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A Vision for L.A.'s Broadway : Developer Ira Yellin Hopes to Tie Together the New Downtown

February 27, 1989|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

From atop his ornate Million Dollar Building at 3rd and Broadway, Ira E. Yellin surveys the patchwork that makes up downtown Los Angeles and dreams of ways to tie the diverse pieces together with Broadway as the centerpiece.

To the west rise the gleaming office and residential towers of Bunker Hill. To the east lie Little Tokyo and the site of the new state office building. To the north are the Civic Center and Chinatown, and to the south, the city's core of financial institutions, law firms and office buildings.

In the center rests Yellin's own historic pocket--Grand Central Market, the Million Dollar Building and the soon-to-be-purchased landmark Bradbury Building--on the bustling block of Broadway between 3rd and 4th streets that is a shopping and entertainment mecca for Latinos.

By the end of March, when the Bradbury deal is expected to close, Yellin and his team will have invested more than $21 million in buildings, land and initial improvements to the market's colorful food stalls. Over the next few years, the group intends to invest as much as $23 million more to restore these inner-city gems, now mostly empty, as office and retail space.

With the payoff years away at best, Yellin recognizes that Grand Central Square, as the project is known, is a big gamble that hinges on patient investors, painstaking restoration, expensive modernization and success at negotiating a maze of bureaucratic systems.

But he feels passionately about the need to revitalize the area and optimistic about adapting historic buildings to modern needs.

"I see Broadway as buildings being brought back to life, with full economic benefit for the owners, the merchants and the city," Yellin said in a recent interview. "I don't want it to be (just) L.A.'s quaint piece of history."

A diminutive man with curly brown hair and keen, gray-blue eyes, Yellin was born in 1940 outside Boston to parents whose families had immigrated from what is now Poland. His father and maternal grandfather were both Orthodox rabbis, and he was reared in strict Jewish tradition.

In 1948, the family moved to California, and Yellin grew up in Santa Monica, Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys. He recalls visiting downtown Los Angeles in the early 1950s and has vivid memories of Grand Central Market, the Alexandria Hotel on Spring Street and Angel's Flight, the erstwhile hillside people mover. "Broadway," he recalled, "was booming and alive, if old. It had the feel of a city."

Even then, Yellin, who considers himself a "frustrated architect," often could be found "doodling and drawing pictures of buildings."

His family placed great emphasis on learning a profession, so Yellin headed east to study at Princeton and then Harvard Law School before going to UC Berkeley for a master of laws degree.

From 1967 until 1975, he was a lawyer at a Beverly Hills firm, then moved to the Hapsmith Co., a Beverly Hills real estate development and management company whose president is Fred Nicholas, now chairman of the building committee of Disney Hall, the new Music Center expansion project. During the next 10 years, under Nicholas' tutelage, he grew less interested in law and more in land development.

In 1985, he opened his own real estate firm, Yellin Co., and began negotiating with the owner of Grand Central Market, Beach D. (Cub) Lyon Jr. Lyon initially laughed off the idea but after months of talks accepted the $6-million bid of Yellin and his partners. Yellin retained Lyon's son, Tracy, as general manager of the market and gave him a portion of his own 15% stake.

Sporty Car

Yellin drives a sporty, racing green, 1966 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL that he bought 20 years ago for $4,750 and works out of offices on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, with a clear view east toward downtown. With his wife, Adele, and two teen-age children, Jessica and Seth, he lives in a home in Santa Monica Canyon.

He has earned warm regard from friends and associates, who praise his calm, thoughtful approach to business. They say he tempers a strong profit motive with a sense of aesthetics.

When Marc B. Nathanson, Yellin's best friend and the president of Falcon Cable TV in Westwood, celebrated his 40th birthday, Yellin enlivened the festivities by "kidnaping" Nathanson and driving him around Beverly Hills in the back of a pickup truck. The party progressed to Yellin's home, which he had turned into a wild animal park dotted with large, stuffed animals. All the guests spent the night in tents.

"We actually camped out and even went rappelling off his roof," Nathanson said. "That's the kind of friend he is."

Nathanson said Yellin also used to participate with friends in a study group that met monthly for long philosophical discussions and readings of their own poetry. Yellin was a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the fledgling Dance Gallery and is on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Theater Center.

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