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Restoring Historic Olvera Street Area: Long, Slow Process : Political Bickering, Indifference, Money Problems Work Against Plan

September 02, 1985|RAY HEBERT | Times Urban Affairs Writer

Colorful and always bustling, red-tiled Olvera Street is Los Angeles' ver-sion of a typical Mexican marketplace. It draws more than 2 million people a year, making it one of Southern California's top tourist attractions.

Over the years it has become a thriving legend. It also is the most recognizable part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park--44 acres of parking lots and old buildings neglected through years of political bickering, indifference and lack of funds.

The park idea started in 1947 as part of an urban development proposal to restore the then-blighted area around Old Plaza Church, which was built in 1818.

There have been a dozen plans and studies, but the general idea always has been--as one plan put it--to establish "a permanent historical park . . . as a living memorial to the history and tradition of California life and environment . . . (and) to preserve and re-create the Old Pueblo of Los Angeles and the colorful life of the period."

Some Progress Made

Some progress has been made over the years toward making the park a reality.

The Old Plaza has been landscaped and paved with brick, and a kiosk has been built. The Roman Catholic archdiocese has put up a new church and support buildings across Main Street from the plaza. New parking lots, largely used during the daytime by Civic Center workers, have been laid out along Main Street north and south of the frequently altered Our Lady Queen of Angels Church--the Old Plaza Church.

These and other projects notwithstanding, many believe that El Pueblo Park exists in name only. Implementation of the park plans has been hampered over the years by bureaucratic conflict and inertia. Also, the rapid expansion of Chinatown nibbled away at the park's northern boundary.

It also has been difficult to achieve a consensus on various proposals among owners of property within the park. The list of owners includes the state, Los Angeles County, the city, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and private interests.

Signs of Movement

But now things may be changing. With the park's viability on the line, there are signs of real movement:

- The county is planning to cut loose a large part of the property it owns, currently used for employee surface parking, for construction of a 290-room Spanish renaissance-style hotel and a five-level parking garage for 550 cars. Situated between Hill Street and North Spring Street and bisected by Broadway, this site, which also includes some privately owned buildings, would be detached from the park's original 44 acres, reducing El Pueblo's size about 25%.

- As part of the same development, the county is negotiating for the restoration of five structures it owns between Main Street, across from the Old Plaza, and North Spring Street. These historic buildings, including the Plaza House built in 1883, would be converted into a commercial complex on New High Street, which would be closed off to provide a "street scene" atmosphere. Its character would depict Los Angeles between the turn of the century and the 1920s. This development, which would also include a parking garage, would remain within the park's boundaries.

- The city, which administers El Pueblo Park, has signed an agreement with a development firm, Old Los Angeles, for restoration of old buildings on the Pico-Garnier block located immediately south of the Old Plaza. Built between 1858 and 1905, this block contains the city's first hotel--the Pico House--and its first firehouse and theater. Old Los Angeles' plan calls for turning these buildings into a complex of restaurants, shops, offices and exhibit areas keyed to a turn-of-the-century atmosphere.

- The city also plans to seek a master lessee to redevelop, maintain and operate Olvera Street, the domain of more than 70 small merchants and businesses, ranging from tiny souvenir stalls to restaurants and other establishments taking in more than $100,000 a year. Plans call for the developer-lessee to do seismic and restoration work on eight buildings and to put up a 600-car parking garage that would more than double the number of parking spaces now available for Olvera Street.

Chinatown Encroachment

These actions are happening none too soon. Not long ago shops and other businesses catering to a booming Chinatown replaced a Mexican nightclub north of Sunset Boulevard and Macy Street, across from El Pueblo Park.

In 1980, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency gobbled up a chunk of the park by including it within the Chinatown Redevelopment Project's boundaries. The agency's action made that area eligible for Chinatown renewal funds and physically reduced El Pueblo Park's original 44 acres by 20%.

These reductions of the park, as well as the developmental changes it is undergoing, have raised questions about El Pueblo's purpose and stature now that it essentially has been reduced to nearly half the size originally planned.

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