Big Plans for 'Mangrove' Property
Dowtown stakeholders examine competing plans for a mixed-use complex for First and Alameda streets last week. Three prominent development teams are trying to acquire the 4.5-acre property.Photo by Gary Leonard.

Last week, three contenders bidding to develop a 4.5-acre, city-owned site on the edge of Little Tokyo publicly unveiled their visions. The property in question, on the northeast corner of First and Alameda streets, is one of Downtown's last large, undeveloped parcels.

Ninth District City Councilwoman Jan Perry and the city's Chief Legislative Analyst, Gerry Miller, hosted the meeting last Wednesday at Little Tokyo's Japanese American National Museum, where about 200 Downtown Los Angeles stakeholders took in the proposals from the trio of prominent development teams.

Although each proposal had a residential base, they varied significantly in design and scope, from a partly Japanese-themed effort with three towers to a two-phase development that includes a grocery store.

"I would like to see something that's dynamic, that's focused on creating an exciting pedestrian street life and a lot of different uses and landscaping," said Perry. "Because of its proximity to the historic boundaries of Little Tokyo, it's important that the developer… works with what's already there and enhances it."

The site, sometimes known as the Mangrove, has been the focus of several unrealized development schemes over the past 20 years. The city purchased the land, part of a 10-acre parcel, in 2002. The remaining 5.5 acres holds a fire station, an emergency operations center and the under-construction Gold Line station.

Situated just outside Little Tokyo and just north of the Arts District, the land is seen as a key parcel that stands at the crux of several growing communities.

The Pitches

During the two-hour meeting, the team leaders presented their proposals and took questions from the audience. The proposed projects are:

  • Nikkei Center: A three-pronged development team envisioned a retail/office/housing project. The team comprised of Santa Monica-based Kaji & Associates (for the retail component), Downtown-based Urban Partners (the office and market-rate housing) and the nonprofit Little Tokyo Service Center (an affordable housing element) described a plan with 390 rental units, 20% of them priced as affordable housing. The project would create contiguous seven-story structures with housing above two levels of retail. A six-story office tower would rise above five levels of parking, with 1,300 spaces and at least one underground parking level. Retail and restaurants would have a Japanese theme, and would link to the Gold Line station. The project, primarily designed by The Jerde Partnership, would feature sustainable design elements and would be built to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification criteria.
  • Unnamed project by First and Alameda Partners, LLC: A team led by Niemann Properties proposed creating 400 housing units (a mix of for-sale and rentals) in four buildings, with approximately 20% reserved for affordable housing. The buildings would include three six-story structures with housing above two levels of retail and one 10-story, purely residential edifice. The development would include a 15-story office tower at Temple and Alameda streets, a large open plaza fronting the Gold Line station, an entry plaza at Temple and Alameda, four levels of subterranean parking with 1,500 spaces, and other elements. The design by Downtown-based RSA would also include 40-foot setbacks to accommodate outdoor dining, as well as landscaped roofs and other green elements to meet LEED standards.
  • Tokyo Art Park Crossing, LLC: Concerto Development and Portland-based Williams & Dame proposed a two-phase project; the first stage would bring 360 housing units (including 208 affordable residences) in two residential buildings with retail, restaurants, and office and gallery space on the ground floor. Phase one would also bring plazas, a pocket park and replacement parking for the existing public lot. The latter phase would create condominium towers (size not yet revealed). The proposal includes a one-acre park and a 12,000-square-foot grocery store at First and Hewitt streets. The project is designed by the Downtown-based firm Johnson Fain, along with Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects.

The developers stressed that the proposals are preliminary designs. They have not revealed their purchase offers, but according to a city report, the 4.5-acre site was appraised last year at $36.8 million.

Years in Flux

The site at First and Alameda streets, the onetime home of the White King Soap plant, has a history of scrapped development plans.

Before the city purchased the land, it was owned by Evergreen International, which bought the property in the 1980s and at one point had six bidders hoping to turn the site into a mixed-use development dubbed Mangrove Estates. Years after all of those failed to materialize, the city stepped in with an offer to buy the property.

The city paid $43 million as part of a joint purchase with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which put in $6.1 million.

The site was subsequently proposed for the Los Angeles Police Department's new headquarters - currently under construction south of City Hall - and there was also talk of turning it into a community gymnasium and recreation center.

Recently, the site has been closely monitored by the Little Tokyo community, which has been shaken up in the past year by the sale of the New Otani Hotel and Japanese Village Plaza - two local landmarks - to non-Japanese owners.

"I think we hope that it will maintain a Japanese aesthetic, and I think we're looking for something that is neighborhood-friendly in terms of scale," said Chris Aihara, chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council. "We're also looking to see if it's something that would be attractive and draw more people to the neighborhood."

A panel made up of representatives from the Chief Legislative Analyst's office, the Chief Administrative Officer's office and the Community Redevelopment Agency, along with representatives from the Arts District and Little Tokyo, are expected to choose a winner from the three proposals in the coming weeks. The selected plan will be the one that best meets the needs of the community according to the city's request for proposals.

After being approved by the City Council, a development team is expected to be finalized by June.

Contact Anna Scott at anna@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 3/17/2008

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