Industry Gives Way to Retail At Heart of City’s Economy
Spotlight on Pico Rivera
By DAVID GREENBERG
Pico Rivera will be taking a new turn this fall.
When the 629,000-square-foot $55-million Pico Rivera Towne Center opens, no longer will the city’s residents need to drive to nearby Whittier or Downey to do their shopping. The open-air mall, along with two adjacent industrial developments, will boost the city’s revenue base by $9 million in property and sales taxes, as well as business license fees, and generate up to 7,000 permanent jobs.
All three developments are located at the 200-acre former Northrop Grumman Corp. site on Washington Boulevard, the focal point of the city’s economic history for most of the past 50 years. At one point, Northrop employed 12,000 people at the plant, where the B-2 bomber was designed. It closed in 1999. Before Northrop, Ford Motor Co. built LTDs in an assembly-line plant at the site.
The two huge operations were both a blessing and a curse for Pico Rivera, keeping the city’s industrial base from diversifying.
“It certainly is one of the best things to happen to Pico Rivera,” said City Manager Dennis Courtemarche of the new developments. “The city has always been dependent on one major employer. We’re no longer dependent on the success or failure of a single business for our economic well-being.”
New big-box tenants
Much of that diversity is now emerging on the retail front. Anchor tenants at the Vestar Development Co. Towne Center include a Wal-Mart, Ross Dress for Less, Marshall’s and Staples, all which will open in September. A Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse will open in November.
To date, residents who shopped locally were only offered four small strip centers along the Whittier Boulevard corridor, none of which contain a big-box retailer or name brand clothing stores.
Located in back of the Towne Center and out of view from Washington Boulevard are the two industrial parks. The 885,000-square-foot Pico Rivera Business Center, a $40 million project developed by Majestic Realty Co., opened last year and is already leased out. Sares-Regis Group’s $110 million, 1.9 million-square-foot Pico Rivera Commerce Center is scheduled to open in the summer of 2003.
All told, the area is a striking contrast to the days when it was a sprawling field of walnut, avocado and citrus orchards in the unincorporated community of Rivera (which merged with the community of Pico in 1958 largely to prevent Downey from annexing portions of Rivera).
At one point, the adjacent San Gabriel River created a faux-jungle that was used in Johnny Weissmuller’s “Tarzan” movies. The area also had several cow-pasture baseball diamonds that nurtured old-time Major Leaguers like Jack Bliss, Harry “Truck” Hannah, George “Rube” Ellis, Fred Snodgrass and Hall of Famer Sam “Wahoo” Crawford.
In 1955, Ford purchased the property for a plant that it operated until 1980. Two years later, Ford sold the facility to what was then Northrop Corp. But with it went many good-paying auto union jobs for local blue-collar residents. Northrop hired from throughout the region for its white-collar engineer positions.
“The city has gone through two major employers,” said Ann Negendank, Pico Rivera’s redevelopment director. “There was a tremendous local effect when Ford closed because they were the major employer in the city and they were union jobs good paying jobs. Northrop had a different effect. They didn’t hire many people from Pico Rivera.”
Over the years, developers and retailers traditionally shied away from the largely Latino community, which they believed was not affluent enough to support large retailers.
“There was this preconception among the development community that areas that had a certain level of Hispanic surnames were not areas they wanted to test,” said Courtemarche.
When the Northrop plant closed, the City Council adopted a plan that eventually paved the way for broader commercial and industrial development. A three-year, $7.5 million economic development grant from the federal government in 1999 was earmarked for landscape, road and lighting improvements in the area surrounding the Northrop site.
“Everybody is going to other cities to shop and eat,” said Jeff Axtell, Vestar’s project director. “What we’re trying to do is create a new town center to entice the residents to stay in town.”