By Mark Carlisle
City of Glendale officials unveiled a newly renovated alley in downtown last week, a change meant to improve downtown’s curb appeal and walkability that also signals a movement toward a livelier nightlife downtown.
“Things like this and investments like this, infrastructure, is another tool in the toolbox that can continue to be a catalyst for economic development as we define what downtown means and what it’s going to look like for the future,” said Glendale Chamber of
Commerce president and CEO Robert Heidt during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the alley connecting Glendale Avenue and Glenn Drive between 57th Drive and 57th Avenue Thursday, May 17. “…This is just another step forward for downtown Glendale.”
The walkway might not look special until the “before” pictures are taken into consideration. A red brick path lined with gravel, trees, bushes and wooden benches replace a tired asphalt road scattered with potholes. The city’s vacant building, formerly a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, got a paint job to match the red brick as well.
Mr. Heidt said after the ceremony that part of the change is about branding downtown as a place where people want to spend time.
Last year the city took multiple steps toward a long-term strategy of revitalizing downtown. One of those steps was putting the Chamber in charge of downtown management. A big part of that transition was the Chamber appointed Katy Engels director of downtown development.
“The vision is definitely a sustainable downtown where we have enough traffic coming where the merchants are going to have business transactions all year long. That would be the ultimate goal,” Ms. Engels said after the ribbon-cutting event.
The other change made last summer was creating a Centerline Entertainment District in the area along Glendale Avenue a few blocks to the east of the alleyway, between 51st and 43rd avenues. The designation allows businesses like bars and liquor stores to open near schools and churches.
Glendale’s philosophy that dining can add to downtown’s nightlife extends west of 51st Avenue as well. Representatives from both the city and the Chamber named dining as a means of bringing nighttime activity to the area.
Councilman Jamie Aldama of the Ocotillo District, which contains downtown, said some non-restaurant businesses reported lower activity during the evening hours. He said more restaurants and nightlife will help create foot traffic and encourage some of those businesses to stay open longer.
Ms. Engels said nightlife could help the businesses that are only open during the day because, even if a business is closed, visitors might take notice of a business and return during its open hours.
Aside from dining to attract people to the area, Mr. Aldama said beautification projects like the renovated alley help people want to spend their evenings in downtown. With some shade provided by buildings and trees, he said the alleyway can be a nice place to spend the hot days as well.
Mr. Heidt said that dining is something that draws every age group.
More than dining, Economic Development program manager Randy Huggins said people are looking for “experiences.”
“One of the things we’d like to see is breweries,” said Mr. Huggins, who works in the city department responsible for attracting new businesses into the city. “Things that are entertainment where people come and hang out.”
Ms. Engels also listed breweries as a target business type for downtown.
“It would be great to have like a microbrewery or things like that,” she said. “That would be one of those fun things. You’ve got activity, you’ve got entertainment. Something different.”
One restaurant, Little Saigon Vietnamese restaurant, touches the renovated alleyway. Across the alley is a vacant building at the corner of 57th and Glenn drives. Mr. Huggins said, with the new alleyway, Richard Vangelisti, the owner of the property, is thinking of adding a bar with a patio that connects with the alley.
“The bar would be in the shade every evening, and he can do lighting and fun stuff in this little section here. That kind of stuff would be phenomenal,” Mr. Huggins said.
Mr. Huggins pointed to Off the Cuff, 5819 W. Glendale Ave., as an example of existing entertainment downtown. The restaurant hosts about four comedy shows per month. Ms. Engels said the Veggie Rebellion, 5717 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale’s new vegan grocery store, may add about one nighttime activity per month.
“And what a beautiful area this would be if that happens here,” she said about the renovated alley, which is just across the street from the grocery store.
Another vegan haunt, Mi Vegana Madre, a vegan Mexican Restaurant, announced Tuesday, May 16 that it will be adding a Glendale location at 5835 W. Glendale Ave. Unit E, the former site of Bakery by Chef Tom. Mr. Huggins said a unique restaurant like this can serve as a destination to draw people into downtown.
While several city and Chamber representatives listed dining on their downtown wish lists, Mr. Huggins said Economic Development is also looking to add living spaces and office spaces to compliment dining. He pointed out the many restaurant options near the new alleyway.
“But if we had 100 more of those, we wouldn’t have the people to serve them, enough clientele,” he said. “So, it would be nice to see more places to work around here, so that now you have people here morning, afternoon and evening that frequent those locations.”
Caroline Cao, manager of Little Saigon adjacent to the alleyway, said the restaurant doesn’t plan to host any entertainment events of their own in the alley. In the way of entertainment, the restaurant relies on city events like the Jazz Festival and Glendale Glitters, she said.
Ms. Engels said she hopes to see downtown business team up to produce entertainment events.
“Brelby Theatre has a lot of nighttime productions,” she said. “And they’re in Catlin Court, so they’re amongst all these little shops. So, they’re excited that businesses — restaurants — are going to be coming, because then their people can eat and we’re trying to get them to team up with other restaurants and kind of have a collaborative effort. So, dinner and a show.”
Ms. Cao said Little Saigon only sees a slight drop, about 5 to 10 percent, in dinner business compared to lunch. One issue, she said, is that like many downtown businesses, the restaurant operates out of a house. They light the front of the restaurant to try to make sure passers-by realize the restaurant is open at night.
Ms. Cao hopes the new alleyway, which includes lights that Little Saigon added to its back entrance, could boost nighttime sales because of increased foot traffic. She said the alley looks beautiful and that the construction went so smoothly that she emailed everyone involved with the city to thank them.
“We didn’t get in their way; they didn’t get in our way,” Ms. Cao said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better situation, because with any construction, it’s always a nightmare.”
Glendale is also in the process of considering what to do with the vacant property the city owns around downtown, such as the former thrift store next to Little Saigon. Lisa Amos, who was hired in January as the city’s real estate program manager, overseeing all city-owned property throughout Glendale, has been tasked with developing a plan for those properties.
Mr. Aldama said he wants to see a business that will spur economic growth in the area.
Mr. Huggins said the city is not interested in buyers want to buy and hold the property, keeping it vacant.
“(That) isn’t really beneficial to the ecosystem…” he said. “That’s not really a driving force of a city. But if you say you’re going to bring new jobs, if you’re going to bring new sales and stuff to the community, especially bring more people to the community, then that’s the stuff that cities look for. It’s how to help and grow.”