As downtown inches forward in its quest to attract the critical mass of residents needed to spark a renaissance there, a crucial ingredient is still missing a supermarket.

Several industry observers say the primary reason downtown lacks big grocery outlets is that its population, at about 5,000, is far short of what is needed to attract a major chain.

"A supermarket needs 10,000 people residing within their trade area to break even," said Mark Tarczynski, an urban retail specialist with CB Richard Ellis, who also happens to live downtown.

Round up all the residential projects either in the works or on the drawing board and the magic number of 10,000 residents may be obtainable in the next few years, Tarczynski believes.

Meanwhile, Rod Diamond, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 770, disagrees with the notion that downtown's customer base is too small for a supermarket to operate profitably. "The demographics are huge," he insists, "and we urge the companies to look at sites available there."

Diamond argues that consolidation in the grocery industry down to three major chains (Ralphs/Food 4 Less, Albertsons, and Vons) is part of the problem. "You have nothing serving the Bunker Hill area and no major chains in Chinatown or South Park," he points out.

But that may be about to change.

"The image of a first-run supermarket is an important element to the revitalization of downtown and we're talking with a number of them now to achieve that," said Rocky Delgadillo, deputy L.A. city mayor.

Jerry Snyder, president of J.H. Snyder Co., a major developer of Ralphs grocery stores, agreed. "We know there's a need because the markets have told us they would love to be downtown," he said.

Well, sort of.

Terrance O'Neil, a spokesman for Ralphs, said the company is looking for central city locations, but has no immediate plans for construction. Ralphs, he said, needs 35,000 to 45,000 square feet with adjacent parking space to open a store. "We've looked at alternatives, such as the first floors of high-rise buildings, but nothing has come to fruition."

This approach is part of the problem, says UFCW's Diamond. "Awhile back we met with the owners of Ralphs and Mayor Riordan to try and get them to go back in with smaller stores at a higher concentration. But they're used to a certain format, a box, and they don't know how to deviate for the different demographics."

Delgadillo agreed. "The design needs to be reconfigured and I think they're up to the task now," he said. "There are some visionaries. It's just that with real estate, each (of the major chains) is waiting for the other to go first."

The absence of a downtown supermarket has been of little concern to developer Geoff Palmer, who is currently building the Medici Apartment Complex at Seventh and Bixel streets, just west of Chinatown.

"There was nothing within walking distance, but I don't have that in Beverly Hills, either," he said.

The concept behind Medici was to build on the periphery of the urban core, thereby separating labor and living experiences for downtown workers. Palmer Associates conducted a study that found enough grocery markets to the west to meet Medici residents' basic shopping needs.

But the closest markets may not have everything that downtown residents want. Tarczynski, for example, said he has to drive out to the Ralphs at Third Street and La Brea Avenue for what he needs, bypassing two other stores on the way.

But ultimately, if boosters are to realize their long-sought dream of creating a 24-hour, pedestrian-friendly downtown, residents will have to shop in the core rather than driving out. Delgadillo just took up residence in the central city, and claims he can get his produce, meat and fish at the Grand Central Market on Hill Street.

But even the market's owner, Ira Yellin, concedes that the landmark Grand Central Market has evolved into more of a fast-food venue than a traditional grocery market. The recent unveiling of the adjacent Market Court on Hill Street, a public space with tables and chairs to accommodate food patrons, will likely only encourage the trend.

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