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Reinventing Chinatown

Group seeks creation of a business improvement district as a way to help revive area's once-bustling atmosphere. But times have changed, and opinions are divided.

May 26, 2000|K. CONNIE KANG and ELISE GEE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Hotelier Peter Kwong Jr. remembered with nostalgia the bygone days when people flocked to Los Angeles' Chinatown to eat, play and shop, and businesses stayed open late into the night.

"The economy was robust, and there was a real sense of community then," said Kwong, whose family has been in Chinatown for three generations and owns Best Western Dragon Gate Inn on North Hill Street. When Kwong's grandfather, suffering from Alzheimer's, eluded his nurses and wandered off to bookstores and tea shops, storekeepers took care of him and made sure that the family knew where he was.

Now, a quarter-century later, Kwong bemoans perceptions of the business, cultural and spiritual capital of the region's Chinese Americans as a virtual ghost town after 6 p.m., and as a dangerous place, despite statistics indicating that it is one of the safest areas in the city.

Tour operators report that they rarely are asked to stop in Chinatown unless someone from Asia gets a craving for rice. Few downtown workers go there regularly for lunch, although Chinatown is a short, 25-cent DASH ride from the Civic Center, Bunker Hill and the business district.

The decline of Chinatown--coinciding with a dramatic rise of ethnic Chinese immigration in the 1970s and a population shift eastward to the San Gabriel Valley--bothers Kwong. But he and other Chinatown movers and shakers are more hopeful about the future of the place than they have been in years.

They believe they have the right plan to revitalize the 25-square-block district to draw visitors and suburbanites who have abandoned Chinatown for Monterey Park and Alhambra.

A proposal by the Los Angeles Chinatown Business Council, which is affiliated with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, to get the historic area declared a business improvement district has infused new energy, commitment and vision into the neighborhood that began as "new" Chinatown in 1938 after "old" Chinatown was razed to build Union Station.

Under the latest plan, property owners would tax themselves to get a cleaner, safer and more appealing Chinatown. They would pay special assessments ranging from $100 a year to $100,000--with most paying between $2,000 and $3,000--according to George Yu, coordinator for the business council. The all-volunteer council has been meeting weekly for the past year to get the plans rolling.

It is circulating bilingual petitions to Chinatown's 192 property owners, seeking their approval to raise $1.2 million a year to pay for sidewalk sweeping, graffiti removal, private security patrols, tree and shrubbery planting, and other measures to enhance Chinatown as a tourist destination and as a home for 13,500 residents.

If the petition drive is successful, the city will mail ballots to the property owners in June. They will have up to 60 days to return them. If a majority approve, the business improvement district for Chinatown will be created in January and last 10 years.

Though Kwong would pay $30,000 a year more in property taxes on his family's three hotels, he considers it an investment in the future of Chinatown and his family.

"This is our last chance," he said. "If we don't take control of our own destiny now, we will lose Chinatown."

But some of the old-timers in Chinatown aren't so sure that this is the best way to boost the area.

Kenneth Lee, whose family has operated the Jade Tree arts store on quaint Chung King Road since the 1940s, said all the improvement plans in the world won't help unless the city provides parking in Chinatown.

"What does the city do for us?" he asked. "Nothing."

He suggested that the city offer two-hour free parking, as places in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica do. His neighbors unanimously endorsed the suggestion.

Philip Young, who runs a family printing business at 977 N. Hill St., said he has mixed feelings about the project.

Explaining Goals

On the surface, a business improvement district seems like a good idea, he said, but it doesn't come anywhere near addressing all the issues in Chinatown because they are more complex than people realize.

Steve Wong, chairman of the Wong Family Assn.'s investment fund, opposes the plan. He doesn't see how his group could benefit by paying an extra $6,000 to $7,000 a year in taxes for three parcels the association owns, he said.

The plan's backers say they must do a better job of explaining their goals to gain support.

Some may be leery because of past failures, said Roland Soo Hoo, president of Los Angeles Chinatown Corp., which owns and manages the streets of Chinatown.

He wants to assure them that things are different this time because the project has the strength of people, money and connections behind it.

"These [investors] are high rollers," said Soo Hoo. "They have their investments to look after."

Los Angeles has 26 business improvement districts. The ones downtown and in Hollywood have received high marks.

Kwong said the success of Hollywood and the Fashion District persuaded him to support the project.

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