DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On the chilly evening of Monday, Jan. 28, 14th District City Councilman José Huizar walked up Broadway near Ninth Street. As usual, the corridor was busy with pedestrians and shoppers. Some darted into discount clothing and electronics stores. Others waited to catch a bus.
Then there was the crowd that five years ago wasn’t here. A group of stylish 20-somethings were having a bite at Umamicatessen. Just up the street, the Los Angeles Brewing Company had a batch of office workers gathered at the bar for happy hour. Some well-dressed diners were beginning to trickle in to Figaro, a massive new French restaurant near Sixth Street.
The evening stroll came five years to the day after Huizar brought hundreds of people together in the Los Angeles Theatre to announce the formation of Bringing Back Broadway. The 10-year plan, which came on the heels of a number of failed efforts to improve the corridor that holds a collection of faded movie palaces, envisioned reviving Broadway between Second Street and Olympic Boulevard with more nightlife, a streetcar, new restaurants and shops and better sidewalks.
“It looks different and it feels different,” Huizar said last week during a pause on the trek. “It’s just a nicer place to be, but it’s still in transition.”
They key words are “in transition.” Huizar’s initiative, which includes a staffer, Jessica Wethington McLean, dedicated full-time to the street, has yielded more success than any previous government-led effort to turn Broadway around. In addition to the new restaurants, construction on the street is underway for a department store and boutique hotel. Downtown residents recently approved a crucial taxation plan for the $125 million streetcar. The Delijani family, which owns four of the aged movie theaters, has announced plans to renovate and program them.
Those successes correspond with work that has not advanced. Some needed sidewalk repairs have stalled due to a lack of funding. Despite the new businesses, most of the theaters remain empty on most nights. A touted effort to bring life to some 1.5 million square feet of empty aboveground commercial space has gone virtually nowhere.
Huizar, who joined the City Council in 2005, is aware of the progress and the hurdles. Even with the stumbles, he proclaims that, halfway through the initiative, his team is further along than he expected.
“I think we’ve exceeded our expectations,” he said. “We have many more businesses looking at Broadway and that have located here than we thought we would have at this point.”
Signs of Change
Perhaps the most significant component of Bringing Back Broadway won’t come online for a few years. Huizar predicts that once the Los Angeles Streetcar begins operating, everything will change, with businesses benefitting from an active urban circulator.
In December, Downtown residents approved taxing area landowners up to $85 million for the project. The vote allowed the streetcar team to seek federal funding for the effort that would connect the Civic Center and South Park with Broadway serving as the principal southbound spine.
The project is now in the environmental review stage. Huizar hopes the streetcar will open in 2016.
Longtime area stakeholders are pleased by the street’s progress, which echoes the overall revival of Downtown Los Angeles.
“On a retail level it’s made tremendous inroads, more than I ever thought we would,” said Steve Needleman, a property owner whose Broadway holdings include the Orpheum Theatre. He is also a “trustee” of Bringing Back Broadway, the term for the group’s 29-person board.
Needleman notes that the success also stems from business people willing to take a chance on a still developing street, along with some landlords taking a long-term vision. That’s key in a corridor where the street-front vacancy rate hovers in the 15%-20% range, according to Bringing Back Broadway statistics.
Much of the activity has come south of Sixth Street. The $2 million Les Noces du Figaro opened late last year at 618 S. Broadway and the 7,000-square-foot Los Angeles Brewing Company is at 750 S. Broadway. Umamicatessen and Two Boots Pizza are both in the 800 block and the acclaimed new restaurant Alma is at 952 S. Broadway.
Although architect David Gray is converting a long-vacant building at 351 S. Broadway into office space with a bar on the ground floor, most of the coming activity will also be in the southern portion of the stretch. A Ross Dress for Less is under construction at 719-725 S. Broadway and the 180-room boutique Ace Hotel will fill the United Artists Theater at 933 S. Broadway. The Sparkle Factory, the headquarters of jewelry designer Tarina Tarantino, is slated to open this year at 908 S. Broadway.
Even if it is not yet a critical mass, those working on Broadway are enthused by the cumulative interest and investment.
“I’m very excited about the street and all the retail pieces that are coming,” Gray said.
Of course, not all the questions have been answered, and the crowds don’t always materialize. Jonathan Mgaieth, whose family in December opened the 17,000-square-foot Les Noces du Figaro with help from Huizar’s office, said that business has been slow. He was hoping for about 500 daily customers. Instead, only about 100 people a day come through the doors.
