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Architect offers a home-grown vision of a new Inglewood

The coming light-rail station could be a catalyst for change, he says. Some local merchants are already on board.

November 26, 2011|By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times
  • Chris Mercier, sitting in a weed-choked lot, has a plan to revitalize downtown Inglewood.
Chris Mercier, sitting in a weed-choked lot, has a plan to revitalize downtown… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

There was a time when Inglewood's Market Street hummed with activity — department stores, bustling movie houses and a steady stream of pedestrians.

Now the department stores are largely gone, the movie theaters have closed and vendors fight for business on a street that's grown tired.

But architect and artist Chris Mercier sees something far livelier — water from Centinela Springs flowing alongside the sidewalks, rooftops farms and aeronautic-looking windmills that would add an offbeat and colorful touch to the city's main artery.

For the moment, though, Mercier's dream for bringing a street scene back to the thoroughfare is just that. A dream. He doesn't have funding for his vision of a revitalized Inglewood, nor does he have the blessing of City Hall. But inspiration? He has no shortage of that.

Mercier and his design crew at (fer) Studio in Inglewood have developed scale models, computer presentations and graphic renderings to show off his concept for breathing life back into the once-bustling downtown.

"We want development that grows out of the community, not just one that is a part of it," Mercier said. "If you think about Inglewood, it's hard to picture it because it lacks identity. It's a city on the verge of potential."

When the Metro Transit Authority approved plans in 2009 for the light-rail Crenshaw Line to have a stop near Market Street, Mercier and his team wondered why the city didn't develop plans to take advantage of the train stop.

"The city has no idea it should be involved in this," he said. "It shouldn't be about the station, it should be about how the station helps the city." With the right plan, Mercier said, the city could lure commuters and travelers back to Market Street.

"Nobody sees Inglewood as 'the place' to go. This could change that."

The decline on Market Street seems to mirror the setbacks elsewhere in town. The Lakers once played at the grandiose Forum and A-listers turned out to watch the horses at the once-elegant Hollywood Park. The Lakers are long gone and, although the horses still run at Hollywood Park, there is talk that it will eventually be torn down and replaced with condos.

On Market Street, department stores like J.C. Penney and Sears are gone and vendors occupy the shells of other storefronts that have been deserted.

"The city didn't protect it," Tsering Thondup, owner of Vajra Books and Gifts, said of conditions on Market Street.

"They already did a revitalization. The original idea was for it to be another Santa Monica Promenade, but it didn't work," said Thondup, whose business is in what once was Lynn's Clothing. "Instead of making cosmetic changes, Inglewood needs something that will bring the businesses and the people back in."

The studio's plan has generated some buzz in community circles. No official plan has yet been submitted to the city, though a couple of City Council members have openly backed the project. Repeated attempts to reach city officials were not successful.

The studio has worked on other projects across the nation, including a commercial building in Louisville, Ky., and Jewel City Diner in Glendale, but they're hoping to create something closer to home.

"We're a local architectural firm," Mercier said. "If we're not going to step up, someone else will."

Their proposed blend of organic ingredients and inclusive features has been on display at the Inglewood Library, furthering their attempts to engage community members.

MonaLisa Whitaker, executive director of Inglewood Cultural Arts, said the plan is appealing and its green elements should be embraced.

But Whitaker said she has encountered resistance from City Hall in the past while seeking approval for art programs.

"The thing that's really been an obstacle is the constant change of city administrators and officials," she said.

But she sees a new stability in town. "It's time to move forward with making some progress," she said.

dalina.castellanos@latimes.com

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