationships with the respective individual, and connect them to the supportive services they need to successfully transition from being unhoused to housed.”

The DLBA, meanwhile, also recognizes the concerns of residents and businesses. The recent renewal of the Property Based Improvement District included plans to further expand the organization’s safety, cleanliness, and homeless outreach teams, Coward said.

Pedestrians and cars cross Pine Avenue along Ocean Boulevard in Downtown Long Beach Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo by Brandron Richardson.

Lack of affordability

According to North Pine Neighborhood Alliance member Leanna Noble, both businesses and residents have had to bear the brunt of an increasing lack of affordability within the city.

“Living here more recently, we really see the promise of what we understand the city’s intentions to be,” said Noble. “But I have to be honest, the Downtown Plan … (for) the people who live here … has not been a good thing.”

The Downtown Plan was adopted by the City Council in 2012 and was meant to provide the framework for speeding up housing development.

But in Noble’s view, the plan led to rent increases and the destabilization of Downtown neighborhoods, she said.

“I can’t help but think that it’s connected to the problems that we’re seeing in terms of attracting and keeping retail and commercial businesses here in Downtown,” she said.

Supporting local businesses is a challenge when there is little expendable income beyond paying for rent and other necessities, Noble said, which she suspects has contributed to the lack of success among some Pine Avenue businesses.

“We’ve seen that numerous people have tried. They’ve made their personal investment in the neighborhood by opening small businesses, and it’s just too hard,” said Noble. “It’s discouraging to walk on Pine and see all the closed business, and especially to see the spaces that during this past period of seven and eight years were locally owned small businesses, and they couldn’t make it.”

“Somehow we haven’t figured out, I think as a city, how to support local, small entrepreneurs,” Noble said.

Now, Noble said, an increasing amount of local businesses are unaffordable for residents and are geared more toward tourists.

“We get that tourism is important to Long Beach, and we need really nice restaurants that are opening up,” said Noble. “But we also need the restaurants that are affordable for families.”

A lack of Downtown businesses catering to day-to-day needs of residents is also a concern, said Noble, citing a lack of grocery stores, affordable clothing stores and repair shops in the area.

Coward, for his part, said that inflation—which has impacted rent and food prices, among other costs—is not exclusive to Long Beach, and downtown locations across the country have experienced similar issues due to a reduction in tourism and city employees working in the area.

John, 43, who is unhoused, waits for a free plate of food prepared by Leon Garcia at Anna’s Place on Pine Avenue at Fifth Street Thursday, July 28, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Looking ahead

But there’s hope for a Downtown renaissance.

In July, Solita’s Tacos & Margaritas opened in Rock Bottom Brewery’s old location on Ocean Boulevard.

And this fall, Bad Axe Throwing is expected to in Pine Square, while Hardcore Fitness Bootcamp will come in the late fall or winter to the building previously occupied by Anytime Fitness. Altar Society Brewing also has plans to open this winter, according to DLBA spokesperson Michael Berman.

Through introducing new marketing strategies, Coward hopes that Downtown will become a premier coastal city destination, on par with Los Angeles or San Francisco, he said.

“We’re going to try to maximize this experience and tell the region that Long Beach is this place you can come to and enjoy, and hopefully we’ll see more foot traffic,” he said.

Coward hopes to build upon the successes of August’s Taste of Downtown and Celebrate Downtown by marketing what a “perfect” day or weekend in Long Beach could look like, he said.

By activating smaller pockets throughout Long Beach through live music, popups, entertainment or phantom galleries—possibly using some of the area’s vacant storefronts—Coward hopes that visitors will be attracted to the city, will want to explore even more Long Beach blocks and will want to return, he said.

Coward also hopes to increase marketing efforts targeted toward residents and remote workers, who have been critical in supporting the businesses that have stayed alive, he said.

“There are just multiple ways that we need to be part of the solution,” he said.

Through continuing to advocate for local businesses and residents and addressing safety concerns through the renewed PBID plan, Coward hopes that the area can get back to its 2019 state when businesses were flourishing, he said.

“A lot of businesses were thriving, beginning to expand their hours and programming and entertainment in 2020, then the pandemic hit,” Coward said. “It really threw a wrench into what was looking like incredible momentum for Downtown.”

The DLBA will continue to support current businesses and advocate on their behalf when assistance can be made, while acknowledging that the economy is “kind of being remade,” and factors such as remote work must be considered, Coward said.

“We’ll want to talk to our stakeholders and the city about trying to position Downtown for that new economy . . . or that evolved economy,” Coward said. “I’d love to see us get back to 2019 and better.”