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$100-million complex to replace former Chinatown fixture

After a decade of delays, a $100-million real estate development in the heart of Chinatown is getting underway as the changing neighborhood catches a wave of investment sweeping through downtown Los Angeles.

Work began this month on the Blossom Plaza apartment and retail complex that will take over the space formerly occupied by Little Joe's, an Italian restaurant and bar that was once a beloved fixture on North Broadway. The eatery has been closed for 15 years, and its shabby-looking building and parking lot have long been considered a blight on the community's main thoroughfare.

On Oct. 21, developer Forest City Enterprises will start demolishing Little Joe's to make way for a five-story project that will link Broadway with the elevated Chinatown Metro Rail station above North Spring Street to the east.

The complex, with an ethnic flair, will be the latest addition to a growing number of new businesses. A large-scale apartment building over ground-level shops is nearing completion a few blocks away on Broadway at Cesar Chavez Avenue. It stands next to the sculpture of dueling gold dragons that spans Broadway and marks the entrance to Chinatown, just across the 101 Freeway from downtown, in the shadow of Dodger Stadium.

"There is more to Chinatown than you think of it, as a tourist trap," said Blossom Plaza architect Scott Johnson.

Young people are moving in, and the neighborhood has a burgeoning art gallery scene. The Los Angeles State Historic Park next to Chinatown is the site of numerous fairs, gatherings and concerts.

The six-story Jia Apartments, occupying a full city block, will include a Starbucks, marking the first Chinatown outlet of a national coffeehouse chain. A Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market opened nearby last month.

The new additions, although not universally embraced, are the most recent indications that Chinatown is moving beyond its reputation as an ethnic enclave struggling to remain vibrant, real estate industry observers said.

"There are several promising signs of activity," said Michael Woo, a former Los Angeles City Council member who is now dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona. The decidedly non-Chinese Starbucks is one of them, he said.

"I'm sure some old-timers think it's a bad sign," Woo said, "but there are probably more who think it's a good thing."

The San Gabriel Valley long ago surpassed Chinatown as the heart of the region's Chinese-American community.

Investment by non-Chinese investors such as Wal-Mart represents an "upward trajectory," Woo said, but also "raises some unsettling questions about community identity and ... the future of ethnic Chinese" in Chinatown.

Forest City — which Woo called "a reputable developer with a national reputation" — picked up the pieces of a project approved a decade ago that another developer had failed to start.

The 2011 demise of the city's redevelopment agency, which had selected Forest City, based in Chicago, to take over the project, added more complications. But now it's full speed ahead, the new owners say.

The neighborhood that is now Chinatown has a rich history as one of the earliest parts of Los Angeles to be settled.

The city's birthplace near Olvera Street is nearby. The new Blossom Plaza site is nestled next to Capitol Milling Co., which is believed to have been founded in 1831 and ground wheat into flour well into the 1990s. The now-vacant milling plant is also regarded as a prime site for redevelopment.

"Chinatown is where Los Angeles was started," said Kevin Ratner, head of Forest City's Los Angeles office. "It has an incredibly rich history and is really poised to move up to the next plateau."

Blossom Plaza will have 237 residential units, including 53 apartments where rents will be reduced for low-income tenants.

It will also house 175 parking spaces open to the public and a landscaped courtyard next to the Metro Rail stop.

Among the ground-floor shops will be chef-driven restaurants that won't necessarily serve Chinese food, Ratner said.

"We want the retail to be a unique destination people want to come to, like Abbot Kinney Boulevard or Melrose Avenue," Ratner said. "We want to aim high."

As designed by architect Johnson, Blossom Plaza will have an open-air passage in the middle, enabling people to walk from Broadway to the train.

"The project is trying to be open and porous to circulation," Johnson said. His firm, Johnson Fain, is based in Chinatown in a former car dealership facility.

Long-popular Little Joe's was founded around the turn of the 20th century. It is a remnant of the Italian and French communities that once occupied the neighborhood. City officials moved Chinatown there in the 1930s to clear the way for Union Station on Alameda Street.

Little Joe's started as a grocery store that sold sandwiches and evolved into a restaurant, delicatessen and bar. In 1927 it moved to 900 N. Broadway, where it had a long run serving up ravioli, veal scallopini and cocktails.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Little Joe's was a hangout for Dodgers players and fans, and a destination for the downtown business crowd. It was also a frequent site for Dodgers news conferences.

During Tommy Lasorda's tenure as manager in the 1980s, Little Joe's frequently sent Italian sausage, mostaccioli and linguine to Dodger Stadium, where Lasorda shared the food with his players.

It closed in 1998 because the owners couldn't afford to remodel it to comply with new building codes for earthquake safety and disability access.

The Little Joe's sign — which features a small man with a big key to the wine cellar — will be preserved, said Frank Frallicciardi of Forest City.

It might be displayed at the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles or in a potential new development at Capitol Milling, he said.

Blossom Plaza will include three-bedroom units to accommodate families, Forest City's Ratner said.

He expects many of the occupants will be of Asian descent and that its urban location near a Metro light-rail station will draw mostly youthful residents.

"We are set up obviously to appeal to a young, hipster crowd," he said.

Forest City built the Metro 417 apartment complex in the former Subway Terminal Building in downtown Los Angeles and the Met Lofts apartments near Staples Center. Many more residences are yet to come throughout the central city, Ratner said.

"We still have a certain way to go," he said, "until the need for housing is satiated downtown."

roger.vincent@latimes.com

Twitter: @rogervincent

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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