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By Shawn Raymundo
For a while, Zebra House Coffee owner Sara Peterson had heard whispers of a food hall development coming to North Beach. She had been eyeing the location to expand her business and thought the idea of a local food court was a good one.
There was one problem. There wasn’t an owner or an official representative with whom she could speak about the concept.
“We couldn’t figure out who to talk to, and there really wasn’t an owner,” Peterson recalled. “So, we forgot about it.”
Then, as fate would have it, she’d get a call from Mohammad Muhtaseb, a partner with Landmark Food Halls—the owner and operator of the Miramar Food Hall currently under construction in North Beach.
“He reached out to us about having an exclusive property kiosk … we’re really excited,” Peterson explained. “When he reached out to me, I said ‘oh my gosh I can’t believe this has come full circle,’ I said, ‘yes, let’s do it. By the way what’s the plan?’”
The plan is to have 15 food vendors that are local to San Clemente or based in Orange County occupy space at the Miramar Food Hall. Currently, Muhtaseb told San Clemente Times this week, all but two of the stalls have been leased.
“There is a need for modern, elevated hospitality in San Clemente that is still grassroots and local, and we believe that a diverse, 15-vendor food hall that will be activated five to six times per week with live music, shows, exhibits, and a plethora of other experiential events will be a key driver in the growth and success of North Beach,” Muhtaseb said in an email.
Like Muhtaseb, Peterson gushed over the concept, explaining that the project—restoring and repurposing the historic San Clemente Bowling Center into the food court—will be a blessing for North Beach and those who enjoy the area already.
“It’s going to create a proper hub between Landers (Liquor Bar) and the brewery that’s going in the surf ghetto,” Peterson said, referring to the Los Molinos Beer Company. “With all of the outdoor activity that’s down there, this food hall is going to really reunite all of it. It’s going be a place—an attraction. I’m really excited to be part of it.”
That enthusiasm has been shared by city officials and stakeholders like the San Clemente Historical Society since December 2019, when restaurateur James Markham purchased the bowling alley and adjacent Miramar Theatre for nearly $8 million.
With construction currently underway to bring both historical properties back to life as the Miramar Event Center and Food Hall, there’s a high expectation that the project will help revitalize the newly designated North Beach Historic District to once again be a hub for entertainment and recreation—just as town founder Ole Hanson envisioned in the 1920s.
For a while though, the Great Depression had got in the way of Hanson’s plans from coming to fruition. It wasn’t until the latter half of 1930s, when San Clemente’s economy began rebounding, that new development helped bring the dream to life again, starting with the local dance hall, Casino San Clemente, and the San Clemente Theatre.
Described in marketing materials as “man’s mighty contribution to beauty,” the theater was built for a whopping $75,000—roughly $1.4 million in today’s dollars—and could seat about 680 people. On opening night in 1938, guests paid 35 cents to enjoy a double feature, Mad About Music and Goodbye Broadway.
Over the decades, the historic building saw ownership change hands multiple times, underwent a rebranding in 1970 as the Miramar Theatre, and even caught fire in 2005. Since the 1990s, it’s sat idle, as the revolving door of owners proposed various projects for the theater and bowling alley—none of which ever gained traction.
That was until 2017, when the city and the California Coastal Commission approved entitlements for the 61-acre property that would lay the path and groundwork for the current development.
Using those entitlements, Markham and Muhtaseb have been working to rehabilitate both buildings. With the Bowling Center being restored as a food hall, the shuttered movie theater will become an events center operated by Wedgewood Weddings.
“We are super excited to create an absolutely stunning venue for people to celebrate the most important moments of their lives in North Beach operated by a nationally renowned operator that traces its roots right back to San Clemente,” Muhtaseb said of Wedgewood.
Jonathan Lightfoot, the city’s economic development officer, estimates the food hall to be open by next summer, with the renovated theater following not too far behind.
The former bowling alley, Lightfoot noted, is “the portion of the property that’s likely to open first,” despite it also being “the portion that had a lot more work to be done.”
After exploratory investigations found the site to be unsafe as a result of dry rot and mold, construction crews last summer dismantled the bowling alley with the intent that much of its physical materials would be preserved and reincorporated into the new food court building.
“The bowling alley didn’t have the structural stability to survive the rehabilitation work,” Lightfoot explained during a Historical Society meeting this month. “We unfortunately had to make a call to look at what are the elements that are significant.”
The site has since been excavated as crews are currently constructing the food hall’s basement level, where vendors will have kitchen space to cook and prep food. Soon, Lightfoot said, framing will go up, making the bones of the old building visible again.
Echoing Muhtaseb, Lightfoot said that when the project is complete, vendor spaces will be utilized by small businesses that have local ties to the community and county, such as Zebra House. Already set to move in, he added, are a Nashville hot chicken eatery and a pizza spot.
Getting North Beach back on its feet has been a process to say the least, Lightfoot noted. Pointing to previous projects to rehabilitate other key historic structures—the Casino, the Ole Hanson Beach Club and the former Aquarium Cafe, (now Landers)—he said a lot of time and money have gone into the area.
The city and stakeholders have begun to see some of those investments pay off already as this past January North Beach was designated a historic district, concluding a years-long campaign to have the area recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.
Down the road, the city is looking at the completion of the Miramar project, as well as the opening of the long-awaited Beach Hut Deli to continue to spur economic activity in North Beach.
Restaurant options coupled with entertainment activities such as the Casino’s jazz nights, Lightfoot said, are what the city is looking for residents and visitors to enjoy.
“We’re looking for more of that to occur. Just looking at good connection and events locally available for the community,” he said.
However, he acknowledged, “once that domino falls, we think there’s going to a be lot of residual impacts of that area. For instance, when you look at parking.”
According to Lightfoot, the city hasn’t seen parking throughout the North Beach area exceed 50% capacity, even during peak season hours. But one of the Coastal Commission’s conditions of approval in 2017 was for the Miramar developer to conduct bi-annual parking studies.
“Once they open, they have to report on the parking capacity every two years,” Lightfoot said. “They’ll need to send data back to the Coastal Commission showing what the capacity looks like, because part of their (the CCC’s) mission is to make sure beach parking is available.”
It’ll be the city’s reasonability afterward, he said, to install additional parking. One area the city has already highlighted is the dirt lot between Landers and the new deli. Another potential lot includes city owned land on the other side of El Camion Real, just below Pico Park.
Lightfoot also expressed confidence during the Historical Society meeting that the city would consider integrating the trolley system, as well as review other options “that brings easier access to North Beach.”
In addition to parking, the city, he said, will also monitor potential improvements for pedestrian access and pathways between the sites as activity increases.
“North Beach is not a best pedestrian environment so that’s going to be something we have to look at for future capital improvement projects,” he said.
When the North Beach projects are complete, Lightfoot said there’s a hope that the revitalized area creates a synergy with the Marblehead Coastal community and activities at the San Clemente Pier.
“We’re looking forward to, not only that there’s businesses coming back to life, but also be an area where residents can walk to,” Lightfoot said, adding that “the historic district was recognized as an entertainment district—a dance pavilion, a park area, things to be a focal point, the Beach Club, things that are just a public benefit and entrainment value. We’re excited for that area to come back to life.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.