There was a time when downtown Inglewood pulsed with life. Market Street was a hub of activity with movie theaters, restaurants, shops and popular anchor stores such as JCPenney and S.H. Kress & Co.
People came "from the edges of L.A. and the ocean. Inglewood was the spot," said Leonard "Budd" Utter, 87, president of the local historical society, who has lived in the city most of his life.
But in the late 1970s department stores began moving to malls in neighboring Culver City, Torrance and Santa Monica, leaving smaller businesses struggling. Today empty lots, boarded-up storefronts and abandoned buildings line Market Street. An indoor swap meet occupies the old JCPenney building.
Now there are plans to breathe new life into downtown. Beverly Hills-based developer Astani Enterprises will break ground this fall on Market Plaza, a $16-million retail project at the corner of Market Street and Florence Avenue. It will include a bank, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a large outdoor fountain that the developer envisions as a community gathering place with music events.
"We want to boost Market Street's revitalization," said Shane Astani of the development firm, which also has projects in downtown Los Angeles. "We're looking at the entire picture, not just being a drugstore on the corner of La Brea and Florence."
Astani, who has letters of interest from Washington Mutual Bank and Starbucks, said the hope is that the project, on the north end of Market Street, will spur residential development downtown and increase foot traffic for retailers.
"It's not something that's done overnight, but we certainly feel we are a catalyst," he said.
Across from the future Market Plaza, Base Architecture is already planning to build a $34-million mixed-use project that would include 74 one- and two-bedroom condominiums. Michael Anderson, president of the firm, said more development is needed on the south end of Market Street to encourage visitors to stroll around downtown.
"Market Street can be a successful boutique-type Third Street Promenade if you put the right activities and people there," Anderson said.
This isn't the first time there's been talk about downtown revitalization in this mostly working-class city. In the last decade, at least three proposals for sprucing up the corner of Market and Florence with new businesses have fizzled. Legal battles, failure to lure prominent retailers and disagreements between city leaders and developers on project details doomed previous ambitions.
The predominantly Latino and black city of 115,000 also has long struggled with crime and an image problem -- some derisively call it "Ingle-hood." Homicides dropped from 36 in 2006 to 18 in 2007. Two homicides were reported by the end of April of this year, but pockets of the city are still plagued by violence and gang activity.
City Councilman Daniel Tabor, 54, who grew up in Inglewood, acknowledged problems but said the city also lacked vision and commitment to redevelop downtown. He said he hopes that a combination of national retail chain stores and locally owned specialty shops will help remake the city's core, along with new residential development.
"The key is going to be the right mix of residents for foot traffic," Tabor said.
The city is working on a master plan to help map future growth downtown. Potential Market Street tenants have expressed concern about insufficient parking, which the city is reviewing. And some Market Street merchants are not swayed by the plans.
"The city's tried this so many times," said Tsering Thondup, owner of Vajra Books and Gifts. He cited previous failed attempts to develop the Market and Florence site and promote downtown. Thondup has been in business for 18 years and said he's survived because of the personal relationships he's established with his regular customers.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of UCLA's urban planning department, likes the pedestrian-friendly design of Market Plaza and the types of businesses planned. She said residents in low-income communities often must leave their neighborhoods to shop or eat. With better retail options, she said, people would start to see the "potential of the inner city."
"With smaller shops, you want people to come and spend time there, versus a big-box retailer," Loukaitou-Sideris said.
Tabor remains optimistic. He remembers the fine china shops, jewelry stores and other businesses that populated Market Street decades earlier and said Market Plaza represents a return to that time.
"Inglewood is going in the right direction," Tabor said. And retailers are taking note, especially because of the success on Century Boulevard.
In the past, Costco was the only major retailer on Century. Today, national chains there include Target; Home Depot; Peet's Coffee & Tea; and Bed, Bath and Beyond.
And more are on the way. At nearby Hollywood Park, a $2-billion redevelopment project is on the drawing board.