These days, Third and Fairfax is pure traffic mayhem. Bulldozers, big rigs and construction workers jam the city streets and block available driveways. Trying to park at Farmers Market, the historical market and eatery that has drawn locals and tourists for 68 years, is like entering a revolving door and not stopping. Not only is the Market going through a $45-million revival, but a new outdoor shopping mall, The Grove at Farmers Market, is being erected, for a projected March 15 opening, amidst a flurry of dissension and exhilaration.
The Grove, a 575,000-square-foot exterior mall costing $160 million, sits on 20 acres of land, with an eight-level, 3,500-space parking structure, over 54 stores and restaurants, and a 14-screen multiplex theater. With the Farmers Market to the west, CBS to the north, Pan Pacific Park to the east and new residential development to the south, across Third Street, The Grove will offer prospective customers the most elegant shopping this area has ever seen: Nordstrom, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, The Gap, Banana Republic, Nike Goddess, Victoria's Secret and FAO Schwarz, to name just a few. Restaurants will include Madame Wu, Maggiano's, The Farm of Beverly Hills and Morels French Steakhouse.
The project is being developed by Caruso Affiliated Holdings, whose executive director, Rick Caruso, is president of the Police Commission and developer of some of the most successful shopping malls in southern California.
Concurrently, Farmers Market, owned and operated by A.F. Gilmore Co. (which owns the land that the Grove sits on), is changing. For the first time, merchants will be expanding their store hours to be in line with the Grove's -- from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., (10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday); valet parking and new Epicurean shops will be added. The Gilmore Bank and office spaces, part of the North Market expansion, will open in October. Weekend entertainment is scheduled for a new plaza, and "The Red Line" tram will link Farmers Market and the Grove -- the old and the new -- along a single trolley track.
If "the new" is The Grove at Farmers Market, then "the old" is the Fairfax district, center of Los Angeles' Jewish community. A generation ago, Jewish families moved west from East Los Angeles (Montebello, City Terrace and Boyle Heights) to Fairfax Avenue, which runs from Wilshire to Santa Monica boulevards, and set up shop. Kosher restaurants, butchers and bakers populated the area. As more Jewish families moved into the Fairfax district in the 1950s, religious schools, synagogues and a Jewish Community Center sprang up. Recently arrived Jewish emigrants from Israel and Russia gave the area a cosmopolitan air.
With its Old World atmosphere and open-air vegetable stalls and eateries, Farmers Market was an instant draw. Many Jewish residents of the area can't remember a time when Farmers Market wasn't part of their shopping or kibbitzing routine. Today, the Farmers Market retains a home-away-from-home allure for many seniors and immigrants in the Fairfax neighborhood.
As much as these regulars would like Farmers Market to remain the same, The Grove, with its many retail options and restaurants, signals a welcome change for many in the Fairfax neighborhood. CBS employees, who stumble out of work at 7 p.m. with no place to get a drink or a bite to eat will now be able to go to Farmers Market and the upscale restaurants and shops at The Grove. The young singles, couples and artists who populate West Hollywood, as well as the tourists, say they will benefit from the expansion of Farmers Market and the Grove.
President of A.F. Gilmore Co., Hank Hilty -- whose great-grandfather bought the original 30 acres that Farmers Market and the Grove occupy in 1860 -- observes that "people's reactions are very mixed" about the project. But he believes that this stems from current conditions. "There's the confusion of parking, construction, concern with the change of character of the market environment," he says. "But this whole project is to preserve and enhance Farmers Market, which is the bedrock of the entire project."
When development-minded Hilty first thought about expanding Farmers Market in the late 1980s, he met with a contentious community. "A lot of community groups were very active at the time, having seen their neighborhoods change, with little input from the people who lived there," he explains. He sought a developer and worked with the community, but due to the recession of the early '90s, the project ultimately failed. Hilty put the idea on the back burner until 1996, when he decided to try again, and chose Caruso Affiliated Holdings for the project.
"Rick Caruso has earned the respect of each and every community in which he has worked, even among those who traditionally oppose development. His responsiveness to community concerns has led to some of the most popular retail centers in the region," Hilty states on the Caruso Affiliated Web site.
This time around, the community offered little resistance to Farmers Market expansion and the Grove, except, Hilty says, from one community group that questioned the number of liquor licenses requested. That number was modified, and a compromise was reached through a hearing process with the city.
For many regular customers, who have been coming to the storied corner of the Farmers Market for the last 40 years, the idea of a new shopping mall going up next-door has hit them hard. Their main concern is retaining the quaint character of the market: Why do they need another shopping mall in Los Angeles? Isn't there already enough shopping?
"I think the Grove is a positive thing," says Kathy (who declined to give her last name), one of six seniors sitting around a table in the east plaza at Farmers Market. "But where in the heck are we going to park? We can't come here and pay $10 a day; we live on a fixed income."
"They've really broken up the entire area, with more high-rises and department stores, and the traffic is horrible," says Beverly Baker of the mid-Wilshire district, who sits at the same table and has been coming to Farmers Market for the past 35 years. "Older people need to have a connection [with other people] on a human level, and instead, it's more and more about commercialism and a world full of objects," she said.
For the Boren brothers, Jack, Morris and Herman, the prospect of a new shopping mall is a positive, except for the parking." It's going to hurt them if people have to pay for parking," says Morris, 88, who has been coming to Farmers Market for 40 years. "If you have to look on the clock how long you've been sitting here, there will be no business."
Despite customer opposition, merchant Paul Sobel, 45, owner and operator of two newsstands at Farmers Market, welcomes the change., saying, "I think it is a fabulous project.... If you're not moving forward, you're standing still. This area needed to become more relevant and vital, and the only way to do that is developing, and they're doing a wonderful job."
Sobel, like many of the merchants at Farmers Market, endured a difficult past two and a half years. Many buildings, including one of his own, were demolished to make way for The Grove. He moved to the other side of the market and almost immediately had a front-row seat to the construction outside his door. One of Sobel's newsstands, Sheltams, sits at Gate Two, which will be the end of the line (or the beginning) of "The Red Line," and where a replica of an old Gilmore Gas Station will be erected.
With the confusion and inconvenience of construction, some vendors left the market, but the loyal ones stayed behind.
"What Rick Caruso and Hank Hilty have done is impressive," Sobel says, voicing no regrets. "These guys have a lot of integrity. This is more than just a business, more than just a shopping center. They've created a sense of place that relates to Farmers Market, a place that has survived time and is still relevant."
"There's a lot of apprehension, apprehension of the unknown," Hilty says. "But we're fully confident that [The Grove and Farmers Market expansion] is going to be a great success and benefit to all. It's like when we announced that we would be open on Sunday, everyone was concerned, but today, Sunday at Farmers Market is one of our most popular days."
"Of course we'll still come," says Paula Levine, a regular for 42 years, "This is our home."