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Yaohan Plaza Gets New Owner, New Name

Retail: Developer plans to expand appeal of faltering Little Tokyo mall, which he bought for about $20 million.


Developer Richard Meruelo has purchased the former Yaohan Plaza in Little Tokyo and plans to turn the poorly performing shopping center around by broadening its mix of tenants to appeal to a wider audience of Asian consumers.

Meruelo acquired the 300,000-square-foot shopping center and adjacent five-level parking structure from a Japanese lender for less than $20 million last week. The downtown Los Angeles shopping center at Alameda and Third streets has been renamed Little Tokyo Square, said Meruelo, who has acquired several other downtown properties in recent years.

The three-story center opened in 1985 and became popular among Japanese American residents and Japanese visitors who patronized its Yaohan (now Mitsuwa) supermarket, Japanese restaurants, a two-screen movie theater and a bowling alley.

But customer traffic began to dwindle as Los Angeles fell into a recession in the early 1990s and the riots of 1992 scared off many visitors to downtown Los Angeles. Japan's economic problems also have cut the flow of once big-spending Japanese tourists into Little Tokyo and the mall.

The center is currently 35% vacant but "we believe will able to fill it in the next 12 months," Meruelo said. "I think it will still have a strong Japanese focus but will be broadened somewhat to include some other Asian groups."

Little Tokyo Square also could appeal to residents of loft-style apartments now under construction or in planning stages nearby, said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. The center is also close to the new home of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, which plans to renovate a former freight depot further east on Third Street.

"There are a lot of people who live in the lofts, and they would obviously be a good market," Kyser said. "That whole area is definitely in a state of flux."

Developer Al Taira, who sold Yaohan Plaza a few years after opening it in 1985, said an important draw in the center's early years were the movie theaters and a combined bowling alley and Japanese restaurant, both of which were closed several years ago. The combination attracted large numbers of visitors, including a broad mix of downtown workers, in the evenings and on weekends, he said.

"Hopefully it will get a similar concept to bring people back," Taira said. "They brought in a tremendous amount of people."

Meruelo also owns the Seventh Street Produce Market, the Alameda Produce Market and other properties. Meruelo said he plans to attract more retail outlets to the buildings as well as apparel makers and other small wholesalers.

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