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Revitalizing the Downtown is More than Just Talk to Ehrlich

It’s a rare thing that a real estate developer with big plans actually does what they say they are going to do. In March 2009, I interviewed Scott Ehrlich in Lancaster about the transformation he had in mind for the downtown area. There was going to be new housing, new restaurants, and a new life to Lancaster Boulevard. It would be a place where people would want to go, if not live. Fifteen months later, the projects Ehrlich outlined have been realized. The Artists Loft building has been completed and occupied, with the second phase to open in this month. The Brooklyn Deli has been open since last summer. Construction continues on multi-family housing, including a five-story building on Milling Street. The most visible example of Ehrlich’s follow-through is taking an empty furniture store on the boulevard and converting it into BeX restaurant. With high ceilings, artwork on the walls, a lounge and banquet area, the interior of BeX invokes a look not frequently seen in the Antelope Valley. The lower level will contain an 8-lane bowling alley to open later in the summer and kiosks under construction out front will be used by a yogurt stand and as a showroom for a local motorcycle dealership. Next to the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, a backhoe moved dirt on a new project: a 3-screen independent movie theater and bookstore. For its part, the city is in the midst of a $10 million streetscaping project expected to be fully completed in December. One three block stretch has already been completed and the next segment is now being worked on, necessitating tearing up the street and the sidewalk. More construction takes place a block north on American Heroes Park. “Looking at it you forget that you are in the middle of a recession,” said Vern Lawson, the economic development director for the City of Lancaster. Hearing the enthusiasm in Ehrlich’s voice also makes one forget there is a recession. The enthusiasm cannot be contained as we take a walk around downtown to see the ongoing projects before returning to the restaurant. Ehrlich calls the changes a modern interpretation of the old Lancaster. Mayor R. Rex Parris describes it as an urban experience on a smaller scale. His vision is of Old Town Pasadena but on a more affordable scale. The downtown’s transformation has been all Ehrlich and his In-Site Development Co. with no other developers contacting the city wanting to get involved. Parris is strict on who he wants to work with – a developer that is innovative, on time and on budget. “I’m looking for them,” Parris said. The timing of the opening of BeX, however, could not have come at a more inopportune time. With the boulevard torn up and detour signs sending motorists in all directions, it’s not an easy place to get to. The newness of the restaurant and lounge seem to be trumping whatever difficulties there are in getting there. “The street is literally closed down and we did 14 percent more business than we did the previous week,” Ehrlich said. Business has been down at the deli, and next door to BeX at Rae’s Cup and Cake Bakeshop, owner Raedene Blucher said traffic at her storefront has been “okay” and that there is side access that gets around the torn up street. “We had a month when people realized we were here,” Blucher added. The downtown merchants do understand they are getting an incentive from the city to endure the hardships created by the streetscape project in that more people will be coming to the area, said Josh Mann, president of the Blvd. Association, the group representing the merchants. “For the most part, and there are a few exceptions, everybody understands the pain they have to endure for two to three months is an investment in the future success of downtown,” Mann said. As the character of downtown changes one aspect will remain in that the national chains found in other commercial areas are absent. Sure, Ehrlich said he would not turn away an Urban Outfitters but for the most part the merchants will be independent. That’s the way that Ehrlich likes it, not because he is against chains but that local ownership and management is a better operating model. Another model that operates well is the partnership between Ehrlich and the city. That both want to get results is evident. “The city has the common sense to get out of the way to achieve the things I need and knows when to step in when I need the help,” Ehrlich said. Mall Still Viable Scott Ehrlich thinks that shopping malls are a relic of the past but Palmdale city officials think otherwise. The Antelope Valley Mall remains the center of the retail universe, as evidenced by Macy’s moving in to the space left empty after Gottschalks closed up, said Mayor Jim Ledford. The Palmdale Macy’s, set to open in September, is the only new store that will open in 2010, he said. “When the private sector shows they are willing to invest that tells me they see something here they want to capture,” Ledford said. Alternative Energy The Antelope Valley is proving to be a center for alternative energy and Senior Systems in Palmdale is part of that as well. Long a contract manufacturer for the defense and medical device industries, Senior Systems has also made electronic components for wind turbines and an electric charging station. Alternative energy has been a moderate growth area for the company with the potential for it to become larger, said Tim Morrissey, the president and CEO. “People are still figuring where the stimulus money is going,” Morrissey said. Staff Reporter Mark Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or by e-mail at mmadler @sfvbj.com. This column is the result of spending most of June 22 in the Antelope Valley.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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