To say Frontier Real Estate Investments Inc. struggled to get its San Juan Capistrano River Street Marketplace project off the ground is an understatement.
But the adversity faced by the San Juan Capistrano-based real estate development firm—which also headed development of Stanton’s mixed-use Rodeo 39 Public Market—“makes River Street that much more special,” founder and Managing Partner Dan Almquist told the Business Journal.
The agrarian-themed River Street retail center is seven years in the making and runs 60,000 square feet on the former site of Ito Nursery Inc. in the Los Rios District, which makes claims to be California’s oldest residential community.
After facing years of opposition from residents, Frontier finally broke ground at the site in February. It’s among the largest new retail developments in Orange County in years.
At the time, Almquist teared up.
“I didn’t want to let the city down,” he said. “There’s a lot of weight” to build a project in the town he calls home.
“I know what this site was prior: 24 acres that were all boarded up [and] a lot of vagrants. It was a drag.”
The site is now on its way to become a mixed-use hub with dining and retail options, boutique fitness studios, a market offering groceries and fresh produce, and a 9,000-square-foot central green.
Almquist hopes River Street “becomes a sense of pride for the community.”
The project is expected to be fully operational by early summer of next year.
San Juan Capistrano has a reputation among developers as a city that’s especially challenging to win project approvals.
River Street was no exception.
One vocal critic of the project, San Juan Capistrano resident Jeff Vasquezwrote that River Street “backs up against the home on Los Rios Street with no project setbacks” in a letter to the community published by the Capistrano Dispatch.
Almquist met with Vasquez about his concerns.
“It really took us sitting down” and listening to each other to convince him, Almquist said. “There was some give and take—me understanding his concerns, trying to address them the best I could and then him putting his trust in us.”
Eventually, Almquist revised the plan and the two reached an agreement.
Now, Almquist considers Vasquez a friend.
“The gentleman that was most against the project, he’s now a guy that I spend time with.”
Vasquez was one of the many Los Rios District residents Almquist spoke with regarding River Street.
“Not everybody was on board with the project … but what we learned quickly from Dan is that he had a plan that was well thought out,” Los Rios Street resident Stephen Rio told the Capistrano Dispatch.
“He was sensitive to our concerns … and we learned to believe that Dan had a vision that would help develop this neighborhood.”
Like with any relationship, earning the trust from the San Juan Capistrano community “just takes a lot of time and following through on what you say you’re going to do,” Almquist said.
Honoring the Land
In securing the land for River Street, Almquist heavily worked with the seller, the Ito family.
“For me, it’s important that we honor their legacy,” he said. “Everything that we’ve done, we’ve had their blessing.”
Jimmy and Hiroko Ito lost their nursery in Los Angeles during the Second World War, when they were incarcerated at the Manzanar internment camp. After they were freed, they bought the San Juan Capistrano site in 1959 to restart their nursery business.
The Ito family has owned that land for nearly 60 years.
“I get choked up just talking about them. It’s a personal deal,” Almquist said.
To honor the history of the site and San Juan Capistrano, Almquist said River Street will sport aesthetic elements that help tell the stories of the Ito Nursery and the city’s mission, built by the Spanish in the late 18th century as part of their effort to convert the indigenous Acjachemen people to Catholicism.
Frontier will install historical depiction boards, which will be “tastefully done” and not just “something that nobody’s going to read,” he said.
The project will also include 315 new trees including citrus, olives and native specimens.
Frontier also aims to differentiate itself from other area developers by creating a unique tenant rosters.
Take Rodeo 39, the nearly 40,000-square-foot food hall along Beach Boulevard in Stanton, which opened about two years ago. It was the first big ground-up development to open in OC after the onset of the pandemic. It’s drawn big crowds and is among the most prominent new additions to the city’s commercial center in years.
Over half of Rodeo 39’s tenants are first-time brick-and-mortar operators, according to Almquist.
“I really enjoyed finding these operators that either have an idea, or they have one location and they just need somebody to believe in them and put them in the right environment,” he said.
“When you look at a lot of other developers, there’s this idea that whoever has the strongest financials or the most locations, that’s the safest bet. But in doing that, you end up with something like what everybody else has, like programmatic retail.”
Rodeo 39 tenants include Costa Mesa-based coffee shop Coffee Dose LLCLA-based plant-based fast-food joint VOWburger Company and San Juan Capistrano-based Shootz Hawaiian LLC, which opened its first location at Rodeo 39 at the start of the pandemic. The restaurant sold out of food every day after its grand opening for over a month.
Frontier works as a “hands-on landlord” with first-time brick-and-mortar tenants to optimize their business.
“I really believe this in my heart: we’re partners.”
The company will bring that same philosophy to River Street, though the exact tenant makeup has yet to be determined.
On top of restaurateurs, River Street will also have merchants such as florists to achieve a public market feel, Almquist says.
“When you look at LA’s Grand Central Market, it has slowly become very food-centric. But 10 years ago, it was a true public market,” Almquist said. “I think that creates a really cool energy when you have people coming for different reasons.”
Another up-and-coming Orange County project by Frontier is a 50,000-square-foot project proposed for downtown Fullerton, adjacent to the Fox Theater.
Unlike Rodeo 39 and River Street, Rodeo at the Fox Theater will include an office component.
“One thing we’re playing with is taking a lot of the learnings from retail and applying those to the office,” Almquist said.
The mixed-use project will include outdoor space and retail spots that will serve as a convenient hub for those working in the office component of the project.
As for the architecture, “we’re trying to be very referential with some of the forms and themes that exist in downtown.”
Frontier is currently submitting a formal project proposal.
In the “evolution of retail,” Almquist says, “we’ve gotten really lucky.”
“Everybody’s starting to see this exodus out of traditional retail formats,” he said. “They’re seeking something that’s more experiential, more curated and thoughtfully done, which is what [our] projects will be.”