Bringing Back Broadway

by Tony Chavira

We’ve all seen pictures of downtown Los Angeles in its heyday (which, of course, isn’t today) ... bustling foot traffic, streetcars, vibrant theaters, and mom-and-pop shops where men with striped shirts and waxed mustaches served you phosphates. These days there’s a large population of Hispanic-owned businesses, which sustain the first floor of each historic building, while the hundreds of thousands of square feet on the upper floors sit practically derelict. Of the eleven historical theaters that still stand on Broadway, only one is active throughout the year, and the cost of renovation for any one theater is in the tens of millions.

Despite the potential for the Bringing Back Broadway plan that Planning and Business Improvement District officials toil over ceaselessly, the redevelopment of this historical space is entirely contingent on something they have little control over: an increase in the population in downtown Los Angeles. Property and theater owners on Broadway cannot justify improving their spaces and paying for a facelift to their façades unless they know that they’ll get the traffic and business. If the population influx into downtown doesn’t happen, Broadway property owners won’t be able to financially justify renovating spaces that are cheaper to demolish than restore. If the buildings and theaters aren’t renovated, the city of Los Angeles will be slow to provide any further planning assistance to turn Broadway into the revitalized, walkable space that everyone envisions. If the city of Los Angeles backs out of its current commitment to provide a full-time planner to the Bringing Back Broadway project, the chances that Metro will plan for streetcars along Broadway will disappear. It can be either a virtuous cycle or a vicious one: either everyone commits to the improvement of the area, or it all falls apart like so many projects over the years.

Bringing Back Broadway

But this interplay is typically the nature of projects that require complex partnerships to achieve wide and ambitious scopes, and Los Angeles city council members have historically never been at a loss for projects of wide and ambitious scope. Of course, it becomes more complicated when the Bringing Back Broadway plan starts adding contingencies based on other developing projects throughout downtown Los Angeles. City Officials hope that the $30 million dollars in Quimby Fees developed from the Park Fifth development will be able to go back into the Business Improvement District and benefit Broadway. This looks like it could happen, as there is already a long waiting list for Park Fifth spaces (none of which are affordable units, I might add). City officials and developers alike are hoping that the adaptive reuse of about 1,500 residential spaces will spark an influx of 10,000 or more people and their money. This looks like a definite possibility, since many studies from research group Zimmerman/Volk Associates show a dramatic increase both in the number of people who prefer to live in density and in those who are actually moving to population-dense areas.

But, at the same time, city officials hope that they can utilize the underground parking spaces provided by Pershing Square and any surrounding parking developments, especially once the Grand Avenue project finally gets legs and starts to run. This project is constantly sitting at the edge of a planners’ pen at the CRA and building department, but only a small percentage of the money that it will require is currently available. There have been blocks from both the private and public sectors, design inconsistencies, bidding issues, and a general decline in enthusiasm for the project since the Los Angeles Times announced its design competition back in 2005. Now the Grand Avenue Project has a very firmly-set design, with construction costs that continue to increase despite the fact that construction hasn’t begun. In this respect, I’m surprised that the city of Los Angeles would even consider that these two projects have equal priority: Grand Avenue may provide tax revenue and “stimulate” retail sales after it empties our wallets, but Bringing Back Broadway will ultimately require less direct investment by the city and will only continue to provide more taxable revenue than it already does. You’d think that the city would want to slowly bolster everything in the surrounding area before they set a “cultural center point” at Grand Avenue. You’d think that taxpayers were tired of seeing low spending caps on multiple large-scale projects. You’d think that the city would spend more resources propping up an area which already has a lot of foot traffic, instead of desperately trying to create foot traffic where it currently doesn’t exist.

Broadway does currently provide a lot of taxable revenue for the city. It’s great to read about it as an ambitious renovation project that will bring back the glory of yesteryear, but what about current business owners, who crowd the ground floor and keep Broadway afloat? Despite all of the talk about “diversifying” its daily business landscape, Broadway already has some of the highest rents in the region, and business owners who set up shop every day to keep those rents high are currently waiting in fear, hoping they won’t be kicked out in the name of “revitalization.” We should be wary of this point in the vision document: “Focus on improvements to the storefronts, providing open transparent design, uniform appropriate signage, light and alternative (to solid roll down doors) security measures.”

The sad truth is that if Broadway begins to do really well, the people who’ve spent their lives working on the street will be forced out, while Pinkberry can afford to provide the facade renovation they cannot. The cost of construction will likely be beyond the financial reach of current storeowners (who will see their rent rise as the space becomes more popular), and property owners will naturally side with those with the money.

Despite the glory of the olden days and the grandiose scope of the Bringing Back Broadway project, we need to be careful about how we approach its slow and strategic implementation:

But do all parties agree that “revitalization” is for everyone involved, and not just those with millions of dollars to spare? For the sake of the small business owner who has rented a shop space on Broadway since the 1970s and continues to sustain its revitalization efforts today, I really hope so.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
tony@fourstory.org

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