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Merchants, City Hope to Revive Prosperous Past of Olvera Street : Business: A newly appointed commission begins work on reversing the decline of the Downtown historical landmark.

August 14, 1994|TOMMY LI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vivien Bonzo and other Olvera Street merchants have waited more than two years to bring new life to the city's birthplace.

Now they have that chance. After a long delay, a commission has been appointed to oversee the historic El Pueblo de Los Angeles.

"We don't want to turn it into a Universal Studios," said Bonzo, president of the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. "We want it to be real. We want to promote the (historical) qualities that are inherent here."

The 18-year owner of La Golondrina restaurant plans to go over a five-page wish list with the new El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority Department.

Her concerns and those of the 76 other Olvera Street merchants have piled up because it has taken more than two years for the mayor's office to make appointments to the commission, which will take over operation, management and maintenance at El Pueblo from the city's Department of Parks and Recreation.

Five of the seven commissioners were confirmed by the City Council Tuesday, while the remaining two are scheduled to appear before the council by the end of the month.

"What I want to do is quickly start meeting with the merchants," said Lydia Lopez, speaking for the commission. "There's a lot of sorting out to do."

Merchants and commissioners agree that the fledgling commission will have much to learn in the next few months about the two-block Downtown area where 11 families founded Los Angeles in 1781. The El Pueblo Authority will also need to understand the history and political squabbles behind the Mexican-flavored marketplace known as Olvera Street and the vacant undeveloped landmarks at the south end of the monument, such as the Pico Hotel and the Garnier Building.

Commissioners and merchants alike say they want to see a detailed plan for the historic park and to develop ways to promote El Pueblo as a multicultural center highlighting the history of its Mexican, European, Asian and African American settlers.

But some sticking points will have to be smoothed over once the commission takes over operations.

A key issue is that of the Pico and Garnier buildings south of the park, Bonzo and other merchants said. The Pico Hotel was built by Don Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. The first three-story building in Los Angeles, it opened for business on June 9, 1870. At the two-story Garnier building, Chinese businesses set up shop and Chinese community groups formed in the mid- to late 1800s.

Bonzo has been opposed to any major commercial or office development in that area. Instead, she prefers to renovate the historic buildings as cultural centers or museums.

But Peter Martinez, president of another merchants group, Business Leadership of Olvera Street, wants to draw the business crowd by turning some of those buildings into office space and by offering a variety of non-Mexican-style restaurants.

"You've got to stay competitive with the other theme parks around Southern California," said the owner of Margarita's Gift Shop and Lozen's Trading Post. "It's like Universal CityWalk, where you've got Tony Roma's and all sorts of selection of foods."

"Olvera Street has its own character. . . . You're (still) going to draw people to the area," he said. "I'd rather have those buildings be occupied than empty."

Most of the commissioners polled about this issue said they need more time to listen to both sides. But some did agree to try to find ways to merge commercial and historical interests, if possible, to create a more attractive El Pueblo.

Though the two merchant leaders disagree on development, both have claimed that the monument has suffered from mismanagement and neglect by the parks department.

Martinez, however, has gone so far as to ask for the removal of El Pueblo director Anthony Gonzales.

"The first point (commissioners) should address, if anything, is to either remove or transfer some of the staff we have right now," he said. Gonzales "hasn't cared in three years. He's not going to care now."

The merchant and his wife, Emily Martinez, say the streets are dirty and Olvera Street maintenance staff are lax about picking up trash. The couple also questioned the nearly $1.6 million Gonzales budgeted this year for staff salaries and benefits--more than half the total 1994-95 budget of $2.4 million.

Gonzales said the 45 full-time and 20 to 25 part-time staff are doing the best job they can with the resources they have. The staff includes attendants at five parking lots, and clerical and maintenance workers.

"I'm the landlord and they're the tenant," he said. "It's how the person views the cup, half-empty or half-full."

Gonzales intends to provide all the information that commissioners may request about budget or staff supervision. "Based on the information, they will make the decisions," he said.

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