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Chinese mall renovation in San Gabriel worries tenants

Since 1990, Focus Plaza has been a landmark in the San Gabriel Valley.

One of the first malls in the region to welcome Chinese customers, it remains a one-stop shop offering groceries, eyewear, jewelry, herbal medicines, and cuisines from many provinces.

With competition from online retailers and glitzy malls, the aging 218,661-square-foot mall at West Valley Boulevard and Del Mar Avenue will soon get a makeover, described in a rental book as “bringing Bryant Park and Soho to San Gabriel.”

The faux Spanish Mission architecture will be replaced with modern, clean lines, synchronizing the mall with the San Gabriel Hilton across the street, which pre-COVID-19 pandemic attracted wealthy Chinese tourists. Upgrades will include new bathrooms, children’s play areas and more escalators.

The mall will also have a new name: Tawa Gateway, emphasizing its anchor tenant, 99 Ranch Market, also known by its Chinese name, Tawa.

But the mall’s 50-odd tenants, many of whom are Chinese or Taiwanese Americans and have operated there for years, fear being displaced in favor of hipper, upscale businesses. Some have been asked to move out during construction, and rent increases seem likely.

A courtyard at Focus Plaza in San Gabriel.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Many tenants recognize that the mall needs renovation, the first in about 30 years. It is filled with empty storefronts and half of the interior shopping area is vacant.

“It’s just time to freshen it up,” said Debbie Oung, marketing director of Sunny Skies Terrace, the Buena Park company that runs the mall.

Records show that the registered address of Sunny Skies Terrace is the same as that of 99 Ranch Market and that the two companies have the same agent: Jonson Chen, president of 99 Ranch Market.

The City of San Gabriel’s resolution approving the renovation identifies the owner as Universal Shopping Plaza, whose registered address is also the same as 99 Ranch Market and whose agent is Alice Chen, General Manager of 99 Ranch Market. .

Oung said Sunny Skies Terrace operates independently of 99 Ranch Market. Negotiations are “active” with many tenants and the company is not breaching the terms of their leases, she said.

“We wouldn’t kick anyone out,” she said, noting that a Chinese hot pot restaurant opened in the mall a few months ago. “We are working hard to ensure tenants are not disrupted.”

Construction will take place in phases to minimize the effect on tenants, she said.

The windows of empty commercial spaces are lined with paper

Many storefronts in Focus Plaza are empty.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Rumors of massive rent increases – up to 150% – are overblown, she said, and the company has yet to finalize construction details, limiting the amount of information that can be found. ‘she can share with tenants.

Aldo Cervantes, director of community development for San Gabriel, said the city has reached out to about half of tenants to help them move out, identifying vacant spaces and speeding up the permitting process.

But it’s some comfort to many tenants of a mall that hosted presidential candidate Bill Clinton for a fundraising luncheon in 1992.

Ben Hong, manager of the 800-seat Five Star Seafood restaurant on the fourth floor, said customers had canceled reservations due to rumors the mall could close at any time. He fears more cancellations could dent the dim sum restaurant’s revenue for the holiday season.

A large family is sitting at a dining table

Sammy Huang, center, has lunch with his family at Focus Plaza’s Five Star Seafood Restaurant.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Hong said he was told to move out by the end of January. Oung said the company is still negotiating with Hong.

Over roast duck with shaved truffles, Jimmy Ha showed a video of the opening reception for his restaurant, HK VIP Kitchen, last year. The Hong Kong-style restaurant replaced Sam Woo Barbecue, a mainstay for decades until it closed during the pandemic.

Ha, a 55-year-old first-generation Chinese-American Rosemead resident who also runs a seafood import business, said he and his partners “took a gamble,” spending 300,000 to 400,000 dollars in renovations.

Despite a long-term lease that lasts until 2026, Ha said, the restaurant is being evicted for a year. If he had known, he said, he would not have opened on the spot.

“Not everyone knows what to do in January,” Ha said. “A year and a half of employees walking in the street?

Sunny Skies Terrace offered to defer the restaurant’s rent for a year, Oung said.

Vivien Chen, manager of Eve Aesthetics on Wednesday, in one of the store's rooms.

Vivien Chen, director of Eve Aesthetics at Focus Plaza.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Vivien Chen, director of medical spa Eve Aesthetics, said she and others bought an existing skincare store last year, spending more than $100,000, including renovation costs.

They were told to move out a few months ago as their lease expired, after unsuccessfully applying for a longer one, said Chen, 50. When she asked the landlord for rent relief to recoup at least some of what she would spend to move, she was denied.

“Considering that it’s our people – that bothers me the most. You don’t treat your people that way. You protect people,” she said. “That’s not true.”

Oung said Sunny Skies Terrace denied the request for spa rent relief because its lease was expiring.

Several tenants regularly showed up at San Gabriel City Council meetings, demanding that the Design Review Board revoke its approval of the renovation. They say they were not informed of the commission’s meeting in March and argue that such a major renovation should be brought before the city council.

Speaking at a council meeting in October, architect Simon Lee wondered what might be next for the shopping center he designed, where he has maintained an office for almost 30 years.

“Without the possibility of sharing the ideas of all the tenants and all the possible suffering that each tenant will undergo [have], this project has been approved,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

In interviews, Cervantes and Councilman John Wu said they couldn’t see how the city could revoke the approval, given the time that had passed. But Wu said he sympathized with the tenants and asked city staff to find ways to help them.

“Adding the escalators or something is OK, but what does that have to do with asking tenants to leave?” says Wu. “We like to see Focus Plaza improve the malls…but they should reduce turbulence on the whole business atmosphere.”

On a recent Monday morning, nearly all of the mall’s approximately 700 parking spaces were full.

Customers wheeled shopping carts in and out of 99 Ranch, which teased a $198.88 Chinese-style Thanksgiving dinner for eight to 10, including four pounds of salt and pepper shrimp, five pounds of green beans Sichuan dry-fried and a dozen Hong Kong-style egg tarts.

Aaron Lu, a 20-year-old sophomore at Boston University, waited outside Golden Vision while his father’s glasses were fixed.

Growing up in San Gabriel, Lu visited the mall twice a week, shopped and ate at a Korean tofu house upstairs. The renovation will attract more customers, he said, but he doesn’t want existing tenants to be evicted.

“If you live around San Gabriel, it’s a popular and comfortable place,” he noted.

Chanh Au, a 44-year-old bookseller from Eagle Rock, said he goes about once a month on his way to see friends in the San Gabriel Valley. While sipping tea, Au wondered if the renovation was necessary.

“You walk around, you see the stores you want to shop at,” he said.

Los Angeles Times

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