Pandemic Hamstrings Downtown LA’s Standing As A Scorching Spot
Lucy Thompson Ramirez, co-owner of Pez Cantina, recalls the pre-coronavirus pandemic lunchtime when the cluster of high-rise office buildings in LA’s financial district emptied onto Grand Avenue and hungry workers lined the sidewalks on their way to their restaurant and others the street.
“It was like hundreds of people just crossing paths,” said Thompson Ramirez.
Grand Avenue is home to the Disney Concert Hall, The Broad, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Music Center complex, and an office center. However, thanks to the pandemic, museums have been closed for months and office workers are now mostly working from home.
“Well, I mean, it’s really like the Twilight Zone,” said Thompson Ramirez. “Midday strikes and there are four or five people walking around.”
Pedestrian traffic in downtown Los Angeles has decreased, affecting businesses across the region.
Downtown Los Angeles was headed into 2020 and there was a lot to expect. Around 4,500 residential units went online in 2019, breaking the previous year’s record by 35%, announced the Business Improvement District in the Downtown Center. A handful of high profile projects were underway on Bunker Hill, including a multi-purpose complex designed by Frank Gehry. Downtown boosters had a lot going for them.
Instead, downtown business owners, from the financial district to Little Tokyo, had to grapple with a significant drop in foot traffic from office workers and visitors to the area for nine challenging months in order to adapt to the changing rules of the way they work and to walk a fine line between keeping their businesses open and prioritizing their health – and that of their employees and customers.
Companies are juggling all of these elements and more to stay open and trying to make it to the other side of the pandemic so they can see a return in pedestrian traffic, although there is no sure answer if or when it will happen.
“Little Tokyo is a neighborhood that really relies on pedestrian traffic,” said Kristin Fukushima, executive director of Little Tokyo Community Council.
The neighborhood is a short walk from City Hall, local and federal government buildings, and Metro and CalTrans offices.
“There was always great confidence in the lunch crowd,” said Fukushima.
Little Tokyo companies immediately noticed the effects of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, LTCC did most of its work on community sustainability, combating the displacement of local businesses, many of which have been open for 20 years or more. Now most of his work revolves around helping small businesses: creating and updating lists of open companies, creating lists of companies that offer online shopping, promoting special collaborations and partnerships between businesses in the neighborhood, creating Instagram live videos with owners Give faces to companies. LTCC encourages people to support. LTCC has also launched a small business fund that has so far raised $ 91,000 for local businesses.
“When we talk about supporting businesses, we’re talking about supporting real people who are part of our community, who are our neighbors, who are the people we love,” said Fukushima. “We’re talking about protecting people and each other, not just a business.”
The decline in office workers had the biggest impact on downtown businesses, said Nick Griffin, executive director of DCBID. Nearly 500,000 people work downtown according to a 2019 DCBID report that covers the Financial District, Bunker Hill, Historic Core, and Jewelry Districts.
However, the impact is not solely due to the absence of office workers. It is also the lack of tourists and visitors. A May report by the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board estimated that Los Angeles County would see about 22 million fewer visitors in 2020 and lose more than $ 13 billion in tourist spending due to the coronavirus. Hotel occupancy in the city center fell by more than 66% in November 2020 compared to the previous year.
“Until these two populations return – and I would put the office first in terms of importance – retailers will continue to struggle,” Griffin said.
Small businesses in Tokyo have been supported by local nonprofits and the larger community.
Robert Villanueva signed a rental agreement for a restaurant with 500 SF in the jewelry district in November 2019. The pedestrian traffic behind the window on Seventh Street sold him instantly.
“It was like, ‘Wow. That’s great. People walk around day and night, “he said.
The restaurant, a Filipino restaurant called Petite Peso, opened in April. Since then, Villanueva has adjusted as much as he could. The restaurant was responsible for takeout and catering, was viewed as an outdoor dining area – a measure vetoed by the landlord, Villanueva said – and focused on its online shop, where customers can order goods and choose groceries. After a fear of exposure to COVID, in which employees were involved in mid-December, Petite Peso has stopped taking over and now only operates the online shop and catering.
Villanueva said the public response to Petite Peso has been so positive – it made the Los Angeles Times’ list of 101 top restaurants for 2020 – that it is focusing on building awareness of the brand before the store reopens and do so in a year that will protect the health of its employees and customers.
“We will definitely open again but we want to be able to be healthy enough to do this,” said Villanueva.
Adjustment has also been the theme for the past nine months for Thompson Ramirez of Pez Cantina and her husband and business partner Bret Thompson. They invested in heaters, planters, and landscaping for their large outdoor deck, but were unable to use them due to the current outdoor dining setting.
When California’s Department of Alcohol Control gave companies permission to sell take-away alcohol, the owners of Pez Cantina added over a dozen types of bottled margaritas to the to-go menu. They sell a salty and spicy mix of spices for rimming margaritas or topping up French fries, they use “every delivery platform out there” and transform part of their kitchen into a ghost kitchen for a burrito concept that is only available for delivery and take-away.
Downtown Los Angeles
“We really tried everything to keep business going, to keep the kitchen warm and to keep our people busy as much as possible, as many people as possible [as] possible, ”said Thompson.
At the same time, an integral part of Pez Cantina’s business was due to things that are not currently happening: power lunches, happy hours in the office, catering for corporate events, people dropping by on the way to or from the cultural institutions in the area. And it’s unclear when and to what extent these things will come back.
When the landlord asked the Pez Cantina owners if they would consider closing it, Thompson gave him an emphatic no. On the contrary, Thompson and Thompson Ramirez were considering opening a second restaurant – just not in a business park like Downtown, he said. It should be where people are now.
“I talk to all of my liquor suppliers, all of my vegetable suppliers, all of my butchers, and I keep asking, ‘Who recovers faster?’” Said Thompson.
The responses from his salespeople lead him to look at a shop front in a residential area.
Long-term optimism about downtown viability is not dead, however. It all comes down to the presence of people.
“I am still very confident that Downtown will recover once this all subsides,” said Villanueva. “Will it recover to its prime, even to what it was a year ago? I dont know. However, we believe that there will be shops in the city center as the office gets better. “