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Magic in the air?

Restoring the glitter to Broadway will take more than City Hall hocus-pocus.

January 30, 2008

They call New York's Broadway the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, but it has nothing on the street of the same name that runs through downtown Los Angeles. There are a dozen crumbling movie palaces on our Broadway, designed nearly a century ago as fantasy versions of European palaces or Eastern skyscrapers. These theaters are underused, to say the least, and some are ruined forever. Still, intrepid shoppers can wander to the backs of the swap-meet-style stores that sell socks or CDs, then turn around and look up to see balconies, coffered ceilings and rows of gilded movie-house seats from the golden age of film. It's like stumbling into King Tut's tomb.

If only some visionary could bring life back to the street and the once-glittering theaters. Perhaps the time is ripe for City Councilman Jose Huizar's “Bringing Back Broadway” plan, unveiled Monday, to reinvigorate the district and turn it into a center of night life. The city will improve the streetscape and modernize zoning and building codes to entice owners to spiff up their century-old treasures and reopen the great theaters for regular performances.

But wait -- haven't we seen this movie before? Between the shuttered theaters, pedestrians can see the remains of past public investments to remake the streetscape. Meso-American designs in the sidewalk tiles, faux-brick crosswalks, historic lighting. Shelves in City Hall are stacked with plans to bring back Broadway, from various iterations of the Downtown Strategic Plan to 2001's Nighttime Broadway initiative.

“Bringing Back Broadway” City government has hurt at least as much as it has helped. While the stages of many Broadway theaters remained dark, the city paid millions to turn two bank buildings a block away into, of all things, a theater. City Hall continues to siphon night life to the west, where L.A. Live is going up next to Staples Center. Meanwhile, millions of tax dollars are subsidizing the Grand Avenue project, which keeps delaying its groundbreaking.

Huizar says things are different this time because Broadway's private property owners are now on the same page as city officials. Maybe so; we'd like to see the theaters saved and reopened, so we wish the councilman well. The time for huge public investment, however, has come and gone. City leaders can and should remake zoning and building codes to allow property owners to entice patrons, if they can. But too many Broadway dreams have been broken for City Hall to now promise, once again, that a major investment of public funds will make the street a star.

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