Breaking the chains in West Covina

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I affectionately call West Covina the chain capital of the San Gabriel Valley. There wasn’t a chain store or restaurant that didn’t have a “WC” after its name during the ’90s and 2000s.

Until recently.

Now, the chains are the city’s weakest link. Many have ceased operations, with “We’re Closed” signs directing customers to other locations in Walnut, La Verne, Monrovia and Brea. Their empty spaces haunt the city as “zombie stores” that remain vacant because corporate bosses keep paying the rent to ward off competitors. The breaking free of some chain stores from retail-happy West Covina begs the question: Are these corporate cookie-cutouts a long-term answer to retail blight and dwindling city tax revenues? Or are local businesses looking to expand, making a better fit, as Covina, Monrovia and even Temple City have learned?

Before I talk about solutions, first, the ugly picture.

If the Zombie Nation were to hold a convention, it would pick The Lakes, the ill-designed shopping/office/entertainment complex across the street from but hidden from view of the Westfield West Covina mall. There, a once-popular ring of chain stores and eateries — sandwiched between the Edwards 18 megaplex and the boxy office complex — is a ghost town. Only Cold Stone Creamery, Rice Pot and DSW Shoe Warehouse remain open.

Those that have closed recently include the Macaroni Grill, Fatburger, Rubio’s, Dono Sushi, Green Leaf (yogurt and smoothies), Seafood Bar and Grill, Juice It Up!, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, Starbucks, Best Buy (moved to the mall), Bob’s Big Boy, Wickes and Pick Up Stix, which left The Curve shopping center off Barranca Avenue. California Pizza Kitchen, Baja Fresh and Jamba Juice are being threatened by the HOV-lane expansion of the 10 Freeway on the mall side of Vincent Avenue, but are still operating. Many of these zombie buildings remain (see my blog insidesocal/scauzillo on our website), while some are being replaced by other stores.

A quick walk around The Lakes Wednesday afternoon gave me a creepy feeling. And I’m not just talking about the homeless guy who asked me for a cigarette (I don’t smoke) or the young man in a hooded sweatshirt who beckoned me repeatedly to “come over here” as I walked by vacant Glendora Avenue storefronts.

The place has changed drastically since I covered the grand opening of the Edwards Cinemas in early 1997. Then-City Manager James Starbird told me the movie house would be a magnet to draw in retail outlets. That didn’t happen right away, and the slow start (Rubio’s joined in 2000) perhaps shortened the center’s successful run.
It was downright odd walking through The Lakes and seeing truckers using the parking lots to store big rigs. One man in a black Acura SUV stopped on the roadway to leisurely check his oil. He didn’t have to worry about blocking traffic.

But some of the independent stores on Glendora Avenue are doing well. They’ve seen the chain stores come and go and stuck it out.

Even Temple City, which so desperately has tried to attract name-brand stores to a failed “piazza” project, has seen niche eateries such as Ajisen Ramen, A Golden House, Green Isle, Kang Kang, Cafe Roule, Cloverleaf bakery and Tea Station open up during the past two or three years.

Monrovia and La Verne have asked established mom-and-pop eateries to open second and third locations. T. Phillips of La Verne opened on Myrtle Avenue and Mama Petrillo’s, a mainstay of Temple City, opened in La Verne. Perhaps these smaller San Gabriel Valley branded nameplates can withstand recessionary downturns. Maybe having a family name on a business is motivation for success, something a chain store doesn’t have.

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One of the stores going out — along Glendora Avenue, on the eastern edge of The Lakes.

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Signs like this one on the door of Rubio’s are common at The Lakes.

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This one is on the door of the Barnes and Noble, which went out of business just a week or so ago.

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This entry was posted in environment, land use, Pasadena by Steve Scauzillo. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Scauzillo

I love journalism. I've been working in journalism for 32 years. I love communicating and now, that includes writing about environment, transportation and the foothill/Puente Hills communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I write a couple of columns, one on fridays in Opinion and the other, The Green Way, in the main news section. Send me ideas for stories. Or comments. I was opinion page editor for 12 years so I enjoy a good opinion now and then.

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