Broadway Forum

About 500 people attended a public forum at the Orpheum Theatre Nov. 9 that looked at the future of Downtown. 

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In a way, there was an inherent irony in the event titled "The Future of Your Downtown." That's because the future presented to a crowd at the Orpheum Theatre Wednesday looks, in some ways, a lot like the past.

Much of the event focused not on the entirety of Downtown, but rather on Broadway, the historic corridor with a dozen faded movie palaces. The vision laid out might have reminded people of what Broadway was like in the 1920s: Officials hope it will again be an entertainment hub, and have a streetcar.

About 500 people attended the forum on Wednesday, Nov. 9, organized by 14th District City Councilman José Huizar. Although much of the evening was dedicated to reviewing the accomplishments of Huizar's nearly 4-year-old Bringing Back Broadway initiative and the $125 million L.A. Streetcar project, there were indications of two large developments coming to the street.

"One of them is a major department store," Huizar told Los Angeles Downtown News after the session. The second new element, he said, has been seen in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter and some revitalized parts of New York City.

"It's a very unique use, out of a lot of available space in the upper floors," he said.

Huizar would not provide more details about the possible department store or the use of space above street level. However, both could also rekindle the past. In the first half of the 20th century, Broadway housed several multi-floor major shopping destinations. They included the Broadway Department Store, Bullocks, in the building which is now home to the Jewelry Mart, and May Company, which was at Hill and Eighth streets in the current home of the Broadway Trades Center.

When asked if the nine-story Broadway Trades Center could once again house a department store, property owner Shahram Afshani said he had no comment, but added that he would be announcing a "very large deal" by the end of the year.

Huizar's office declined to comment about a store coming to the Broadway Trades Center.

The building at 801 S. Broadway was originally built to house the Hamburger Department Store in 1906 and was home to May Company in the 1920s. It now holds garment businesses on the upper floors and retail outlets in the street-front space.

Despite the attention that has been focused on the street, Broadway is still challenged by the more than 1 million square feet of vacant or underutilized space on the upper floors of some aging buildings. Huizar's office, for several years, has been trying to work with officials from several city departments to create more flexible codes that would allow additional uses on those floors. Huizar in the past has said that he hopes to get retail and restaurants in those spaces.

Milestones

Much of the evening was taken up by a 10-person panel discussion. In addition to Huizar, the speakers included Jessica Wethington McLean, the executive director of Bringing Back Broadway, Dennis Allen, head of Los Angeles Streetcar Inc., and Linda Dishman, executive director of preservation organization the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The night started with a presentation by Huizar, Allen and McLean highlighting the milestones of Bringing Back Broadway and the streetcar.

The achievements included the creation of The Broadway Theatre and Entertainment District Overlay Zone and Design Guide, which has been adopted by the city Planning Commission. It regulates the restoration of historic facades on the street. The group has also shepherded the creation of the Broadway Streetscape Master Plan, which calls for a reduction in lanes of traffic and widening of sidewalks. It is currently in the environmental review process.

The nearly one dozen new businesses that have opened or are in the works on Broadway were also touted. They include upcoming restaurants such as Umamicatessen, at 852 S. Broadway, and the recently announced French eatery Figaro Broadway, at 618 S. Broadway.

Discussion also concerned the Broadway theaters, which in the early part of the 20th century were entertainment hubs with films and vaudeville shows. Although only a few have been fully restored (among them the Orpheum), McLean discussed a $1 million Palace Theater renovation and the recent purchase of the United Artist Theatre at 933 S. Broadway.

While city officials have been tight-lipped about plans for the United Artist, which sold for $11 million, Mclean said it will soon be reactivated and will include some entertainment programming.

Paying for the Streetcar

The project that has gotten the most attention on the street is the proposed streetcar. Allen said it will require financing from property owners along the route. In the past, officials have said area land holders could be asked to fund about half of the effort.

The project, which officials hope to open in 2015, currently has $10 million from the Community Redevelopment Agency and $1 million in city funds. The remainder is slated to come from the federal government - streetcar organizers are seeking a $37 million allocation known as a TIGER grant - and a Community Facilities District, the formal name of the program that would tap area landowners.

"We just applied for the TIGER grant," Allen said. "If that comes in it's an additional source of funding that would lower down the portion that would come in from the private sector."

If the TIGER application is successful, Allen said, the amount area stakeholders would be asked to pay could shrink to 30%-40% of the project's cost. A decision on the grant will be made by March, he said.

About a dozen questions were submitted to the panel from the audience. Many focused on the streetcar, including how it will look and how it would connect to a proposed NFL stadium near L.A. Live.

In response to a question that asked if the streetcar could have a design that doesn't look like a "box on rails," Allen said there is the possibility of changing things.

"We would be remiss if we didn't have one or two historic cars as part of the system, and we could run them maybe on the weekends," he said.

Many of those in attendance said they were pleasantly surprised by how far both projects have come along.

"With these sorts of things we're talking years and years before anything gets done," said Jason Radford, a new Downtown resident. "It seems like things are getting done and there are people focused on making this happen."

While most of the people in the audience were glad to receive the update, the optimism was clearly tempered.

"For me it's about wait and see," said Amanda Turner, a Historic Core resident. "Changes like these take a lot of time and money and the willingness of more than just a few people."

Huizar said there is a long way to go and many challenges remain, but he was encouraged by the turnout,

"There's a lot happening on Broadway and with the streetcar," he said. "We need to continue this momentum to improve Downtown."

Contact Richard Guzmán at richard@downtownnews.com.