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Chinatown Awaits Gold Rush

With a new light-rail line bringing in more visitors, merchants and community leaders are making plans to return the area to its glory days.

August 22, 2003|Elizabeth Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Making a run for dim sum is easier now, but will that be enough to turn Chinatown's fortunes around?

Hopes for the district's revival are riding on the rails of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Gold Line, which travels 14 miles from downtown Pasadena to Los Angeles' Union Station, with a stop at the Chinatown Station at Spring and College streets.

Since trains started running July 26, Chinatown merchants say, business has picked up. The newfound access to the district's 400 or so retailers, and its nearly 100 eateries, has attracted people such as Jerri Potras, an administrator at Los Angeles City College, which is near a Red Line station at Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

When Potras took the train over for lunch at Foo-Chow on a recent Friday, it had been more than a decade since her last visit. And she wondered what had happened to the Chinatown she remembered.

"It wasn't nearly as busy and active as it had been before," she said. "I really hope the Gold Line can bring people back in."

A glamorous nightspot during its mid-century heyday, the 303-acre neighborhood near Dodger Stadium has seen booms and busts since, and more of the latter. Merchants say problematic parking is a chief culprit.

Now, the new light-rail line is giving Chinatown "a wonderful excuse to pull itself together," said Michael Woo, a former Los Angeles city councilman who served as a consultant for the MTA. "The test is whether Chinatown can keep building the momentum."

There are big plans. Director Quentin Tarantino is in talks to purchase the vacant King Hing theater. The renovation of the Tin Hau Buddhist temple is slated for completion by Chinese New Year in January. Steve Riboli, owner of the San Antonio Winery just north of Chinatown, is pushing for- ward a proposal to convert the Capitol Mills site, once a grain mill and silo, into lofts and artists' space.

One Los Angeles developer, sources say, is thinking about erecting a residential-retail complex -- including a parking lot -- near the light-rail station, on a site that once housed Little Joe's Restaurant. And several national retailers have inquired about bringing their shops to Chinatown.

Community leaders figure that if the Gold Line keeps bringing people in, plans are more likely to get off the drawing board.

The early returns are positive. At Ocean Seafood Restaurant on Hill Street, Gold Line riders are beginning to fill the gaps created in the dining room by diners' fear of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a virus first reported in China that made some Angelenos wary of Asian neighborhoods.

"The train has helped us out a lot," manager Linda Chen said.

Luong Wong, who owns Hing-Fat Co., a grocery specializing in traditional Chinese remedies, said he was encouraged by the prospect of more foot traffic, especially after 4 p.m. During the day, locals meander into Wong's store on North Broadway to scan the collection of pills, extracts and lotions that he keeps behind the counter, or to browse the products arranged neatly in the aisles, which range from blue-lidded canisters of Horlick's "nourishing food drink" to bins of angelica root sold for $22.99 a pound.

At night, however, Chinatown "is like a ghost town" compared with its glory days, said Kenneth Lee, whose family has owned the Jade Tree gift and antique store since 1947.

Then, in the evenings, neon lights and hanging lanterns drew crowds searching for something exotic to the Hong Kong Cafe and Madame Wong's, or to the romantic piano bar at General Lee's, a favorite of Hollywood celebrities.

Back then, Chinatown bustled until the wee hours of morning, Lee said. Now the Jade Tree closes at 5 p.m. sharp.

"Without parking, you are without business," he said. "If Chinatown had parking like Beverly Hills, Santa Monica or Old Town, where they give people two hours of free parking, it would go back to how it was in the '50s and '60s."

As they look ahead, community leaders say they're certain the blocks around the Chinatown Station won't suffer the fate of some of the neighborhoods on the MTA's Blue Line, which has linked Long Beach and Los Angeles for 13 years. That line didn't do much for working-class communities such as Florence and southern Los Angeles; the more than 70,000 people who ride trains on the route each day simply pass through, taking their dollars with them.

"With the Blue Line, the impact is not as big as had been hoped, in part because there is not the same development around the stations" as there is around Gold Line stations, said Raphael Bostic, an associate professor of policy, planning and development at USC. "There is very little there that would draw people in."

Even as it is, Chinatown boosters say, their district is a draw.

"When people come here they are amazed," said George Yu, executive director of the Chinatown Business Council. "The architecture, the fragrances, the sounds -- these are all things you will not see in suburbia."

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