Restaurant: A mix of food and retail outlets have decreased vacancies on Main Street. Clara Harter

Officials are hopeful Main Street is on the road to recovery with a spate of new businesses opening in the past few months.

“This is the most excited I’ve been for Main Street ever,” said Sean Besser, Ocean Park Association Vice President and Chair of the Main Street Taskforce, later adding “It feels like there are less vacancies now than pre-COVID.”

In the last year and a half, around two dozen businesses have opened, including SUSU Handbag’s first location and luxury loungewear company Aviator Nation’s first joint retail / fitness studio.

“Seeing them [Aviator Nation] open on Main Street for me was just a huge signal of wow, there’s good things afoot here because that’s a much more of hipper, high-end sort of brand saying ‘alright, here’s where we’re going to plant our experiential store’,” said Besser.

The street is also becoming a foodie destination and landed in the 2021 Michelin Guide with Dave Beran’s Pasjoli earning a star. A new Southeast Asian restaurant Cobi’s opened in the former Dhaba space in October 2021 and became an instant hit known for its Wes Anderson-worthy interior decor, playful dishes and natural wines. Ocean to table restaurant Crudo e Nudo, opened in the midst of the pandemic and has already earned a series of accolades including being listed as one of 15 restaurants on The Infatuation’s “LA’s Best New Restaurants of 2021.”

Additionally, Santa Monica native chef Josiah Citrin, whose fine dining restaurant Mélisse earned two Michelin stars in 2021, is about to open a new casual dining restaurant on Main Street. Other casual eateries that have opened recently include Alfalfa salad bar, Holey Grail Donuts, halal burger joint Urban Skillet and Gnarwhal Coffee Co.

Main Street is also seeing an uptick in fitness businesses and stores that cater to families. Recently opened fitness studios include Love for Pilates, Leon Cycle, Athletic Gaines and F45 as well as the soon-to-be-opened Aviator Nation Ride. On the family front, UPPAbaby car seat and stroller store opened, complimenting the childcare products on offer at the Pump Station and Caro Bambino.

Besser said fitness studios and daily use stores are great for bringing more weekday visitors to the Main Street, where businesses have long enjoyed a weekend boom, but often suffered from low weekday foot traffic. He also said that the shift towards high-end stores and family services, reflects the evolving composition of the Ocean Park neighborhood.

As real estate prices rise across the board, Besser speculates that some families might be getting priced out of the North of Montana neighborhood and moving to Ocean Park. At the same time, rising home prices in Ocean Park itself may be fueling customer demand for higher end brands on Main Street.

New developments could also change the composition of the neighborhood. A proposed redevelopment of the Gelson’s is slated to bring 521 new units to the neighborhood, while a redevelopment of a bowling alley around the corner from Main Street has plans for 105 new units.

“All of a sudden, we could be adding 5 to 10 percent to our Ocean Park neighborhood population, and seeing more stores that are serving the community and that the community is growing enough in terms of overall numbers to support them could be interesting,” said Besser, adding that he knows the density of these projects is controversial within the neighborhood.

The evolution of Main Street comes at the cost of several longtime small businesses, which are no longer able to turn a profit.

“I would say that mom-and-pop retail shops are probably the worst off,” said Hunter Hall, Executive Director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association. “I would argue that is not something that is because of the pandemic. I would say that that’s a macro-economic shift and the pandemic really just kind of brought the hammer down much harder.”

Arts & Letters, a stationary shop that operated on Main Street for almost 20 years, closed at the end of February with Co-owner Lee Oppenheim citing COVID and the rise of e-commerce as reasons for shutting down. Other small retailers including Mohawk, Bollman Hats, and Pamela Barish also closed during the pandemic.

However, vacancies have not stuck around for long and leasing activity on the street is currently high.

“There is a lot of activity behind the scenes in terms of business takeovers, people showing spaces, discussions that are happening and that has definitely accelerated a lot in the past year,” said Hall. “It’s definitely heading in a positive direction, it certainly seems more energized and exciting to be on Main Street now than pre-pandemic.”

The Main Street Business Improvement Association and Ocean Park Association are working on several initiatives to attract visitors to the street. Their biggest pandemic success was the rapid roll out of parklet outdoor dining spaces in the street, which Hunter credits with keeping several Main Street restaurants afloat. They are now working with the City to make this a permanent program with restaurants paying to rent the parking spaces.

Last year the two organizations piloted the Sharing an Open Main Street event, where two blocks of Main Street were closed off to car traffic, creating a pedestrian plaza for outdoor dining, music, fitness and art activities. This year they are looking to combine elements of this event with the pre-COVID Summer SOULstice block party to create a community oriented summer festival event. The goal is to promote Main Street as a welcoming and vibrant gathering place for residents and visitors of all ages.

Twitter: @_ClaraHarter