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Housing Plans Nourish Dream for Downtown

South Park: Some hope proposed 2,600-unit development will help revitalize the area.


From the 32nd-floor restaurant atop the Transamerica Center, the city blocks below look gritty and empty. But interspersed among the abandoned warehouses, boarded-up shops and litter-strewn alleys are the Palm restaurant, affordable housing, new lofts starting at $300,000 and other pockets of revitalization.

This neighborhood, part of an area known as South Park, has been in the news most prominently as the proposed site of a football stadium. However, since billionaire Philip Anschutz and his allies abandoned their stadium dreams, another developer has proposed building 2,600 residences there.

Among the people who live, work or go to school in the area--bounded roughly by 8th Street on the north, the Santa Monica Freeway on the south, Figueroa Street on the west and Main Street on the east--the response is as varied as the blocks themselves.

Yasmine Hickman, who finished her first year at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in South Park, said she would never live in the area. "There's not really anything to do here," she said.

The 19-year-old Torrance resident said classmates from the East Coast, expecting sunny, star-studded Los Angeles, were sorely disappointed with their nearby student housing.

And there's the safety factor. During the day, Hickman said, she feels comfortable. "But when I took night classes, I was scared to walk to my car."

But others say the area has become much safer in recent years, especially since Staples Center opened. "A long time ago, this was a really, really dangerous place," said Yong Hwang, residential manager at the Hope Village development. "It is upgrading. It's not dangerous like before."

She welcomes the proposed residential development, saying it will help bring new energy to the area. As for whether people will live there, she says Hope Village is incontrovertible proof.

The building provides housing to 66 tenants. When it opened in April 2001, 3,000 people applied for apartments. A three-bedroom unit rents for about $750 a month, and there is a waiting list to move in.

Hwang said the keys to creating a vibrant residential hub are a grocery store, which is in the works, and parking.

Ray Misa has lived at the Morrison Hotel, where the Doors shot the cover photo for their 1970 album of the same name, for three years. More resident-serving businesses are sorely needed, he agreed.

Withing walking distance, there is little that you would find in a normal residential neighborhood save a Bank of America and a Texaco gas station. Aside from Hope Village, a handful of wholesalers, the rundown Morrison Hotel and a "hostess-dancing" club, much of the area is covered with abandoned warehouses, boarded-up stores and empty parking lots that are full only during Staples events.

Most businesses in the area are clustered near Staples and the Transamerica Center. Near the sports and concert arena, there are the new lofts that start at $300,000 and the pricey Palm steakhouse. Serving the people who work in the skyscraper, there's a dry cleaner, a travel agency, a taco stand, a burger joint and a Windows restaurant--another upscale steakhouse that offers a stunning view of the city.

Civic leaders say these scattered properties could herald the start of a renaissance, similar to the transformation that took place in and around downtown San Diego's Gaslamp District.

"This is an area in transition. That's the good news," said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., downtown's leading business advocacy group. "The fact that it's moving in the direction of greater investment opportunities and rising property values is extremely important. We need that."

The organization hasn't taken a position on the proposed housing development yet, but Schatz said housing for different income levels is key to helping lure large companies into downtown.

Jaime Ortiz, who works at Joe's Liquor, said an infusion of new residents would bring new customers into the store, which is guarded by a rusty metal security fence.

"It's a great idea," he said. But he's skeptical that the proposal will become reality.

Officials with Forest City Inc., the developer, have stressed that their proposal is preliminary. The housing, both market-rate and affordable, would be built on land stretching from Olympic Boulevard to Pico Boulevard and from Flower Street to Hill Street.

This area, which includes the 16 acres where Anschutz wanted to build the stadium, is part of an 879-acre redevelopment zone created by the Los Angeles City Council in May. The special district was set up to allow the Community Redevelopment Agency to funnel new property tax funds back into the area, to condemn and acquire land, and to relocate residents and businesses.

The proposed development would help meet one of the agency's primary goals: creating as many as 12,900 homes, one-quarter of which would be deemed affordable, over the next 30 to 45 years.

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