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22 blocks slated for hip surgery

City officials hope to bring gentrification to the Washington Boulevard area south of Staples Center. But some residents remain skeptical.

January 11, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

City officials and developers are testing the reach of downtown L.A.'s development boom with a massive push to bring the mixed-use concept to Washington Boulevard -- a good two miles south of downtown.

The Community Redevelopment Agency sees a 22-block area along the boulevard -- now lined with older storefronts and industrial buildings -- as ripe for conversion into several large projects that mix housing with retail and commercial space.

Planners hope the buzz from Staples Center, the huge L.A. Live entertainment and hotel complex and the influx of luxury high-rise developments on the south side of downtown will spark a new gentrification of the Washington Boulevard corridor.

With its sagging storefronts and low-slung buildings, the area feels a long way from the newly hip downtown. But on the other side of the 10 Freeway, Staples Center has become a catalyst for residential and commercial development that is within walking distance of Washington.

"It's where the aspirations of South Los Angeles meet the opportunity of downtown Los Angeles," said Cecelia Estolano, chief executive of the CRA.

But some business owners and community activists are wary. Although the corridor has relatively few residences, some activists worry that a southward gentrification from downtown would result in working-class residents being forced out. Some people who live off Figueroa Street between Staples Center and USC have already felt the pinch.

"These activities, which are so favoring the upper-income brackets, make the work of the affordable housing developer all the more difficult," said Nancy Halperin Ibrahim, executive director of Esperanza Housing Corp., which has several buildings nearby. "It could put the real estate market out of reach."

The Washington Boulevard area is a mix of industrial buildings, mini-marts, fast-food restaurants, gas stations and parking lots, coupled with institutions such as L.A. Trade Tech, L.A. County Traffic Court and the new Santee Learning Complex.

The Blue Line light rail runs down the streets, giving the area a decidedly urban feel.

Business owners are skeptical that the area can ever go upscale, noting that the strip draws a largely transitory clientele, commuters traveling between jobs downtown and neighborhoods to the south.

"I've been here seven years, and it never gets better," said Francisco Ozaeta, who runs the L.A. Greens Nutrition Center out of a storefront on Broadway, just north of Washington, in the proposed redevelopment zone.

Ozaeta said that as factories and other businesses in the area have closed or been converted to other uses, fewer people come into his store. To make matters worse, he said, the city has eliminated meter parking in the area and painted the curb in front of his store red.

So those who do enter, he said, often have only pennies to spend in a few seconds before their bus or train arrives.

In the last two years, Ozaeta said, business has fallen by 40%. And his landlord is raising the rent, from $1,000 to $1,250 a month. He said he's considering giving up the business.

Despite such doubts, city officials are bullish on the area.

"Forward-thinking developers will see Washington Boulevard as the opportunity to remove the ... barrier created by the 10 Freeway," Councilwoman Jan Perry said in announcing the plan Wednesday at a meeting attended by several downtown development groups, among others.

The CRA does not have specific development plans but hopes to attract builders willing to create large-scale, mixed-use projects on certain streets. The project would replace parking lots, mini-marts and some industrial buildings, and officials believe at least some of the housing could cater to lower-income residents.

City officials say they see possibility in the heft of the city blocks -- each four to five acres -- and in the fact that there are a relatively small number of property owners per potential redevelopment parcel.

They are hoping to attract at least one big-box retailer and create what the CRA described as "a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use district that builds on the existing light-rail stations along Washington Boulevard."

Such a development could be used not just by nearby residents and commuters but by USC students as well, backers say.

Estolano said that while the city does not own any of the properties, approximately 85 property owners in the area have already expressed interest in being part of the redevelopment.

The Washington Boulevard effort underscores how downtown's boom is spreading out -- to the west across the 110 Freeway, and north into Chinatown as well as Little Tokyo.

"This is exactly what we said would happen if we were able to bring life back to the core," said Carol Schatz of the Central City Assn. "That as we did that, then we would see the economic benefits to that turnaround in every adjacent neighborhood. That would not have happened were it not for the renaissance that we created."



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