City Strives to Increase Its Allure to Small Businesses

Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK
A vacant storefront at Huntington Drive and Bedford Road undergoes renovations. Pilot programs that the city has approved are aimed at spurring commercial activity in San Marino’s quiet commercial zones.

Armed with a handful of economic development pilot programs, San Marino officials are hoping to distinguish the city enough so that small-scale, mom-and-pop businesses will choose to locate on Huntington Drive or Mission Street instead of in nearby suburbs.
Earlier this month, the City Council approved three recommendations from the city’s Economic Development Team, which it convened last year to identify ways for San Marino to grow its commercial district in a way that preserves the residential feel of the city. Those recommendations were a 12-month waiver of conditional use permit fees for prospective restaurants or grocery outlets, the purchase of way-finding signage to direct motorists to commercial zones, and a one-time facade improvement grant of up to $10,000 for a commercial property owner.
“It’s all good news for the city,” said Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes, who is spearheading the Economic Development Plan at the direction of the council.
In waiving the CUP fee — $3,164 — for restaurant and grocery applicants, Cervantes said he hopes to lure to commercial zones the coveted “anchor store,” the type of storefront that will attract customers who will be curious enough about neighboring businesses to explore the area afterward. Not to worry, though: major national chains will remain barred from setting up shop, in favor of small town-type outlets.
“Other areas use big-box retailers like malls or typical chains like Target, where they have multiple uses throughout the development,” Cervantes explained in a phone interview. “Because we’re so small, you could almost argue that a well-known restaurant could reverse that and the restaurant could be that anchor and the retail shops nearby could be the accessory to that.”
Cervantes said San Marino has fewer than 15 restaurant-type stores, and that adding more would not only potentially attract people to visit the Huntington or Mission areas but would likely serve as a regular stop for locals to spend their money. The social aspect of restaurants fits well with what the San Marino community wants, he added.
“With retail outlets, you sort of have an idea of what you want when you walk in,” he said. “You make your purchase and you take off. The difference between that and a restaurant is that with a restaurant, you’re going to spend a lot more time in there. You’re more likely to leave a restaurant and go to another place nearby.”
At the City Council meeting this month, Cervantes noted that there already were three potential applicants who could benefit from the fee waiver. One applicant is scheduled to appear before the Planning Commission in February.
According to members of the Economic Development Team, that money can make a huge difference for smaller retailers.
“Having a certain amount of fee waived actually relieves them of a lot of this burden,” said Isaac Hung, who also is president of the property management company ICM Resources on Huntington Drive. “The CUP can be denied. Especially in the case of lease agreements between a business owner and property owner, if you spend $3,000 and the CUP is denied, that is a tremendous burden on both of them” — the former loses an opportunity, and the latter is denied rental income.
One lucky property can benefit from facade improvement funding for the remainder of this fiscal year. City officials and residents have publicly bemoaned the deteriorating appearance of commercial properties that have been consistently vacant, with the council mulling other ways to push their owners to fill spaces and maintain them.
Helping out with outdoor renovations could free up dollars for equipment purchase or interior repairs, Cervantes said.
“Depending on the scope of the work, the $10,000 could go a long way or it could be a small relief toward the cost of the overall project,” he said. “For a small business, $10,000 could do wonders.”
As the city begins to plan its budget for the next fiscal year, Cervantes said he will treat this one-time grant as a case study for possibly continuing that program. He added at the City Council meeting that he expects to pick a “shovel ready” plan to benefit from the grant.
Cervantes told the City Council that he needed only $8,000 of the budgeted $10,000 for way-finding signs, which will direct potential consumers to different commercial zones.
In incentivizing potential businesses to set up shop in San Marino, the hope in sacrificing some revenue for the duration of the program will translate into more vibrant commercial areas and longer-term sales tax revenues for the city.
“It kind of gives a message that the city is willing to work with businesses and not be there to be a stumbling block for them,” Hung said.
“If a city can go as far as eliminating some of the fees,” Cervantes added, “that could entice someone who was thinking ‘I wanted to set up in Pasadena, but they don’t have any fee waiver programs or facade improvement programs like San Marino does, so maybe I’ll go to San Marino.’”
Councilwoman Susan Jakubowski praised the work of the team in remarks at the recent council meeting. She and Vice Mayor Ken Ude served as the liaisons to the team as it met and worked.
“I think I speak for both of us when I say this is one of the most exciting things going on in town right now,” she said.

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