DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In 2012, a lot happened in Downtown Los Angeles. The community continued the revitalization that kicked off more than a decade ago. It seemed that everywhere one looked, construction crews were busy at work.

As the building continued, some wonderful new projects arrived. Unlike in certain past years, however, the new additions of 2012 ran a wide gamut. Downtown welcomed the expected in the form of several housing complexes, but also saw the arrival of major cultural additions, including a museum exhibit that will draw millions of visitors. Then there was the celebrating of two parks — one brand new, one old but re-envisioned.

In the following pages, Los Angeles Downtown News celebrates the winners of our 12th annual Downtowners of Distinction awards. The prizes were created to recognize the individuals who came up with and nurtured efforts that not only enhance their bottom line, but also benefit the district in which they are located. In each case, the project has made its surrounding community, and by extension all of Downtown, a better place in which to live, work or visit.

Individual winners were selected by the editorial staff of Downtown News, and the awards will be handed out on Tuesday, Feb. 19 (awardees were not named in every Downtown district). Next week, the Project of the Year, chosen by leaders from each of the districts, will be announced.

Following, in alphabetical order by district, are this year’s Downtowners of Distinction winners.

ARTS DISTRICT

Winner: 7+Bridge

The southeastern edge of the Arts District continued its resurgence in the fall, when the veteran development firm Linear City opened a long-stalled three-building complex near Seventh and Santa Fe streets. The 78-apartment 7+Bridge represents a turnaround for a project that had been started by another developer, but that stumbled during the recession. The effort a short walk from Linear City’s Biscuit Company and Toy Factory lofts manages to be both rustic and upscale at the same time. Adding to the community appeal, it houses Bill Chait and Ore Menashe’s new restaurant Bestia, along with the bakery Bread Lounge. Another restaurant is on the way, and 7+Bridge’s combination of food and housing continues to make the Arts District a thriving part of Downtown. 

BUNKER HILL

Winner: Grand Park

Expectations for the $56 million Grand Park were sky high. Fortunately, the results are better than almost anyone anticipated, and the once difficult space stretching between the Music Center and City Hall is now inviting and welcoming. The project’s spark was Supervisor Gloria Molina, who ensured that developer Related Companies would pay for the park up front as a condition of the deal giving it the rights to build the Grand Avenue project. The park, designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, opened over the summer, and offers a lineup of cultural events, as well as green space and a small dog park. Sure, some people complain about concrete expanses and busy streets that divide the park’s three sections, but no one can argue with the calm locale that serves as an oasis for area office workers. Then there’s the restored Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain, with a splash zone that lures children and families to come Downtown and play.

CIVIC CENTER

Winner: City Hall Sustainable Park Project

One unexpected result of Occupy L.A.’s 2011 protests was the destruction of the park around City Hall. Just as unexpectedly, city leaders turned this to a positive, and didn’t simply copy the old planting scheme. Instead, through an array of subtle alterations, city landscapers and engineers managed to reduce turf coverage throughout the 1.7-acre property by 51%. While the south lawn still has a large grassy expanse that welcomes visitors, other sections feature drought-tolerant gardens appropriate to the local climate. In fact, most people don’t know what’s missing, thanks to the colorful mix of agaves, aloe and other succulents. Like the low-water plantings around the DWP building on Bunker Hill, the City Hall lawn replacement both beautifies the space and serves as an example to the public. It almost makes one thank the protesters for opening the doors to change. Almost. 

FIGUEROA CORRIDOR

Winner: Space Shuttle Endeavour

There is no shortage of attractions at Exposition Park’s California Science Center. However, it’s hard to find anything that thrills more people than the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The craft that took astronauts into space 25 times before being decommissioned moved in October to its new home at the Science Center. Already it’s a hit, drawing long lines of kids, families and tourists. The display showcases the shuttle, reveals a few of its secrets (for example, how the “space potty” works) and details its California roots. The biggest boost may come in the future: A $200 million permanent display space is slated to open in 2017. Already, the presence of Endeavour is expected to increase Science Center attendance by 600,000 people a year.

FINANCIAL DISTRICT

Winner: FIGat7th Renovation and CityTarget

Downtown shopping opportunities expanded in October, when the long-awaited CityTarget opened. The centerpiece of landlord Brookfield Properties’ $40 million renovation of the FIGat7th shopping center offers many of the items that local workers and residents previously needed a car trip to find — anything and everything from clothes to groceries to household goods. The Target is only the first step in reviving the tired outdoor mall that Brookfield acquired in 2006, and the new owner wisely waited to find the right anchor tenant, rather than shoving in something more immediate but less appealing to the community. The revamped 1986 mall has been redesigned and is now a modern space that boasts easier access points and parking. It is also only the start — an impressive upgrade of casual eateries is well on the way, and Downtown’s first Sport Chalet will open in the spring.

