Neighborhood make over in full swing

“In cultural tourism, L.A. ranks at the bottom,” says downtown gadfly and neighborhood activist Brady Westwater. Westwater, who sees himself as the “curator” of downtown, envisions a constant stream of film festivals, comedy walks, fashion events and other cultural happenings keeping downtown sidewalks busy and populated.

Ostensibly the infrastructure will soon be in place to make this possible. With downtown’s population estimated to rise from 29,000 to as high as 60,000 by the end of next year, at least according to projections by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, residents eager for movies and smaller legit theaters in their neighborhood should keep the wheels of commerce churning.

The trick will be to convince Angelenos from other areas to get in the habit of getting their entertainment downtown, even when they’re not visiting Disney Concert Hall.

“During the week, we see people from nearby areas like Silver Lake and Koreatown,” says Cedd Moses, who developed hot downtown bars the Golden Gopher, the Broadway Bar and the new Seven Grand. “But on the weekends, we’re starting to see people from all over, especially from the Westside, which we didn’t expect. It’s easier to get to than Hollywood.”

The so-called downtown renaissance has been much ballyhooed for at least the past two decades. But the completion of the Staples Center in 1999 and the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 went a long way toward re-establishing downtown as an entertainment destination after many years of being a virtual after-hours ghost town.

Los Angeles Downtown News recently listed a whopping 171 projects that are reshaping the neighborhood. And with L.A. real estate prices approaching Manhattan levels, and bedroom communities spreading out to far-flung places like the Antelope Valley, Temecula and beyond, Downtown suddenly seems hip and accessible.

Of course, Angelenos have always ventured downtown for entertainment — the movie palaces along Broadway were as glam as anything in the 1920s, and the Music Center and then Disney Hall have kept the well-heeled coming downtown in the interim.

But the projected thousands of people moving into the area’s new lofts and apartments can’t afford $100 symphony tickets every night.

For now, the Laemmle Grande fourplex in the Marriott Hotel is the only movie theater regularly programming in the district. But that’s about to change, as investment balloons in area entertainment destinations.

First up is the ImaginAsian Center, skedded to debut in early fall. The single-screen cultural center is built on the site of the Linda Lea on South Main Street near Little Tokyo, which was once a popular venue for Japanese films.

ImaginAsian prexy Michael Huh says like the company’s New York complex, the theater will program films from throughout Asia, including India.

“We hope it will appeal to the crossover market,” he says. “Asians are spread throughout the county.”

While it remains to be seen whether patrons will want to come downtown from Koreatown, the San Gabriel Valley and other Asian centers, Huh says, “We’ve proven that there is a demand for that type of thing.” With 275 seats, the theater also will have a cafe and stage for performances. “It will be someplace to go not just to see a film but to hang out,” Huh promises.

Mainstream pics will be the focus at L.A. Live’s 14-screen Regal Cinema multiplex, targeted to open in late 2009 as part of a huge development that also includes restaurants, hotel/condo combo (plex will be across from the 1,001-room Ritz-Carlton/JW Marriott amalgam) and more.

Developed by Anschutz Entertainment Group, L.A. Live hopes to attract Hollywood premieres to the cinema’s 800-seat auditorium. L.A. Live will also incorporate two live venues, the 7,100-seat Nokia Theater, opening Nov. 1, and the 2,400-person-capacity Club Nokia.

Other live venues coming online in the area include the renovation of the Los Angeles Theater Center, which will house the Latino Theater Company; Main Street’s Regent Theater redo by downtown pioneer Tom Gilmore for live music, with a restaurant and bar; the 200-seat Thayer Hall, an intimate concert venue adjacent to MOCA that’s opening in October as part of the expansion of the Colburn performing arts school; and renovation of the 1,000-seat Variety Arts Center on Figueroa.

“In New York, legit theater is the top draw,” says Westwater, who hopes some of the film palaces along L.A.’s Broadway can be restored for music and live theater.

The State, the Palace, the Tower and the Los Angeles theaters, owned by Michael Delijani, are currently used for filming, live events and the Last Available Seats movie series. The Orpheum Theater has stepped up the number of premieres it hosts lately, including “Grindhouse,” as well as live acts like Lisa Gerrard.

“We are changing the street life,” says Westwater, who helped bring events for Fashion Week downtown.

Moses, for his part, envisions a music festival similar to Silver Lake’s popular Sunset Junction festival.

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