Whether big businesses like Figaro make it will be an important factor in the success of Bringing Back Broadway, Huizar acknowledged.
“It would be a huge setback if Figaro Bistro, or Ross or any of these businesses shut down,” he said. “[If they fail] then there’s something wrong in the vision that we created, the movement that we created.”
Sidewalks and Theaters
For all the progress, there are portions of the initiative that, if not quite failures, certainly have not met expectations.
Those include the space on the upper floors of buildings on Broadway. When he launched his initiative, Huizar planned on creating a law similar to the 1999 Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which paved the way for turning faded Downtown office buildings into housing. Huizar hoped to secure relaxations of certain building codes so the upper levels could be renovated for use as creative office space or retail.
Progress has been hampered by disagreements with Fire Department officials who are concerned about safety issues such as emergency exit access and windows. Although Huizar last week said he expects an ordinance to be adopted this year, with activation of some of the space within two years, that is uncertain. John Vidovich, the Fire Department official who has been working with Huizar’s office, did not return a call for comment.
Another disappointment is the state of the sidewalks.
The 2008 initiative called for spending $35 million to repair crumbling sidewalks, including reconstructing the basements below where pedestrians walk. However, only about $7 million worth of work has taken place, with repairs to portions of Broadway between Third and Fifth streets. Funding has yet to be identified for the rest of the project.
“The millions of dollars it’s going to take to reconstruct these sidewalks is what concerns me,” Huizar stated.
Along with the streetcar, the biggest key to turning around Broadway, say observers, is reactivating the dozen theaters that line the street. Most remain empty or are used sporadically for filming.
In September, the Delijani family, which owns the Palace, State, Los Angeles and Tower theaters, announced a phased, long-term plan to upgrade the venues and hold concerts and other events there, while also creating restaurants and bars. No timeline has been announced, though in September Shahram Delijani told Los Angeles Downtown News that programming at the Los Angeles and Palace would increase within a year.
It is another situation where, according to Huizar, the corridor is in transition.
“I’m really happy with the progress of some of these theaters, but I think we are also on a holding pattern right now where we really need to see more parking options. For us to deliver those options we need to see more of a critical mass of people that will come here,” Huizar said.
Numerous other efforts to improve the street are also at an early or mid-point.
A streetscape plan, also known as “The Road Diet,” would reduce the lanes of traffic on Broadway from four to three, with one southbound and two northbound lanes. The plan calls for widening sidewalks, creating more sidewalk dining and increasing loading areas to help businesses.
The plan has completed its environmental review and goes before the Planning Commission for approval Feb. 14. The work would be done in phases as funding is identified, but by June Huizar plans a “dress rehearsal,” which will utilize temporary benches, striping and other elements to showcase what would happen permanently. His model, for an as-yet-undetermined site, echoes what was done with Sunset Triangle Plaza in Silver Lake last year. That turned a primarily auto corridor into a community gathering point with seating and other elements.
“That will allow us to redesign the street, slow down traffic and make it more pedestrian friendly,” Huizar said. “It will create more of a community with people walking around.”
Also still in the early stage is the Broadway Arts Center, a facility that would contain a theater, an art gallery and affordable housing for artists. Although a site has not been identified, the project last year received a $470,000 grant for pre-development work. The project could include a Downtown campus of the Valencia-based California Institute of the Arts.
Huizar’s vision extends to signage. This year, $800,000 will be available to Broadway property owners for façade lighting and signs that enhance the street. A so-called Broadway Sign District, which is currently in early draft form, will encourage things like neon signs.
Huizar said he will consider Bringing Back Broadway a success if, by 2018, he has accomplished about 80% of what he originally set out to do. Considering that his 14th District includes all of Downtown after redistricting, he said the corridor will remain a priority.
Meanwhile, as Huizar continued his stroll on Broadway, he darted into Julio’s Burgers, a tiny Mexican-American restaurant that has been on the street for 30 years.
It lacks the style, flair and fancy menus of the new spots. Still, after getting a cup of coffee and chatting with the woman behind the counter about the improvements on the street, Huizar said there remains room for these businesses on Broadway.
“While people may say there’ll be some type of gentrification, all businesses will benefit,” he said. “There will be a better mixture of businesses here on Broadway in the future.”
Check back on that future in five years.
Contact Richard Guzmán at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012