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Side Street Businesses Downtown Turn the Corner

By Gathering Marbet
Special to The Lookout

September 1 -- Alexis Schneider was born in Santa Monica and now she’s back – not to live, but to take up shop.

Inside One Wing Studio, her gallery on Fifth Street, Schneider’s personally designed, cut and dyed line of luxurious silk and rayon women’s fashions are surrounded by the works of local artists in a mosaic of different mediums.

“Everything in the store right now is either made by me or by a friend – someone I know directly,” said Schneider, who relocated her shop from South Pasadena under a new name about a year ago. “It’s really cool to be the representative of just a handful of the gorgeous things.

“I’ve sold more clothes in this location per month than I sold in South Pasadena,” Schneider said. “Santa Monica just feels like it has more head room. It’s not as conservative as Pasadena.”

One Wing Studio has joined a wealth of diverse new businesses – many of them unique, eclectic and artistic – that are cropping up Downtown.

In the past year, eight shops have opened on the thriving Third Street Promenade. Perhaps more importantly, 17 businesses have set up shop in neighboring streets, furthering a long-term goal of Bayside and City officials to lure shoppers beyond the main commercial strip.

“Businesses are actually considering the streets around the Promenade viable,” said Kathleen Rawson, executive director of the Bayside District. “It looks like businesses have literally turned the corner.”

“It’s been a long-term goal to make Third Street’s success radiate outward,” said Robert O. York, a retail consultant for Bayside. “Downtown is becoming less focused on a single street and more of an active, vital, overall district.”

Bayside officials have made an extra effort to help market Downtown businesses, including lending a hand with signage, updating the Web site and subsidizing co-op advertising, said Marivi Valcourt, Bayside’s marketing manager.

“We have a lot of savvy business people in the District who understand their current customers and who their potential customers could be,” Valcourt said. “And although Bayside has a very limited budget (compared to other major shopping/entertainment destinations), there are many ways to reach the customer,” added Valcourt.

The Bayside offers free programs such as the Downtown Employee Discount program, business listings and co-op advertising where Bayside puts up part of the funding in order to reduce the advertising rate for everyone who wants to participate,” Valcourt said.

While an international market has lured major chains to the Promenade, many of the new businesses lining the side streets are small, independently owned shops attracted by the area’s funky urban feel, a discriminating market that values the personal touch and plenty of foot traffic.

For Schneider, making the Downtown her new home for business was, for many reasons, only natural.

“First it has a nice seasonal tourist thing going on, and it has an all-year, walk-around-the-city feel that just works,” Schneider said. “It’s got a younger customer, a younger, fashion-conscious, new homeowner and new apartment owner mindset that works for me.”

“There’s a lot of – I hate to use the word ‘new age’ – but there’s a yoga place, and a health food restaurant and a homeopathic pharmacy,” Schneider said, referring to nearby businesses. “And all these folks are the kind of people who buy handmade, made-in-the U.S. kind of (goods), so it’s just the right customer for me.”

North of Schneider’s gallery on Fifth Street, just past Arizona Avenue, is another new venue, tucked in a brick building that also houses a pawnshop.

Ezai Floral Design – a new business that combines owner Yen Nguyen ’s modern flower arrangements with an art gallery concept – also chose Downtown for its clientele in search of uniqueness.

“I want to support local artists and have a place for them to put their stuff,” Nguyen said. “I have the wall space, and I love art. Flowers are my art medium.”

Nguyen moved to Santa Monica from Oregon after marrying her fiancé, who lived in Los Angeles, and decided to make her longtime hobby of flower arranging for weddings into a full-time occupation. She looked at other areas for her business, but didn’t find spaces that suited her needs.

“I looked at other places like Pasadena, but it’s more conservative, more old style, European style over there, and there is more competition,” Nguyen said. “I feel that the people who live in Santa Monica gravitate towards my style.”

Nguyen gambled taking a space on a side street when she opened shop eight months ago.

“Eventually Santa Monica has to grow out towards this way, it has to expand out eventually,” Nguyen said. “And I’m not too far from the main activity, so I took a chance.”

Nguyen is banking on attracting more corporate accounts from the high-end businesses surrounding her shop.

