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Santa Monica’s Pico Boulevard Strives for Respect  


By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

February 22, 2012 -- As a merchant and retail district, Pico Boulevard has often been considered the ugly stepsister to tonier business areas like Montana Avenue or Third Street Promenade.

It’s not pedestrian-friendly; it runs through low-income housing areas; the big chain retailers like Gap disdain Pico for the sunnier neighborhoods. There’s even a cemetery to throw further cold water on its potential as a thriving trade district.

And that’s a mistake, according to Santa Monica Rent Board Commissioner and Chairman of the Pico Improvement Organization, Robert Kronovet, whose family realty business is located on Pico Boulevard.

With its length of single-story, boutique-like storefronts and 1960s neighborhood feel, “Pico Boulevard could be transformed into a vital arts district,” Kronovet said in an interview with the Lookout.

“There are dozens of small businesses along Pico that give a personality all its own [to the district] and with a little encouragement, there could be dozens more.”

In Kronovet’s view, small businesses are the lifeblood of our nation, going back to founding fathers. They offer neighbor-oriented services to residents, keep Santa Monica dollars in Santa Monica and provide opportunities to local youth to work in entry-level jobs that bring independence and dignity at a young age.

But Kronovet avers that such progress is severely hampered by city code and permitting restrictions.

“Businesses on Pico have been very frustrated by code compliance regulations for years,” Kronovet said. “You have a business that might have a sign in the wrong place or a door that isn’t right and the city fines them to the point that they don’t want to stay.

"These are small businesses. They don’t have the money to fight it.”

Such rigidity on the part of the City has discouraged businesses from expanding or even opening their doors, he maintains.

“Once a business has been denied a permit, they just disappear,” Kronovet said. “And what could be a pathway to prosperity for a lot of people is gone.”

Kronovet thinks that Pico is further hampered by an excess of low-income housing concentrated on the street, a result of the Housing and Redevelopment Agency’s mandate that 20 percent of all redevelopment tax increment funds be spent on affordable housing.

“Huge concentrations of this type of housing, with no mixed-use or other retail development, means stagnation,” he complained.

There could be some validity to Kronovet’s claims. Cha Cha Chicken, a Caribbean-style restaurant at the corner of Pico and Ocean, has been cooking up its jerked chicken for 14 years now.

Proprietor Elvira Garcia says business has been terrific, but that the success has been hard-won.

“We wanted to renovate our bathroom areas to make it more handicap-accessible and it took us almost three years to get all the permits,” Garcia said.

“We kept giving all the paperwork they need, but it took forever. We needed the Pico Improvement Organization to plead our case.”

Just up the street, Michael Marcial, who serves on the board of the PIO, had a similar experience. His family-owned restaurant, El Texate, has been operating for 18 years. Most of his clientele are regular local residents and he sponsors local youth sports groups.

A couple of years ago, Marcial wanted to start offering live entertainment a few nights a week – Mariachi and Norteno groups that would, he hoped, offer local high school students a chance to play before live audiences.

“When I first applied for the license, they handed me this huge Bible-size stack of paperwork,” Marcial said. “Well, I got through it all, but it was never enough.”

Having finally negotiated all the permitting pitfalls, Marcial brought in some live music – until the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control showed up and slapped him with a fine for not getting proper permits from their offices.

“I then started going back and forth between the city and ABC and I am still waiting for the final OK,” Marcial said in frustration. “I thought, ‘Are you picking on me?’ All I want to do is give some employment to local people.”

The PIO would like to help businesses like El Texate, but their power as an organization is only as strong as its numbers. And, according to PIO Vice Chairman (and owner of Artistic Picture Frames) Randy Ball, only about 40 businesses regularly show up at monthly meetings to work on district strategy.

“Look, we’ve got a lot of businesses on Pico, like auto repair shops, that are sort of looked down on,” Ball said. “And then there are long stretches that don’t really invite visitors, like around the college and the cemetery.

"But further on, we’ve got great restaurants and art galleries. If we all worked together, we could accomplish a lot more.”

Ball said the PIO is working on several events to bring further traffic to the street, including a quarterly Art Walk and a big festival at Virginia Park in the fall. They offer power sidewalk cleaning to participating vendors and have plans for a new park at the end of Pico, near Centinela Avenue.

“We’ve got a little bit of land from CalTrans and we’re landscaping it into a little pocket park,” Ball said. “We’ll install some artwork, and it should be a real nice welcome to Pico Boulevard for people coming to Santa Monica.”


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