HOLLYWOOD – “Everything Old Is New Again” could be the theme song for cities such as San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, even Cleveland, where once-musty downtown areas have been transformed into thriving commercial and entertainment districts.
Now it’s time for Los Angeles to join the chorus. With the advent of the much hyped Staples Center arena opening, as well as the pending Disney Concert Hall, the city’s center seems poised for a cultural resurrection akin to those experienced by its metropolitan counterparts.
Still unanswered, however, are economic questions about how Los Angeles will sustain and broaden its efforts in order to kindle a downtown renaissance. In other words, the area’s comeback has been touted for years, without much to show for it. At the forefront of current Los Angeles revitalization efforts is local preservation organization the Los Angeles Conservancy. Perhaps best known for hosting historic walking tours and its summertime screenings of vintage films in the city’s surviving movie palaces, the group recently translated its outreach efforts into advocacy and action. Their mission? To preserve downtown Los Angeles’ Broadway Historic Theatre District and stimulate the rebirth of a forgotten city.
While the western portion of downtown was covered over with glassy office high-rises in the 1970s, Broadway’s early architecture remains intact, almost frozen in time.
“If we fail to act now,” says Ken Bernstein, conservancy director of preservation issues, “in a decade or two we’re going to end up standing in front of a bulldozer at the 11th hour to preserve these buildings. It’s far better to ensure the economic vitality of this district for the long term.”
The 13 former movie palaces that line Broadway are ripe for renovation, with most of these edifices serving as neglected artifacts of a bygone era. Once L.A.’s entertainment and retail hub, the Broadway district spans north-south from 3rd to 9th streets, and east-west from Broadway to Main Street. Within this core lies the Spring Street Historical District, dotted with classic beaux art buildings, which was formerly the West Coast’s financial portal and is now home to a burgeoning group of Internet and telecom companies.
It’s Bernstein’s conviction that the quality of the area’s remaining architecture, as well as its historical resonance, make Broadway a perfect backdrop for a “diverse and cosmopolitan multi-use entertainment district.”
To accomplish this daunting task, the conservancy launched a four-year action plan and forged partnerships with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, the Historic Core Business Improvement District (a consortium of local property owners) and the Central City Assn. The conservancy also is pursuing major investments in the area by entertainment companies.
So far, renovation is complete on the Million Dollar Theater, which currently operates as a Hispanic vaudeville outlet. In addition, plans are in place for the restoration of the Orpheum, currently leased by movie theater chain Metropolitan Theaters. The contract ends this year and the owner is converting the venue to spotlight live performances.
The sale of the Palace theater to developer Tom Gilmore remains in escrow. If the sale is completed, Gilmore plans to convert the former movie palace into a venue for live entertainment, such as was done with the Wiltern Theatre on Wilshire and Western boulevards.
Still in danger of demolition, however, are the Cameo and Roxie theaters, as well as the adjacent Arcade Building, which its owners are proposing to gut and raze. The conservancy has proposed that all three structures be renovated into a cinema multiplex and shopping mall.
Kenneth Aslan, exec director of the Historic Core Business Improvement District, also supports converting these buildings into a multiplex; Bunker Hill has the sole multiscreen house downtown. He says the mix of live-entertainment venues with a multiple-screen cinema “will tie the community together in a way L.A. hasn’t seen in a long time.”
Events at the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers basketball and Kings hockey teams, and the Disney Concert Hall, which by 2002 will host the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will lure thousands of people an evening to downtown. But, in order for this influx to have any tangible effect, people have to stick around, whether they’re dining, dancing or drinking. (With the exception of the Mayan and Stock Exchange dance clubs, as well as the venerable Al’s Bar, there isn’t really much to do downtown after dark. ) Aslan and Bernstein both point out that one of the keys to resurrecting downtown will be in encouraging people to visit, as well as live and work there.
Developer Gilmore recently purchased three former office buildings between Spring and Main, which he named the Old Bank District, with the intention of renovating the abandoned sites into loft apartments. Gilmore also has purchased the 123-year-old St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, which is two blocks away from his housing project, as the centerpiece of an educational, housing and cultural complex.
“Everything is clicking at the same time,” says Aslan, citing the city’s Adaptive Reuse, Live/Work Ordinance and additional incentives in place to encourage downtown development. The ordinance allows the private use of historic and pre-1974 structures in historic areas, as well as conditional-use commercial permits and the reduction of fees incurred while converting the use of a historic building.
“In Europe,” Aslan continues, “adaptive reuse is a part of life. Here we have these 50- or 60-year-old buildings, and we don’t know what do with them.”
In addition, downtown is located smack dab in the middle of a Federal Empowerment Zone, which means a business locating there in the next five years will receive myriad tax incentives. Among these credits are: an employee federal tax credit of 20% of an eligible employee’s salary and the Los Angeles Business Tax Freeze, which allows businesses to cap their city tax bill at 1998 levels for five years. Also, community development bank financing is available to fund projects in the zone “that create jobs, provide goods and services or eliminate blight.”
Aslan notes that an important factor to attracting businesses downtown is, ironically, the amenity of the future — fast Internet access. Underneath the city’s streets lie fiber-optic wiring that create a high-speed connectivity corridor to carry voice and data. High-tech firms want to be close to this downtown hub, as the fiber strands can simultaneously handle millions of calls and high volumes of information.
Cherryl Wilson, who for 18 years has managed a former bank building at 548 Spring St., can attest to the benefits of going wired.
“The building was built in 1913,” she says. “I had it wired with high-speed Internet access, and moved an (Internet service provider) to the top floor, which manages the connectivity.” Wilson gambled that, as in San Francisco and Cleveland, people involved in multimedia are also interested in “historic, funky architecture.”
Now 80% occupied, the building, she says, is jammed with creative, Bohemian, high-tech types, from the LatinoLA.com team to ISP Snapdragon and design firm PyschoGraphic. Wilson says the businesses also take advantage of the financial incentives of locating to the historic core.
Equally crucial is downtown’s proximity to the rest of Los Angeles, its freeway accessibility and its public transportation lines. (However, the last train leaves downtown at 10:56 p.m., so overtime games could put a squeeze on those using the Metro lines to and from the Staples Center.)
“It’s worked beyond my wildest expectations,” says Wilson, who’s long been involved with the downtown preservation efforts. “I positioned the building to attract young startup new-technology companies that were too big to be in someone’s garage, but not rich enough to afford Santa Monica or Burbank.”
One such company lured downtown was independent animation house Zoom Cartoons, who set up shop this summer in the new Los Angeles Center Studios, the entertainment campus that encompasses 3-1/2 blocks and the former Unocal building.
“When you’re an indie animation company, you have a choice of either locating in the animation ghetto in Burbank and Glendale, or in Canada,” says Susan Deming Bernstein, Zoom’s president and exec producer. “Being downtown sets us apart.” She adds that she and her co-workers take advantage of the nearby cultural center, attending events and exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Colburn School of the Performing Arts.
“Pershing Square and One California Plaza also host jazz in the afternoons, as well as late-evening kinds of things,” she says. “It’s like being in New York City.”