SOUTH PASADENA — Since Publix vacated the large space in Pasadena Shopping Center for a roomier spot across the way in 2009, occupancy at the nearly 40-unit strip mall has gradually been cut in half.
City leaders and the remaining 18 occupants have been waiting for another anchor tenant to open and bring in more traffic.
Monday, a construction crew began a 17-week remodeling project to transform the old Publix into a Walmart Neighborhood Market within the 40,000 square-foot space.
The project has spurred hope that the anchor will not only stop the exodus of tenants — the latest of which are a Blockbuster and Gigi’s Italian Restaurant — but that it would also spark revitalization along Pasadena Avenue, the congested corridor that also suffers from a glut of vacancies.
The city has been pursuing a plan to make a mile-long stretch of the road more attractive for businesses through loosened building restrictions in some areas and beautification measures such as enhanced landscaping and burying utility lines. The plan is on hold until the city can hold public hearings on it.
When it was presented to the public this year, the plan sparked public outrage because it suggested cutting the number of lanes on the road from six to four as a traffic-calming measure. The aim was to make room for bike lanes, transforming the city into a more pedestrian-friendly place; but that measure was taken off the table after city leaders realized how unpopular it was.
The plan became a key issue in the city’s mayoral election in March. The eventual winner, Dan Calabria, said the plan was a naive attempt to mimic cities such as Dunedin and instead touted attracting big box retailers such as Wal-Mart as a means of bringing the area back to life.
“We’re a gateway city to the beaches,” Calabria said. “Commuting back and forth. To try and pretend we’re something different, under the circumstances, in my opinion, is unrealistic.”
The city is months from passing its corridor redevelopment plan, but some think the organic economic growth that the new store might spur can go hand-in-hand with it and that a road lined with successful businesses would accentuate the need for aesthetic and zoning changes.
“The first real piece of the puzzle as far as getting a comeback without making any major changes by the city or the county or the state, just from private industry, is to get that shopping center back up and going,” said City Commissioner Max Elson. “To get that shopping center back up and going is to have a major tenant in there. So the first step has been taken.”
The new grocery store has already sparked a flurry of inquiries from local and national businesses interested in properties along Pasadena Avenue, Elson said.
“It’s like a chain,” said Elson. “Everything is interlocking with something else.”
For Calabria, landing Wal-Mart was a win.
Calabria said he first contacted Wal-Mart about the site in 2010, long before he was elected mayor. One of the first people to meet with him was a regional representative for the company, who told him the project was on.
“I was tickled pink,” Calabria said.
The store is expected to open in mid-January.
Business owners in the surrounding area — even those that might be in competition with the store — say they are happy to finally see a major tenant occupying the space.
“There was Publix over there forever, but they moved across the street and kind of took some of the traffic away that was here before,” said Michael Karakoudis, owner of Spiro’s, a Mediterranean grocery and deli across Gulfport Boulevard. “So, we welcome more traffic to the area.”