For the past several years, the assertion that Long Beach is going through a “renaissance” has been made so often – by elected officials, real estate brokers, business leaders and even economists – that it seems to have become a full-fledged local mantra. With the advent of new retail centers – Long Beach Exchange and 2nd & PCH, to name a couple – and the construction of many developments citywide, there certainly is a good case to make that it’s more than a narrative, but a reality.
However, local restaurant entrepreneur Luis Navarro has a different term for this shift: “activation.” The opening of Portuguese Bend Distilling this past summer at 300 The Promenade N. – the only distillery in the city – marked Navarro’s fourth establishment in Long Beach. Navarro operates Lola’s Mexican Cuisine, with two locations in Bixby Knolls and Retro Row, and The Social List, a restaurant at 2105 E. 4th St. All told, Navarro has more than a decade in restaurant entrepreneurship.
Navarro’s presence in all three of these neighborhoods has given him a first-hand observation of Long Beach’s economic and developmental growth. “The businesses are changing and there’s a lot of energy coming in,” he said. “Every district is different. I see more people walking around, people on bikes [and] couples. . . . People bring more people. When there is activation, it’s like a magnet.”
This citywide transformation is something Navarro attributes to both the city’s development services and economic development departments. Specific to downtown, in The Promenade, partners like Studio One Eleven, RDC and the Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA) play crucial roles, he said.
Studio One Eleven’s work on its new headquarters at 245 E. 3rd St. helped kick off the revitalization of the area as part of the reimagining of The Streets shopping center. The company relocated from the Landmark Square office tower in 2016 to its current location at a former Nordstrom Rack, and helped the shopping center’s owner redesign the gateway to The Promenade at 3rd Street.
Michael Bohn, senior director and principal of Studio One Eleven, said the company’s mission is to repair and revitalize cities, with a focus on urban environments. Jackson Thilenius, Studio One Eleven interior designer and leader of RDC’s hospitality and interiors group, said RDC fulfills this mission by providing architecture and branding services to local cities.
Studio One Eleven is now a neighbor to Portuguese Bend Distilling, which opened in June. Prior to the distillery’s opening, Studio One Eleven worked with Navarro to design the distillery’s interior. Long Beach Development Services assisted with compliance work, such as land use and safety procedures, said Oscar Orci, deputy director of development services.
Alan Pullman, senior principal of Studio One Eleven, indicated that The Promenade has seen a 30% increase in foot traffic in the last two years, per DLBA data. This increase in activity is largely a part of national changes in retail patterns, Pullman said. To compete with online retailers, developers are responding by introducing plazas that combine retail, lifestyle and socialization. This change has led to more engaging shopping centers and neighborhoods, said Thilenius, who also helped designed Portuguese Bend Distilling’s interior. “It’s empowering and exciting for people,” he said.
Navarro said the Long Beach Economic Development Department has assisted in creating an environment that allows entrepreneurs to thrive. Residents reap the benefits, he added. Sergio Ramirez, deputy economic director of the department, said The Promenade’s transformation in particular would not be possible without the vision of his fellow city leaders.
“You really see all the residents come out and are at different restaurants and bars,” Ramirez said of The Promenade. “It feels so European. It feels like a great place that is very warm and fun.”
Pullman echoed this thought, also emphasizing the role of entrepreneurs. “A successful downtown is an ecosystem of a lot of successful players,” Pullman said. “But really it’s the private sector that’s the engine. I know one thing that economic development is looking at is attracting more business downtown and attracting the right development downtown. It’s playing to the successes that we’ve already had.”