DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When the real estate downturn hit, one of Chinatown’s most anticipated and potentially transformative projects was pushed to the sidelines. Now, seven years after it was first broached, and more than a decade since the site at a key location went dark, a turnaround could be coming.

On Monday, Aug. 15, officials with development firm Forest City Residential Group made a presentation during a meeting of the Chinatown Community Advisory Committee for the Blossom Plaza site. Although no votes have been taken, the Community Redevelopment Agency is set to recommend that Forest City take over a project that could ultimately connect the Chinatown Gold Line station and Broadway with more than 200 housing units, a plaza and other elements.

The selection of Forest City follows a bidding process conducted by the CRA. Six firms responded.

Jenny Scanlin, acting regional administrator for the CRA’s Downtown region, predicted the development will be a catalyst for the area.

“This is the critical project for this community,” Scanlin said at the meeting of approximately two dozen people. “I think it has the potential to really set a pace for new development in Chinatown.”

The deal would mark a major turnaround for the prime 1.9-acre plot on Broadway between College and Spring streets. The main building on the property is the vacant and fenced-off Little Joe’s. The former Italian restaurant has been closed since 1998.

The prospects for the site seemed to change in 2007, when the CRA and the City Council gave the go-ahead for an ambitious $165 million project by developer Larry Bond.

Plans called for the creation of 262 residential units, with 20% of them priced as affordable housing, in two towers. The project would also have created 43,000 square feet of retail space, a 372-car garage and a 17,500-square-foot plaza to be used for community events. The latter was included after extensive debate and numerous community meetings.

Bond, however, was never able to secure the financing to bring the project to fruition. In June 2009, lender Prime Property Fund foreclosed on the site.

The city purchased the land last year after the CRA Board of Commissioners approved the allocation of $3 million toward the $9.9 million acquisition. In December 2010, the agency began the bidding process.

Established Player

With Forest City, the project could have a developer with an extensive record both in Downtown and across the nation.

Forest City was founded in 1920 and claims more than $11 billion in assets. The real estate development and management firm has properties in 27 states that include office buildings, hotels, retail centers and residential properties.

In Downtown, they are responsible for projects such as apartment complexes The Met at 950 S. Flower St. and Metro 417 at 417 S. Hill St.

While their resume may be impressive, their role with the project has not yet been made official. Additionally, specific plans for the development have not been publicly unveiled. The former 262 housing units could be downsized to about 200.

Kevin Ratner, president of Forest City West, the Downtown branch of the company that operates its West Coast holdings, said that since they are still considered candidates, the firm cannot release details on exactly what their project will look like, the budget or timeline.

However, he said that because entitlements are already in place, their version would be very similar to the previously proposed Blossom Plaza plans.

“It’s going to be mostly residential,” he said. “There will be some commercial, some retail in it, and other things required by the CRA. A lot of things that were agreed to between the city and the previous developer will still be in the project.”

Ratner, the grandson of the company’s founder, said Forest City has long had an eye on development in Chinatown. The site’s location near the Gold Line and its potential as a catalyst for the area attracted them to the project. The plaza is slated to connect to the Gold Line station.

“We’d like to move it along as fast as we can,” he said.

Unlike with Larry Bond, the project will not go before the CRA for approval. Instead, it will move directly to the City Council.

Scanlin said there is no timeline yet on when the CRA’s recommendation to enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement with Forest City will come before the council. She noted that the community has long been involved in the planning.

“The other project went through a lot of community vetting and I think it was the intention of the city and the redevelopment agency to ensure that any project moving forward include the important components of the previous development,” she said.

First District City Councilman Ed Reyes, a longtime proponent of the project, called it critical for the community. He said he is confident things will proceed smoothly with Forest City, especially since many of the key aspects have already been decided.

“We are very confident knowing they are going to include the elements the community has already prioritized for this project,” said Reyes, who hopes it will be completed in about two years. “It’s a very pivotal project and I’m very happy to see it move forward.”

City’s Stake

One element that will still require negotiations is the city’s financial role in the project. Blossom Plaza under Bond had been slated to receive $41 million in subsidies from the city. The exact subsidy will be negotiated, Scanlin said.

The project is not the only major development happening in the neighborhood.

In April, developer Equity Residential broke ground on the 325,000-square-foot Chinatown Gateway, a long-stalled development at 639-643 N. Broadway. The project will hold 280 market-rate apartments in a six-story building, along with a 588-space subterranean garage and nearly 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. It is slated to open in 2013.

Last week, the City Council approved allocating $26.2 million in tax-exempt bonds for the $44 million Chinatown Metro Apartments, a project at 808 N. Spring St. It would convert two aged structures into a 123-unit apartment complex that will provide affordable housing for senior citizens.

The potential to move Blossom Plaza forward has community stakeholders excited. After sitting at yet another meeting to discuss the future of the land, George Yu, the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, said he sees signs of hope.

“The site needs to be activated, and it may take a developer of that caliber to do it,” he said.

While Ratner told the crowd that there will be several community gatherings to discuss the project in more detail if the city gives them the go ahead, Yu hopes time is not wasted on redundant meetings.

“I was just looking back on my photos from 2004 during one of the first community meetings that we arranged for the project,” he said. “I don’t want to wait another seven years.”

Contact Richard Guzmán at richard@downtownnews.com.

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