Businesses failing fast on downtown’s Bijou block

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It’s lunchtime and the chime hanging over the door to the downtown restaurant Flow of Mexico at 16 E. Bijou St. is silent.

It’s been silent almost every day since Jose Flores opened his restaurant two years ago in a portion of the downtown business district that has been particularly hard-hit by failure.

“The location should be good — we are downtown,” Flores said. “But the street is something different.”

Restaurateurs and retailers across town have struggled through the poor economy, and many have been forced to shut their doors. Nearly every Downtown block has one or two vacancies.

Flores’ restaurant will soon be counted among those vacancies. He plans to close on Jan. 28.

When that happens there will be almost as many empty storefronts on that block of Bijou as there are full ones. Apre Photography at 22 E. Bijou is closing this week, too. The block between Tejon Street and Cascade Avenue has a higher than average vacancy rate. Nine of the street’s 20 storefronts, more than 45 percent, will be vacant.

Hundreds of cars pass by the storefronts every day on their way to the Bijou/Interstate 25 interchange, but there are few draws for pedestrians.

“There’s not a lot of foot traffic on that side street,” said Downtown Partnership executive director Ron Butlin. “Tejon is the 100 percent location, and the side streets are kind of the B locations.”

He said that when the economy started declining long-established retailers like Zeezo’s costume shop and Sparrow Hawk cookware took advantage of lower prices on the main drag and moved their businesses to Tejon.

That left big empty spots on East Bijou that no one has wanted to fill during the down economy, Butlin said.

And those that did fill those spots suffered because the anchor stores that drew crowds were gone from the street.

OPB&J, a trendy, sleek-looking organic peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich shop, which was located across the street from Flores’ restaurant, closed last month after opening about a year-and-a-half ago. White sheets of butcher’s paper cover its windows now.

Shop owner James Killebrew left a post on OPB&J’s Facebook page at 3:15 a.m. Jan. 12 saying the business was for sale. He could not be reached by e-mail, and the Facebook page has disappeared.

When OPB&J opened in the summer of 2010, it was a new type of restaurant for downtown and appeared to have a promising future.

“I think they had a great concept,” Butlin said. “But it takes a while to get established.”

The Pita Pit, a quick-service restaurant on the far-west end of the block and directly across the street from OPB&J’s location, has been there for nine years. It’s been busy, said Evan Schubarth, who works the counter there. The restaurant had some online coupons that brought the masses in January.

But most of the block’s other long-established businesses are gone from the stretch of Bijou. Just a few years ago, the street was bustling.

When Google captured street-level images in 2009, that stretch of Bijou was still thriving with businesses like Zeezo’s, home décor boutique Phancy Pheasant and Sparrow Hawk, all three of which moved to the busier Tejon Street.

The former Sparrow Hawk and Phancy Pheasant locations are still vacant.

Susan Godec, who owns Phancy Pheasant, said she moved her business because Sparrow Hawk had moved and she knew Zeezo’s was going to move. Both are more than 30-year-old, well-established downtown businesses.

“Zeezo’s and Sparrow Hawk were kind of core stores down there,” Godec said. “I know the economy has been hard on a lot of small shop owners. But I’m really glad I moved.”

Sparrow Hawk owners, Christine and Sam Eppley, said they didn’t move so much for the location on Tejon as for the space.

“That was a good location for us,” Christine Eppley said. “We only moved because we outgrew it and needed more space.”

Sam Eppley said the business has almost three times the square footage in its new location at 120 N. Tejon St. as it had at 12 E. Bijou St.

Just a few months after Sparrow Hawk moved, Zeezo’s and Phancy Pheasant left the block, too.

Godec noted that the next block of Bijou is also mostly vacant, which probably doesn’t help traffic on the street. The north side of that block is Acacia Park and Daniel Robertson demolished a chunk of storefront space on the south side of the block to make way for lofts before the failing economy halted his project.

Eppley owns the building his store used to occupy — the same one Flores is moving out of in just a couple weeks. He’s owned the building even longer than he’s operated Sparrow Hawk.

But for The Pita Pit, the building will be completely empty.

“Obviously I would like it to be full,” Eppley said. “It’s just this incredible recession time. There aren’t many new businesses moving in anywhere. No one needs space right now.”

While the block looks pretty deserted right now, Eppley said he doesn’t expect it to stay that way.

“Long term, that’s definitely a high-rise development spot,” Eppley said.

Andrea Barker and her team at HB&A Architecture crafted a rendering of the potential high rise future of the empty little building. The graphic depicts a multi-textured 12-story building with retail and dining on the first floor, along with different styles of residential development above, an opening to the alley and access to the public parking garage there.

The rendering is not meant to illustrate any impending plans — only what could be.

“I don’t see that happening in the next couple years,” Eppley said. “I don’t even see that happening in the near future. But long term, there’s no question that property is destined for something as cool as that.”

Before developers will be enticed to partner with Eppley on a project like that, though, business owners will have to be enticed to rent space in his nearly empty building.

“I think everyone is just waiting for the economy to turn around,” he said.