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Mid-City getting a boost

A $70-million mall is another indication that the Pico-San Vicente area, once mired in economic decay, is resurgent.

September 12, 2007|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

Back in the days when Los Angeles had streetcars, the crossing of Pico and San Vicente boulevards in Mid-City was a hub of activity.

The streets were lined with shops, restaurants and movie theaters. A hilltop Sears department store drew customers from far and wide, some taking the Pico line of the Los Angeles Railway Co. trolley car system.

Then came the Watts riots in 1965, followed by years of economic decay and the 1992 riots. Crime rose, storefronts shuttered and the landmark Sears closed its doors.

But Mid-City is now in the midst of a revival, part of a wave of gentrification that has swept over many of L.A.'s once-neglected neighborhoods. The boarded-up Sears, for years a symbol of decay, is being replaced by a 500,000-square-foot mall, anchored by a Lowe's home improvement store.

The area, a mix of ethnic groups and neighborhoods that range from mansion-lined streets to rows of low-rent apartments, is benefiting from economic forces on its borders. People who can no longer afford the high prices of neighboring communities have moved in. It helps that Mid-City, as its name implies, is not far from downtown, Hollywood and the Westside. And development is following.

"This is one of the great untapped neighborhoods," said Samuel Garrison, director of public policy at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

The gentrification has been embraced by some -- but not all -- Mid-City residents.

Barbara Julian, who has lived in a house one block south of Washington Boulevard on Dunsmuir Avenue for more than four decades, said she has to drive miles for shopping -- to Beverly Center or Culver City.

"The area has been a blighted area for quite a while," she said.

Julian, 71, said she hoped the new mall would bring a new sense of vitality to the area.

But Carlos E. Rodriguez, owner of El Salvadoran pupuseria Con Sabor that opened nearby 10 years ago, said new brand-name stores, such as Panda Express, will hurt small businesses like his. Developers "never come in with small, local businesses; they come in with brand franchises," Rodriguez said.

Experts say Mid-City's history and demographic shifts are emblematic of many low- and middle-income neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles. The rise in home values in neighborhoods such as Hancock Park, the Fairfax district and Miracle Mile have young professionals and first-time homeowners giving Mid-City a new look.

A single-family home in the area sells for an average of $559,000 -- nearly four times more than in 2000, but about $300,000 less than in Olympic Park, according to John Karevoll of the real estate research firm DataQuick Information Systems.

Despite the influx of new homeowners, Mid-City remains a largely working-class area.

Nearly a quarter of its residents were living in poverty, according to the 2000 Census, a bit more than twice the nationwide rate of 12.4%. And according to the same census, slightly more than half of Mid-City residents 16 and older had jobs -- more than 5% less than the rest of Los Angeles and about 9% less than the national average.

The developers of Midtown Crossing, set on 10 acres, are not looking to attract exclusively upscale clientele. CIM Group Inc., the company funding the project, has a history of targeting emerging areas that the developers say don't have enough retail establishments.

The mission "is to be a catalyst for change in communities that have been underserved," said Philip Friedl, a CIM vice president. "This area, this community, this project, and this site really presented the opportunity to do that."

Detailed drawings of Midtown Crossing show a style similar to the much larger and more upscale Grove, a popular outdoor shopping mall a few miles away on 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue. Midtown Crossing would have tree-lined sidewalks, brand-name but not super high-end retailers surrounding a parking area. The developers won't confirm tenants because negotiations are not final, but stores that might open include Best Buy.

In the 1920s and '30s, Mid-City was a suburb of downtown Los Angeles -- "very dynamic, it was changing all the time," said Matthew Roth, a historian with the Automobile Club of Southern California. Some developers at the time tried new architectural plans in the neighborhood, including an innovative rooftop parking lot at the Sears store, Roth said.

It helped that at Pico and Rimpau boulevards, a key Los Angeles Railway line had its western terminus, with a depot next to the Sears that is now a transit center for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Big Blue Bus line.

Until the August 1965 riots, Mid-City and the neighboring Crenshaw district thrived, said Christopher West, history curator at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. But Mid-City struggled for the last 40 years, taking a second hard hit when riots again rocked the city in 1992.

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