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Broadway wants to turn the lights up again

A public-private partnership hopes to succeed where other efforts to revitalize the venerable L.A. street have fallen short.

March 02, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Bright lights illuminate a display of party dresses in the jewelry district of South Broadway. Organizers say work is underway to revamp the stretch from West 2nd Street to Olympic Boulevard by reviving its grand movie palaces, and adding new businesses and streetcars.
Bright lights illuminate a display of party dresses in the jewelry district… (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)

Rodney Masjedi's bike shop is open for business in the basement of a squat building on Broadway downtown.

It boasts a big blue sign and, so far, little competition.

But if the city comes through with a 10-year plan to remake the historic strip, Masjedi hopes that one day he'll be considered a pioneer.

"There's no question that Broadway is where real estate and high-end retail will blow up downtown," the 30-year-old said. "It's only a matter of time."

Bringing Back Broadway: A March 2 article in the LATExtra section about an effort to revamp a stretch of Broadway downtown stated that Brady Westwater worked for the Downtown Business Improvement District. Westwater works for the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business District. —

It's been three years since the launch of Bringing Back Broadway, a plan to revamp the stretch from West 2nd Street to Olympic Boulevard by reviving its grand movie palaces, and adding new businesses and streetcars.

Previous efforts have flopped. And so far this time, little seems to have changed.

The beat of Spanish cumbias drifts from ground-floor clothing, electronic and jewelry stores catering to working-class Latinos. On the floors above, nearly 1 million square feet of commercial space sits empty. And when the sun sets, Broadway shuts down.

But work is well under way, say the organizers of what is described as a public-private partnership.

Sidewalks at risk of caving in are being reinforced. And, with much community input, they have come up with a blueprint for Broadway's future.

Included is an arts center, where artists could live, teach, create and display their work. Sidewalks would be widened and parking added, along with lighting and outdoor spots for people to gather.

The initiative's leader, City Councilman Jose Huizar, said he hopes that construction of a four-mile streetcar system can begin as soon as 2014. But although federal dollars are expected to cover half of the $100-million tab, donations will be needed for the rest.

The greatest challenge so far, organizers say, has been recruiting business owners. The sluggish economy hasn't helped.

Today, many building owners rent their ground floors. The top floors need costly upgrades to be brought up to code. City leaders plan to help by writing in more flexibility.

Among the initiative's cited achievements are the opening of Mac & Cheeza on West 8th Street and the future launch of a Broadway branch of Umami Burger. Negotiations under way to develop two significant buildings can't be discussed yet, said Jessica Wethington McLean, Bringing Back Broadway's executive director.

"It's a little like steering the Titanic because there are so many moving parts," she said. But organizers have "built a strong, solid foundation."

Out on the street, some longtime merchants are skeptical.

Peklar Pilavjian, owner of St. Vincent Jewelry Center, said he has seen business ebb and flow in his 30 years there.

"I hope it's going to help," he said. "But it would be naive of me to put all my hopes and needs in this initiative."

Nearby, at the historic Clifton's Cafeteria, new owner Andrew Meieran is counting on speedy results. The developer of the Edison bar is investing more than $3 million in Clifton's — adding four bars, a fine dining restaurant, a bakery and small shops while retaining the much-loved classic cafeteria.

For his plan to succeed, Meieran said, Broadway's theaters will need to come alive at night.

"It would be a really sad situation if we end up being the only ones out here after dark," he said.

For now, he's grateful Bringing Back Broadway has created a buzz.

And so is Brady Westwater. The director of economic development for the Downtown Business Improvement District says now "there's actually momentum because people are engaged and committed to addressing all the issues for the entire street."

Westwater helped convince Masjedi to open his store.

The shopkeeper invested $250,000, his life savings. He built an indoor track to attract customers. Since he opened the shop in November, he said, he's seen a range: professionals, hipsters, laborers from as far away as Long Beach and Chatsworth.

When they buy bikes, he snaps their photos to post at the store's entrance, so passersby can catch a glimpse of the street's future.

"Beautiful," he said, "with so many different types of people."

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