Like scores of California suburbs, Pomona suffered the death of its downtown during the 1960s and 1970s. And, as elsewhere, the death was little noticed at the time because there was a great deal of newfangled housing, retail and office development elsewhere in town.
For many years, downtown Pomona, which lies a bit south of Interstate 10, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, was characterized by what one developer calls "occupied vacancies." The buildings were underused and downtown was lifeless.
"It became a haven for homeless, crime. All sorts of bad things happened to downtown," said David Armstrong, whose family has owned a downtown business since 1944. "In the 1980s, you could have taken a bowling ball and rolled it down Second Street and not hit anything except the homeless camped out on front steps."
But, led by two brothers who grew up in town, downtown now thrives around the Pomona Arts Colony. The colony is a tight collection of about 20 art galleries and show spaces interspersed with live-work lofts, offices, a smattering of restaurants and watering holes, a thriving nightclub and even some brand new development. More, maybe much more, is on the way.
Now, Ed and Jerry Tessier, who run Arteco Partners, are taking their culture-based development formula to downtown Ontario, which has welcomed the Pomona-based developers with open arms. Arteco is reusing four post-war industrial buildings — including a former Hang 10 apparel factory — for creation of 77 loft-style housing units in Ontario.
"We’ve really been the lone voices in the wind out here for 10 years," Ed Tessier said. But now that the Pomona Arts Colony is a "roaring success," other cities are willing to consider the concept, he said.
The Tessiers subscribe to Carnegie Mellon University Professor Richard Florida’s theory that the most economically successful cities are those that attract the "creative class." In his book The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida argues that authentic, hip places attract the most diverse populations, and the creative thinkers who drive the information-age economy want to live in such places. Not everyone buys the argument, and opponents point out that some of Professor Florida’s best examples (San Francisco, Seattle) have been hardest hit by the dot-com bust. Still, the Tessiers and other developers, business advocates and downtown boosters see the logic. And although Florida deals mostly with big cities, some of his believers see no reason why the theory will not work in suburbia.
In fact, many suburban downtowns already function like villages in which nothing is more than a 10-minute walk away, Ed Tessier said. What the downtowns need most is residents, who generate activity and commerce.
When the Tessiers started on the Pomona Arts Colony during the early 1990s, they met resistance from numerous fronts, including City Hall. But with the family property management company at their disposal, they began using inexpensive rents and favorable zoning regulations to attract Los Angeles artists in need of space. Since then, Arteco Partners has completed the adaptive reuse of about 20 buildings in downtown Pomona.
An old newspaper building provides a good example of the Arteco approach. The ground floor provides retail space, the second floor has lofts, and studios fill the third floor. In the basement is a nonprofit organization. Other projects have living quarters in the back, working space in the middle and a retail area facing the street
"We developed a range of live-work types," Ed Tessier said. "The majority are artist-in-residence style spaces. Some are more geared toward creative arts companies."
Armstrong, whose family owned a downtown furniture store and, later, a collectibles gallery from 1944 until 1998, has also revamped two buildings with upper-floor live-work space. Now he is refurbishing 3,800 square feet next to a pawn shop for a ceramics gallery and museum.
This approach has brought artists, artisans, website designers and other creative people to downtown Pomona. The district now regularly conducts art walks and provide free outdoor entertainment to draw people from throughout the region — people who never would have gone to Pomona otherwise.
"In order to create a business atmosphere, you’ve got to have customers. What we’ve hit upon is re-populating the area. Those folks will dictate what businesses we have," said Armstrong, who is president of Pomona’s Central Business District Association.
A current Arteco project is the adaptive reuse of the old, five-story Mayfair Hotel building. The proposal calls for retail on the ground flood — the Tessiers are talking with a bakery and a restaurant — and affordable housing above. Unlike most of Arteco’s projects, this one does have city participation the form of financing for the housing units.
"There has been a gradual evolution of the city’s participation," Tessier said, who understands the city’s initial reluctance. "There was a 30-year history of failure going back to the creation of the pedestrian mall in ’61. That was a disaster financially for the city."
After initially showing little interest, the city undertook regulatory reform during the middle- and late-1990s, including designation of a loft district, which was rare for a suburb, Tessier said. After seeing that the private development model was successful, the city in the last three years has taken on projects such as rehabilitation of the Fox Theatre and new streetscapes. The city has also provided assistance in the form of housing financing, parking swaps and land assemblies for new development, such as the Mission Promenade, a 72,000-square-foot project across from City Hall with ground-floor retail, second-floor offices and live/work lofts on the third floor. The city is also talking about a transit-oriented development around the Metrolink station, which sits just across the railroad tracks from the arts colony.
The Tessiers also emphasize the importance of educational institutions. They have lured Cal Poly Pomona and Western University to open downtown classrooms, and they are working on a deal with Azusa Pacific University for a satellite arts center. Under construction now is a charter high school — run by a nonprofit organization that the Tessiers started in 1992 — that could eventually accommodate 390 students in seven vintage structures on a city block. Next up could be a charter school for younger students.
"There are no immediate economic benefits" of the investment in educational facilities, Ed Tessier said. "If we were a short-term investor, it wouldn’t make any sense even from a philanthropy perspective." But in the long run, the schools make downtown housing more realistic for families. And the schools tell creative arts companies that trained, entry-level workers are already in town. Plus, the schools provide a safety net of stable employment, which is attractive to potential retail developers and to artists looking for day jobs, he said.
The Tessier brothers are now taking their approach to nearby Ontario, where the planned Emporia Arts District lies just west of historic Euclid Avenue. They were attracted by infill and rehabilitation opportunities that could be had at decent prices, Jerry Tessier said. The city responded to the private investments with a zoning change, adoption of a new mixed-use ordinance, a parking variance and work on a specific plan, all within one year, Jerry Tessier said.
"The Tessiers understand this niche market," said Ontario Redevelopment Director Jim Strodtbeck. The city has had a downtown specific plan for some time, but reviving the district has been a very slow process. The arts district "can bring a new dimension to downtown," he said.
"In the long-run, the pattern has been that live-work arts environments have been the cutting edge to gentrification," Strodtbeck said. "I’m not sure that we really want gentrification. But even if it’s just a successful arts district, we’ll take that."
Besides 27 units at the former Hang 10 building, the Tessiers are working on eight live-work units in an old post office building designed by famed Los Angeles architect Paul Williams. The city had owned the building for years, but until the Tessiers came along, the city could not find a buyer willing to renovate the structure.
Recently, feminist artist Judy Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, served as artists-in-residence, conducting a series of exhibits and openings in Pomona and Ontario. The participation of such big name artists provided a boost of legitimacy for the suburban downtowns.
Ed and Jerry Tessier, Arteco Partners, (909) 629-5359.
David Armstrong, Pomona Central Business District Association, (909) 629-3592.
Jim Strodtbeck, Ontario Redevelopment Agency, (909) 395-2294.
Mission Promenade website: www.mission-promenade.com