DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In 2007, Chinatown stakeholders celebrated the approval and imminent groundbreaking of Blossom Plaza. They looked forward to the development that would connect the neighborhood to the Gold Line Station and create some 200 housing units, a plaza and more.

Six years later, work has yet to begin.

What’s more, it is uncertain when construction crews will show up on site. Although the city in November 2011 gave the go-ahead to enter into a negotiation agreement with Forest City Residential West to replace the original developer on the project, a deal has not been signed.

City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose First District includes Chinatown, refuses to throw in the towel.

“I’m the eternal optimist and I’m not going to give up on this project,” Reyes said. “I feel like we’re really close.”

Reyes said his goal is to see the project break ground before he is termed out of office June 30. He said the development agreement between the city and Forest City could be completed within two months.

Reyes blamed the delay on finalizing the deal on the dissolution of the Community Redevelopment Agency, which he said had taken the lead on Blossom Plaza.

“We were depending on them to fulfill certain roles,” Reyes said. “If the state had not gone after the CRA when it did we would have been further along.”

Although Chinatown leaders have grown frustrated by the delay, they still see transformative potential in Blossom Plaza. It would add a connection to the Gold Line station, meaning people who get off the train would walk a flat surface into the heart of the community, rather than go down several flights of stairs, then head up a hill on College Street. It would also bring about new residents and lead to more market rate housing in the area, they say.

While other residential projects are making headway in Chinatown, among them the under-construction Jia Apartments at 639 N. Broadway, the delays at Blossom Plaza have meant that the neighborhood’s revitalization has lagged behind other parts of Downtown, business leaders say.

“The community is frustrated at the loss of opportunity,” said George Yu, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District. “I think it’s slowed the growth of Chinatown.”

Market Downturn

In 2007, the CRA and the City Council gave the go-ahead for developer Larry Bond to proceed with work on Blossom Plaza. He received entitlements for a $165 million project on a 1.9-acre site that was once home to the Italian restaurant Little Joe’s. The establishment closed about 15 years ago.

However, Bond and the city reached their agreement just as the housing market was about to turn south. Bond was never able to come up with financing for the project. In June 2009 the property fell into foreclosure.

Lender Prime Property Fund took over. In 2010, the city purchased the land for approximately $10 million.

Reyes and others began looking for a developer, and in late 2011 the CRA recommended going with Forest City for the project at 900 N. Broadway. The real estate development and management firm has properties in 27 states. In Downtown, their projects include apartment complexes The Met at 950 S. Flower St. and Metro 417 at 417 S. Hill St.

Although the CRA recommendation of Forest City came 14 months ago, some of the hurdles concern money. The city had previously allocated $41 million for Blossom Plaza with funds coming from block grants, the CRA and the city Department of Transportation. The exact contribution in a deal with Forest City is still under discussion.

So far, said Susan Wong, a planning deputy for Reyes, the city has secured $16 million from the state and $4.5 million from the federal government for the project. Forest City is applying for a 9% tax credit for the development, according to officials with Reyes’ office.

The new budget for the project has been shrunk to about $90 million, Reyes said. Exact specifications have not been determined, though original plans called for 262 housing units in two towers, along with 43,000 square feet of retail space, a 372-car garage and a 17,500-square-foot plaza.

Forest City officials did not return multiple calls for comments.

Eyesore Remains

One of the problems with the lack of construction on Blossom Plaza is the state of Little Joe’s. The shuttered building sits as an eyesore in a prime Chinatown location.

Despite the long wait for Blossom Plaza, Yu, like many in the community, is optimistic that it will be built.

“I still remain confident in the councilman’s abilities to break ground on this project,” he said.

David Louie, a member of the board of the Chinatown Business Improvement District and a first vice president of real estate firm CB Richard Ellis, said he views Blossom Plaza as the cornerstone for revitalization in Chinatown. Despite the demise of the CRA, which he also blamed for the latest delays, he believes the work will pay off.

“The process has had a number of bumps on the path and sometimes you get diverted, sometimes you have to go back and redo what you’ve already done,” he said. “But if you’re persistent you’re going to get things done and that’s how I view Blossom Plaza.”

Sherwood Lee, a longtime Chinatown business owner, said the delay is a missed opportunity for Chinatown to have a connection to the Gold Line. He also pointed to the eyesore factor of Little Joe’s, but like others in the community expressed the belief that the project will get built.

Reyes called Blossom Plaza one of the most difficult projects he has worked on during his 12 years in office. He also labeled it one of the most important ones in his time on the council.

“It’s one challenge after another. The easiest thing would have been to walk away,” he said.

Still, the work continues, even if no one can say when, or if, it will all pay off.

Contact Richard Guzmán at richard@downtownnews.com.

©Los Angeles Downtown News.