DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Every so often there are hints that Chinatown is poised to enjoy some of the momentum that the rest of Downtown Los Angeles has seen over the past decade. However, something usually goes wrong. Although the community continues to be a destination for diners and people looking for an occasional night out, in terms of development and investment, it lags severely behind the rest of the Central City.

    Now, however, there are indicators that the community really is on the verge of an upswing, one that could both pay heed to Chinatown’s rich history and culture, and lead to a bright, diverse future. A flurry of projects could bring cranes and construction jobs, followed by permanent positions.

    This is the time that Chinatown, its business leaders and its local elected officials need to work together to ensure that the momentum is captured. One can’t expect similar chances to keep occurring, especially when the national economy remains soft.

    Right now, there are no less than four major housing and mixed-use projects on the table in the area, along with a couple recreational efforts. Two developments in particular, Chinatown Gateway and Blossom Plaza, are poised to add vitality to the region, for both residents and visitors.

    Chinatown Gateway, which broke ground this spring, was first broached several years ago, only to be delayed by the recession. Now, the development by Equity Residential could change the look and utility of the community’s southern border. The 325,000-square-foot complex at 639-643 N. Broadway, at Cesar Chavez Avenue, will bring 280 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail. It will also hold nearly 600 parking spaces. Interestingly, it will have 17-foot-wide sidewalks, meaning there will be an opportunity for people to park at the project and then easily stroll into the heart of the neighborhood.

    This would be the first transformation of a large, dead plot of land into something that contributes to the evolution of the neighborhood and creates better connectivity to the Downtown core. However, it is not the most important dilapidated property in Chinatown. That designation belongs to Blossom Plaza, as the project on the site of the defunct Little Joe’s restaurant is known. This will prove to be the community’s greatest challenge, and the one that could lead to its biggest rewards.

    The project generated intense interest about five years ago when developer Larry Bond sought to raze the eyesore restaurant (it’s been closed and fenced off for more than a decade) and then erect two towers with 262 housing units. Again, the economy proved the culprit, and Bond lost the land through foreclosure.

    The Community Redevelopment Agency and the office of First District City Councilman Ed Reyes then did a few key things. The city acquired the property on Broadway between College and Spring streets and conducted a public bidding process for a developer. Recently, the CRA selected Forest City Residential Group as the firm it will recommend to the City Council. This is an inspired choice, as Forest City has a solid record of accomplishment both nationally and in Downtown. Its work opening projects such as the Met Lofts in South Park and Metro 417, near Pershing Square, shows experience in making big things happen in Los Angeles.

    Blossom Plaza is important not only for the housing, but also because of the community amenities and the connection it would create with the Chinatown Gold Line station. Currently the tie is terrible, as disembarking light rail passengers have to go down several levels of steps or escalators, then walk up a dingy College Street, to reach Chinatown’s center of commerce. A flat, attractive and easily navigable stretch would increase interactivity and give people another reason to leave the car at home and take mass transit to Chinatown.

    The City Council should move quickly on the project, and should recognize that Blossom Plaza could be a catalyst for further development in Chinatown. Some financial details need to be ironed out, but a failure to make this happen would be a setback for the neighborhood and could destroy its fragile momentum.

    Blossom Plaza and Chinatown Gateway would come into play as several smaller projects unfold in the area. The $24 million affordable housing development known as Lotus Garden will deliver 60 apartments at 715 Yale St. Meanwhile, the 123-unit Chinatown Metro Apartments at 808 N. Main St., not far from the Gold Line station, is also a possibility, though it has been mired in the fundraising stage for years. Perhaps action on Blossom Plaza would give confidence to lenders and help propel it forward.

    These developments hint at the future of Chinatown. Another hint came in the recent Chinatown Summer Nights celebrations. The two Saturday evening events orchestrated by the Chinatown Business Improvement District had the area filled with families and others ready to hit food trucks, watch martial arts and cooking demonstrations and dance under the stars. The activity proved that, given the right attractions, people will come to the neighborhood.

    This is something worth remembering. Chinatown has attractions that are unrivalled in the region. Still, the opportunities and the community must be maximized. Blossom Plaza and other projects are ways to do just that, and to ensure that Chinatown is a destination for decades to come.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2011