Changing Times in Chinatown

The Ai Hoa Market on Hill Street has been part of Chinatown for 40 years.

Since 1979, the Ai Hoa Market on Hill Street has been a fixture of Downtown Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The market, which specialized in Chinese and Vietnamese imported goods and other items not found in chain stores, was where much of the neighborhood’s immigrant and senior citizen population shopped. After 40 years, it was set to leave Chinatown last month, relocating to South El Monte, which activists say come from disputes with the landlord.

That exit has been delayed after a series of protests and actions from community groups and volunteers. The tenant and landlord are negotiating to keep the market in Chinatown for at least three more months.

According to Gilmore China Group, which purchased the building in 2018, Ai Hoa Market has been on a month-to-month lease since 2005. Developer Tom Gilmore, who led a revitalization of the Old Bank District in the Historic Core at the turn of the century, said that the market’s owners have asked for three more months to transition out of the Chinatown space and a reduced rate for that period, but he is seeking the full rent.

Gilmore China Group now owns part of the block that Ai Hoa sits on, between Broadway and Hill Street, but there are currently no plans to develop the site, Gilmore said.

Ai Hoa Market already opened a new location in South El Monte on Nov. 2. In response to the community’s feedback they tried to extend their time in the Chinatown building. Representatives for the market’s owners said that the negotiations have hit a rough spot in regard to rent agreements, and that further updates are to come in the next few days. The owners said that their intention is to stay until another full-service market that can serve the neighborhood was found.

“I think it’s a long-term, systematic issue but I have to say that the supermarket, that’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Annie Shaw, a member of the nonprofit Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, which has rallied to support the market. “A lot of the development that’s been happening here, very few of the projects have had the existing community in mind.”

The fight over the market is part of a wider tension in the area, which is rapidly changing as new developers arrive and new projects are aimed at drawing in a different market.

This year has seen a number of projects planned for the area make progress, either being formally announced or breaking ground. Atlas Capital’s 725-unit College Station project next to the Chinatown Gold Line was officially approved by the City Council in the spring, without any affordable housing; the developer is set to contribute $2 million toward preserving and building affordable housing in the area. In late October, City Councilman Gil Cedillo, whose First District covers Chinatown introduced a motion to explore a joint city-county development, turning a County-owned lot at 725 N. Spring St. into an entirely affordable housing complex. At the end of the month, plans were filed for a 243-apartment live/work building at 1457 N. Main St., to replace two existing industrial buildings. Also near State Historic Park, High Street Residential is working on its seven-story apartment building at 1101 N. Main St., which broke ground at the start of the summer.

Those new projects come when some low-income residents in older buildings find themselves in uncertain times. At Hillside Villa, at 636 N. Hill Pl. a 30-year affordable housing covenant expired in August 2018. Owner Thomas Botz gave residents a year’s reprieve from rent hikes due to a clerical error, but as of this summer, have remained in dispute with the tenants over potential price increases. Cedillo’s office has gotten involved, trying to negotiate a deal to preserve tenants’ rents, but so far no deal has been reached.

Cedillo acknowledged the neighborhood’s transition and told Los Angeles Downtown News that he’s focused on using his office’s weight to include affordable low-income and very low-income units in new housing projects in the area.

In late 2017, the long-running Pacific Alliance Medical Center, the main hospital for the area, abruptly closed. A consortium comprising Allied Pacific IPA, AHMC Healthcare and Network Medical Management purchased the site and announced plans last summer to reopen the space, starting with an urgent care clinic, but that has been hit by delays.

In a neighborhood where the median income is $20,000 according to a report from UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, these changes are being noticed. The average income might change, Shaw said, but only because more people are moving in; not because the existing community will make more money. A large portion of the population includes immigrant families, with many from Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese backgrounds. The average monthly rent in Chinatown is roughly $1,975, compared to $2,450 for units south of the 101 Freeway, according to data from the real estate firm CoStar.

Some of these changes, including the arrival of more market-rate spaces, will help make Chinatown more sustainable in the long run, according to George Yu, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District.

“We did not have enough market-rate residences to help make for a balanced Chinatown,” Yu said.

Some community activists are looking at Little Tokyo’s evolution as both a cautionary tale and a potential model. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood shrunk amid development around the Civic Center. In recent years, however, a number of local nonprofits have stepped up to engage the community. Some projects have included local investment funds to try to reclaim some of the lost land for the community and develop spaces aimed for civic use. The CCED said that conversations for similar efforts are starting to happen amongst Chinatown residents, but haven’t fully come together. Shaw noted that there’s a risk that any effort, from the community or the city, might take too long.

Gilmore said that he does not have any immediate plans to start new development at his properties. Looking at the area, he expects that more residential projects will continue to be announced, given some available and empty lots in the area, and that won’t “necessarily be a bad thing.”

“The future is going to be whether or not it retains any notion of its identity,” Gilmore said. “Anything anyone does must take into account the needs of that community.”

Cedillo said that “Chinatown will always be Chinatown” while he’s in office, and he wants to preserve and protect landmarks and affordable housing. Cedillo is up for re-election in 2022.

Shaw said that going forward, Chinatown needs more commitment from developers that they will support more affordable and low-income housing. The community also needs more support and backing from city leaders on that front. Otherwise, she said, the rate of the neighborhood’s transformation could outpace any community efforts to ensure sustainable growth.