HISTORIC CORE

Winner: Chester Williams Building

Australian businessman Joseph Hellen doesn’t go into a market half-hearted — the Chester Williams Building, which began leasing in the fall, is the third Historic Core apartment complex opened in the past few years by his local company, Downtown Management. The 12-story edifice at 215 W. Fifth St. continues his work of turning faded office structures into modern, market-rate apartments (he previously transformed the nearby Spring Arcade and Jewelry Trades buildings). The $15 million project has revitalized a 1926 edifice, creating 88 apartments that range from 800 to 1,500 square feet; they feature dark-stained wood floors, marble countertops and other modern amenities. The project continues the district’s revitalization, making Fifth and Broadway only the second Downtown intersection to have housing complexes at all four corners.

OLD BANK DISTRICT

Winner: Bäco Mercat

Chef Josef Centeno gained quite a following during his time at Little Tokyo small plates emporium Lazy Ox Canteen. Now, he has extended his reputation, and satisfied thousands of Downtown diners, by opening his own restaurant, Bäco Mercat. The 1,750-square-foot space at 408 S. Main St. is built around the bäco, a Centeno creation that is a hybrid of culinary culture, a kind of taco mixed with a gyro. The airy, high-ceilinged space has generated raves — Esquire named it one of the 20 best new restaurants in the entire country — that have in turn drawn customers from across the city. Bäco, open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, also regularly introduces people to the thriving bar and nightlife scene in the Old Bank District.

SOUTH PARK

Winner: L.A. Live Community Events

When it comes to L.A. Live, the first things that pop to mind are Staples Center, the Convention Center hotel and the restaurants and bars. Those are all notable draws, but they overshadow something else offered at Anschutz Entertainment Group’s $2 billion complex: a full lineup of community-friendly events. The activity that takes place in and around Nokia Plaza proves that AEG’s promise to make L.A. Live a true city gathering point wasn’t just lip service. Summer brings a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and a food and wine festival, while winter holds more than a month of an outdoor ice skating rink. L.A. Live is the place for a massive St. Patrick’s Day party, a spring multi-day Latin music festival, a November recycling drive, Easter egg hunts and, amusingly, a rock-fueled Octoberfest celebration, complete with Gene Simmons. 

SEVENTH STREET CORRIDOR 

Winners (TIE): Mo-Chica

Winners (TIE): Brockman Lofts 

Until it opened in May at 514 W. Seventh St., many Downtowners didn’t know how much they needed Mo-Chica. But the joint that puts a modern, accessible spin on Peruvian food is a hit, with suit-clad workers thronging chef/owner Ricardo Zarate’s colorful restaurant in the day, and the loft crowd and Downtown visitors filling it in the evenings and on weekends. Zarate launched Mo-Chica in 2009 in the hard-to-reach Mercado La Paloma, and in its new location the restaurant has increased foot traffic on Seventh Street. It has also added to Downtown’s reputation as the place in L.A. for good meals and adventurous eaters. With dishes such as the lomo saltado and the quinoa risotto, the accolades and the crowds will keep coming.

Just down the street is the Brockman Lofts, which for years epitomized all that could go wrong in real estate. The property at 530 W. Seventh St. was initially scheduled to open as condominiums in 2005. That date came and went, as did many others, and although Bottega Louie debuted on the building’s ground floor in 2009, the property tumbled into bankruptcy and continued to sit empty. Finally, last year, Denver-based Simpson Housing Group acquired the edifice for nearly $39 million, and started marketing it as apartments. Now the stately 12-story structure is activated and occupied. This both eradicates an eyesore and generates foot traffic. It took longer than anyone wanted or expected, but having the building filled pushes the neighborhood forward.

UNION STATION/EL PUEBLO

Winner: ‘América Tropical’ Conservation

Los Angeles still gets zapped for covering up its past. So it was significant when, in October, the city unveiled David Alfaro Siqueiros’ 18-by-80 foot mural “América Tropical” 80 years to the day after it had first gone on view. The preserved artwork at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument is the end result of a long-in-the-works, $10 million partnership between the city and the Getty Conservation Institute. Not only is the once shocking artwork now open for all to see, but it includes a nearby “interpretive center” that offers information on the fiery artist and explains why he created the piece, and why it sparked an uproar and was subsequently whitewashed. In bringing back the mural, city and Getty officials have not only preserved the past, but have created another reason for locals and tourists to come to El Pueblo and Olvera Street. 

©Los Angeles Downtown News.