“There are a lot of production firms and law firms in the area,” Nguyen said. “And the ones that I have come together with have been positive about my work and my style.”

Another new business that is opening its walls to artists and banking on creativity is the kutting room, a hair salon on Second Street that takes its name from a movie industry pun.

“This is where we cut and edit and make changes,” said owner Jane Suh. “Everyone here is an artist.”

Suh mixes the art of the haircut with a mixed-media gallery approach, designing her space to deconstruct from a working salon to a dance floor that features guest DJs on gallery opening nights.

“We show paintings, photographs, sculptures, classics – all kinds of art,” Suh said. “We even have a promoter who rents out the space. He has four to seven bands play at night for high school kids, so there’s no alcohol.”

Her decision to open her doors in Santa Monica was spurred by the beachside town’s diverse population.

“I love Santa Monica, the people here are great … the bums are awesome,” Suh said, smiling. “There’s a lot of different kinds of people here; funky, conservative, wacky, crazy …”

But Suh has a problem. You can’t see her shop from the street. Some days her salon is full, she said, but other days are slow.

“I took a very, very scary chance,” Suh said. “I could have been on the Promenade, but it’s so expensive to be on that street.”

She also likes the idea of having a more exclusive venue. “I want a more one-of-a-kind, underground, word-of-mouth place,” Suh said. “I didn’t want to be too mainstream. I didn’t want to be by a supermarket.”

For others moving into the area, visibility is everything. Near Sixth and Santa Monica, Shannon Michelle relocated her home furnishings and interior design venue from Montana Avenue, where she had started her business 14 years ago.

“Part of our name, ‘inner living,’ is that we are trying to give a sense of balancing inner-spiritual – kind of how you see yourself – with how you want your environment to feel,” Michelle said.

Michelle wanted her inner living environment to be in the thick of things.

“I looked in Malibu, the Palisades and all over Santa Monica, and I ended up wanting to be in a busy district,” Michelle said. “I think our store has really benefited from the traffic here because people aren’t just zipping by; they are seeing us.”

Michelle was also attracted by a booming building industry and a bevy of designers.

“They are doing so much building around here, and we do interior design and custom furniture,” Michelle said. “There are a lot more architecture and design firms, and a little bit more clean-lined furniture stores, so we thought that our aesthetic would work well here.”

Still, the move was a daring one, she said. “We were taking a leap of faith moving over here off of the obvious walking street of Montana,” Michelle said. “It’s phenomenal. We have so exceeded what we thought we would get; it’s been amazing.”

“We’ve had double the traffic than we thought we would get,” Michelle said. “We’ve only been here for seven months, and business has gone up 30 to 40 percent.”

Closer to the beach, on Broadway near Ocean Avenue, three bartenders and a catering specialist collaborated to create their version of the perfect tropical lounge – and finally settled in Downtown Santa Monica to make it happen.

Ma’Kai, a lush Polynesian bar and restaurant, is the brainchild of Robert Greene from New York, Micheal Cymarman from Chicago, Christian Warren from San Francisco and Mark Jeanetta from Marina Del Rey.

“Who wouldn’t want to be here?” Greene said. “It’s a great location. There’s so much foot traffic.”

The partners had been looking in Venice for a space, but timing and luck brought them Downtown, Greene said.

“Originally we were looking for a dive bar,” said Warren, who was a bartender at the Baja Cantina in Marina del Rey. “But we couldn’t pass up the location.

“Rent definitely is ridiculous when you think of how many houses we could be buying,” Warren said. “But it’s all location, location, location.”

Without advertising, Ma’Kai is drawing crowds, he said. “The numbers are above what we thought they would be over the first year,” Warren said. “We have lines on the weekends.”

Bill Tucker, who chairs the Bayside District Board, thinks the growth of Downtown has been “driven” by the Promenade’s success.

“The energy from the Promenade and the whole district is doing a lot of this (growth and expansion),” Tucker said. “It’s exciting to see such an endorsement of the Downtown area.

“Nothing stays the same,” Tucker said. “You don’t want the community in Downtown to stay status quo. It’s like a living organism. It grows and changes, and it’s evolving.”

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