City Makes Pulling In Right Businesses Its Business

The city is soliciting input from residents on how it could try to incentivize businesses to fill empty storefronts on Huntington Drive and Mission Street — as well as which businesses would be the right ones for San Marino.
Dialogue was opened this week at the city’s monthly town hall, where the priority initiative of economic development was the topic. As Aldo Cervantes, the city’s planning and building director, explained it, the nature of San Marino’s single-family residential atmosphere and general philosophy of governance narrows the scope of potential businesses here. He is, by his own admission, not aiming to create a Rodeo Drive in town, but rather would like to create a walkable retail community to complement the area.
“To create a walkable community, we really need to focus or look at locating businesses in a very strategic manner,” Cervantes explained. “The goal here is to think ‘neighborhood commercial,’ to think ‘mom and pop,’ to think about what creates a walkable community for our town.”
The city has historically derived a supermajority of its revenue from property taxes and has deliberately limited its commercial zones and the types of businesses that can move in. Starbucks, banks, real estate agencies and Chevron remain the lone big-name brands with storefronts in town.
That said, empty or boarded-up storefronts don’t exactly fit what some residents want in San Marino, either.
“There was nothing to do here,” said resident Laurie Barlow, who during Monday’s town hall reflected on her high school experience. “I’d like to see some energy and some fun things. It’s been dead for half a century.”
The city is soliciting a third-party economist to analyze demographics and residents’ spending patterns, which business owners tend to look at when making decisions. San Marino has a projected five-year population growth of 2.6% and has 4,337 households. Among important data, the average age here is 44.2 years, the average household income in $227,011 and 57.1% of residents have a college degree.
Additionally, 93% of San Marino’s working population have white collar jobs, and overall 90.7% own their homes. The majority of residents — 53.7% — are Asian, followed by 35.4% who are white, 7.4% Hispanic and 0.7% black.
The city had data on consumer-demand opportunities, too. San Marino residents last year spent, for example, $2.9 million at furniture stores, $25 million at grocery stores, $7.6 million at limited-service restaurants and $4.2 million at clothing stores — all outside of town.
In San Marino, businesses can be open from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. — but, as pointed out Monday, many close before then, often before homeowners return from work. Cervantes said the city was exploring options for an anchor store that would remain open later and generate enough foot traffic to create the ripple effect of other nearby businesses staying open later.
“With respect to an anchor store, we are looking at a grocery store to help anchor these small businesses,” he said. “They will help with the walkability. Again, as most of you know, we’re held to the confines of our existing property sizes. We’re restricted with what we have to work with, and that’s what we’re trying to do: fill some of these old buildings with new uses rather than building new buildings with new uses.”
Newer retailers, Cervantes added, tend to focus on creating more of an experience at the physical location instead of just lining shelves and walls with product. Starbucks, he pointed out, doubles as a social gathering point for residents, especially because it opens early and closes late.
“Retailers are focusing more on creating that experience rather than focusing on displaying product,” he said. “That is more evident with the growing trend — as many of you have seen in other cities, sort of those mess hall market-type places — where there is not only just one source of business but there are multiple sources of unrelated business. Amongst one building you can sort of handle a lot of your needs at one point.
“We’re such a small, tight-knit type of community that that concept can really flourish in this town,” Cervantes added.
City Manager Marcella Marlowe explained Monday that nearby South Pasadena has essentially been forced to commercialize more because it hasn’t had the luxury of stable property prices as a revenue source. San Marino, notably, did not experience revenue-stream issues even during the Great Recession, largely due to property values.
“We’ve been comfortable here,” Marlowe said. “We haven’t had to move in that direction, but as a result — sometimes necessity drives innovation — we haven’t had that necessity yet.”
Peripheral data points seem to indicate that San Marino isn’t exactly getting younger. Enrollment at San Marino Unified School District schools is trending downward, even at the elementary campuses.
“We’ve heard anecdotally from Realtors that there are families that are choosing other communities to move to instead of San Marino because other communities are more vibrant,” Marlowe said. “That’s especially the younger families, so if you translate that across the alleyway to the school district, that’s some of why they’re suffering as well. We don’t have younger families moving in, and therefore there aren’t as many students entering the district.”
Residents on Monday emphasized their desire to keep San Marino primarily residential, but acknowledged a need to build a community atmosphere with a walkable commercial area.
“We didn’t move in here because of the businesses and the shops, basically, so I think we have to be a little conscious as to what we want to attract,” Richard Patlan said. “Mom and pop would be ideal, I think.”
Bob Horgan suggested that business with significant catalog or online components would do well in San Marino and added that the city should explore loosening restrictions for upstart businesses. In response to Horgan’s question, Cervantes said upfront conditional-use permit costs are around $1,500 and that it’s about a three-month process from start to finish.
“Well, that’s why you’re not getting businesses,” Horgan mused.
Corina Madilian, who owns the fashion boutique Serafina and jewelry store Single Stone on Mission Street, pointed out that commercial areas can actually improve or stabilize property values and added that the city could help create the atmosphere that gets families exploring their neighborhoods, to help encourage businesses.
“Things have changed,” she said. “The schools are suffering. If you want to attract young families or families just in general that share your lifestyle goal, then you have to open it up to them. The way you build a community is to be able to build a place where you can live there, play there, have your kids rides bikes on the streets, attend the parks, the library, everything. On the weekend, you don’t want to leave your area.
“Unless you kind of put that in front, it’s going to be harder for us to attract the businesses that we want to get in your city,” Madilian added.

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