Ai Hoa Market—Chinatown’s biggest grocery store, which offers fresh produce, a variety of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Asian packaged goods, and a meat counter—has been in its Hill Street location—for more than three decades.
But in November, the business will relocate to South El Monte, says Linda Hang, the daughter of the market’s owners. The closure has some residents pointing fingers at the store’s landlord, Downtown property owner and developer Tom Gilmore.
The closing of the Ai Hoa is, for many, a sign of changing times in Chinatown. Developer interest in the neighborhood has surged in the last few years, as names that ring familiar in Downtown began to purchase Chinatown properties and make plans for new developments aimed at wealthier Angelenos.
That includes Gilmore, who has spent nearly $30 million scooping up properties in the neighborhood in the past six years. Last year, an LLC connected to Gilmore bought the property on which Ai Hoa Market and a handful of other storefronts sit in 2018 for $15.75 million.
At a Wednesday press event organized by CCED in the market’s parking lot, residents held colorful, hand-painted signs of Napa cabbage and jackfruit, and signs in English and Chinese calling for an affordable grocery store to return to the neighborhood.
Ai Hoa’s departure is “a direct result” of rent increases and difficult negotiations with Gilmore and his company, Gilmore China Group, according to neighborhood advocacy group Chinatown Community for Equitable Development.
At the event, several speakers voiced concerns that the site would be used for a new project that would include a luxury hotel. They worry these plans were ultimately the reason why Ai Hoa is moving on.
Those fears aren’t entirely unfounded.
Gilmore China Group says that getting a new market in the Ai Hoa space is and has been the plan since it became clear Ai Hoa was leaving. But a company representative also says that eventually the company wants to put new, mixed income housing and retail on the site. Some type of hotel could be part of that plan because Chinatown needs one, the representative says.
But before that comes to fruition, the company is “actively marketing the space” to potential tenants that will offer similar products and prices as Ai Hoa.
“It is also our continued hope to provide Chinatown with a quality local market... serving the needs of the Chinatown community,” the company said in a statement.
That’s important to many residents, as the neighborhood’s median income is just shy of $23,000 a year—low by city and county standards.
Gilmore China Group also maintains that the market’s owners had planned to move for a while, and contend that the market’s closure has nothing to do with the change in ownership at the Chinatown site.
But Hang says Gilmore had refused to negotiate with them on high rent increases and fees to use the parking lot.The decision to move was, she says, was “very difficult” to make.
Gilmore China Group says that the rent increased 5 percent, or about $800 a month, since last last year. It also says the market has to pay 50 cents per car using the lot instead of the 25 cents it was before the parking lot was expanded in 2018. It notes that the higher rate amounts to $500 a month more in parking costs for the market.
No matter what, the Ai Hoa is moving out of Chinatown, says Hang. The goal now, she says, is to try and get a comparable market to take over the space.
“Tom Gilmore has the power to let another affordable market open here,” she says.
Gilmore isn’t the only developer staking claims in the neighborhood.
Izek Shomof has a seven-story mixed-user in the works near Spring and Alpine, and Atlas Capital is planning 725 market-rate units near the Chinatown Gold Line Station (though residents are suing to stop it).
Last year, a high-end French developer teamed up with architecture firm Studio Gang to announce a 26-story hotel and apartment tower on a site now occupied by a one-time movie theater that most recently served as an event venue. The owners of the San Antonio Winery and the Lincoln Property Company want to build a 920-unit apartment complex along the northern edge of the Los Angeles State Historic Park.
The swap meet building at 861 North Spring Street sold to Santa Monica-based firm Redcar Properties for $15 million in November 2018, though no plans have been announced yet for the site.