A sea change is reshaping downtown’s Ocean Avenue as business owners tied by common threads redefine their neighborhood. Four years after Peter Blake Gallery staked a claim to a spot on a street losing its vibrancy, Carl Smith, owner of CES Contemporary, also relocated his gallery there. The two gallerists who envisioned cohesiveness among fellow merchants now see their efforts flourishing in an emerging shopping destination with a distinctive identity.
Tapping into new and veteran businesses offering “sophisticated” goods and services, ranging from art and interior and industrial design to fashion, culinary creations and distinct home products, Smith spearheaded an effort that will culminate this weekend with the avenue’s first annual Spring Soirée from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 20.
Smith’s idea to build a brand identity received support from the start, with 20 Ocean Avenue merchants signing on. Merchants and artisans all want to “celebrate with our clients and the community the sophistication of the businesses on Ocean Avenue,” he said.
Several galleries will host opening receptions for new exhibitions during an evening planned with a live band, as well as hors d’oeuvres, refreshments and entertainment at locations up and down the street.
Despite the merchants’ shared sense of momentum, many residents have yet to learn of the metamorphosis. People simply don’t walk past the store, explained Heather Lee, co-owner of Trove Gallery at 370 Ocean with her husband Bobby Lee. Though the gallery, which displays art and sculptures, as well as unique pieces of new and vintage home furnishings, has been open for two years, she said locals will come in and ask if they’ve just opened. But now, “I think it’s starting to happen,” said Lee.
Blake credits the Planning Commission for recognizing that his gallery could be a catalyst to turning around a street lacking foot traffic. “We were dealing with an antiquated CUP process,” he said, which restricted Ocean to resident serving shops. Residents now are better served by what the street is beginning to offer, less basic needs and more unique “lifestyle” shops, he said.
“We were hoping that by letting people in, it would invigorate Ocean Avenue,” Planning Commission chairman Norm Grossman said of their 2008 approval of Blake’s gallery, though the decision wasn’t without opposition.
“It’s quite clear that calling Ocean Avenue a resident serving street is problematic,” agreed planning commissioner Anne Johnson. But the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, she said, “are not the kind of businesses that can afford to come into town on that street.”
The street’s lack of vibrancy has concerned planners for years, she said. “I think a new generation is coming forward and changing the dialogue.”
While Blake’s gallery served as a catalyst for Gallery Row in North Laguna, a different transformation is underway on Ocean Avenue. It is being reborn as a mixed-use “lifestyle” street, with more people parking to eat at perhaps Zinc or Anastasia, and then, instead of getting back in their cars, as they might have in the past, they peruse the unique boutiques and galleries. “Now we’ve got a little Abbott Kinney,” Blake said, comparing it to the Venice Beach neighborhood with a reputation as a hip place to dine and shop for art, fashion and home goods. “The fact that we are getting together and having this opening is an indication that we are all feeling that,” he said.
“We’re lucky to have a lot of like-minded businesses on this block,” said Amy Spain, gallery manager of CES who has been promoting the evening with Smith. “It’s been a kind of joyful experience to see other businesses as invested as we are” in the process.
Marci Hutson, saleswoman at Hillary, a boutique newly offering women’s fashions along with children’s clothing, embraced the soirée as a way to bring in foot traffic and exposure to the street. She sees a renaissance underway on Ocean, ready to hold it’s own against Forest Avenue as a premier shopping street.
At least a decade has elapsed since merchants undertook any similar grass-roots organizing downtown beyond their own storefronts, Grossman said. The Ocean Avenue effort coincides with a current initiative of city planners, who are evaluating whether to redefine conditional use permit requirements for downtown. “I think for the first time in 20 years, we are going to look at all the options,” Grossman said. “Everything is on the table.”
Smith and Blake first collaborated on a holiday soiree prior to Hospitality Night last December. Just 11 businesses participated, eventually engaging a jazz band and attracting 150- 200 people.
Spring seemed an opportune time for a renewed effort, with the changing seasons reflecting the street’s own transformation.
Participating businesses include: Anastasia Café and Boutique, Casey’s Cupcake, CES Contemporary, Cliff Wassman, Couture Resale, D.N. Evans, Diana Garreau, Flea Market, Forest & Ocean Gallery, Hillary, I.C. London, Laguna Supply, Laguna Art Supply, Michael Evans, Peter Blake Gallery, Seaside Interiors, Spice Merchants, Studio DC Salon, Trove, Vanessa Rothe, and Zinc Café & Marketplace.
Photo by Mitch Ridder