City officials today will announce a new campaign to remake downtown Los Angeles' historic Broadway corridor by redesigning the bustling street, fixing up some of the grand movie palaces and restoring the fading facades of buildings.
The city and private developers have earmarked nearly $40 million to begin the effort this year, hoping to pull the gentrification that has swept much of downtown into the district's main commercial area. They envision many of the movie facades giving way to a live "theater district" forming on the street, with a trolley car system running down its center.
But the revitalization is already creating something of a culture clash. While the downtown development boom has brought thousands of mostly white-collar professionals into lofts and luxury high-rises, Broadway has for decades been the premier shopping destination for working-class Latinos.
Along the rows of bridal shops, discount stores and shopping arcades, some Broadway merchants agree the street could use a face-lift but wonder if the city's plans include them.
"On one side, I like the idea," said Marina Martinez, 28, who works at Teresa's Bridal, between 7th and 8th streets. "The only thing is that I don't think they want our types of businesses."
As downtown's building boom continues, it mirrors a debate being played out in other parts of the city center as well.
Broadway, which cuts through the heart of downtown, has long been one of the city's best barometers of demographic and social change.
Before World War II, it was considered by many to be the center of the city, where residents far and wide came by car and street trolley to catch movies at ornate theaters, such as the Globe, Orpheum and Million Dollar, and shop at department stores.
After the war, even as downtown declined, Broadway continued to bustle -- catering to the growing Latino immigrant population settling in neighborhoods to the east and west of the area.
The department stores and theaters closed, but Broadway's businesses thrived, so much so that in the early 1990s some store rents were higher than those in Beverly Hills.
The "Bringing Back Broadway" campaign will begin with a series of street and landscape improvements, including beautifying crosswalks, adding trees and plants and possibly widening sidewalks.
A central focus this year will be restoring the district's rich but crumbling architectural heritage. Many of the movie theaters have fallen into disuse and disrepair, and some were razed years ago in favor of parking lots.
Other commercial buildings, with ornate architectural details in Art Deco, beaux-arts and Baroque styles, have sat vacant or are being used only on their ground floors. Officials hope that some of the movie palaces can be used for live performances and that building owners can find uses -- such as residential space -- for the upper floors of many vacant Broadway buildings.
"This is the last linchpin of downtown that needs attention," said City Councilman Jose Huizar. "I consider Broadway just as important [to L.A. history] as Olvera Street. We should not let one of our major historical avenues continue to be neglected."
Huizar, whose district includes the Broadway corridor and who is leading the revitalization effort, said this campaign is different from previous attempts because it has the support of property owners and city officials. He and other supporters believe the "new" Broadway can coexist with the "old" Broadway.
Steve Needleman, owner of the Orpheum Theater, said Broadway has been challenged in recent years by other areas catering to Latino immigrants.
"It's going through a transition because of competition," he said. "It's just happening. There are other shopping opportunities."
Needleman noted that Broadway needs to change to better serve the needs of the more than 20,000 new residents who have moved into downtown lofts and high-rise condos over the last five years. The number of new residents is expected to double as more buildings are completed.
"There are homeowners on this street now. You can't take that away," he said. "And they have demands here; they are living here all the time."
Broadway still packs in shoppers, particularly during weekend days. But it's largely deserted at night -- something that could change with the addition of theaters and sit-down eateries.
"We want a mix," Needleman said. "I don't want to see it just become an entertainment district . . . and hopefully, that's part of what will happen."
The projects being announced today are the first steps in what officials hope will be a much more ambitious effort. The city has committed $16.5 million, and private property owners will add $20 million for this phase.
Officials are also studying the idea of creating a trolley line that would run along Broadway, and perhaps even banning cars.
But those plans are only in the beginning stages and would be far more costly than the street improvements and theater renovations.
Merchants along Broadway are torn by the gentrification that has swept downtown. Many agree that the changes have made the area safer, but they worry that their base clientele -- immigrants, some here illegally -- feel less comfortable being there.
Doris Vasquez, 43, is a cook at Casa India, a small Mexican restaurant on Broadway, between 3rd and 4th streets, where she spends long spans of time flattening dough and mixing fresh drinks of tamarind and horchata.
She says Broadway has changed and that making a living there is increasingly difficult.
"A lot of people used to walk around. Now there's not as many," she said. "It's the economy."
When she started working downtown 10 years ago, Vasquez said, business was booming and it was common for immigrants, documented and undocumented, to flood the streets of Broadway during the day. She said the new residential development, along with a beefed-up police presence, has scared off some illegal immigrants, though the business is staying afloat.
She could see the Broadway plan drawing more shoppers, but not the kind who would go to her restaurant.
The city has been talking about changes on Broadway for decades, but this marks the first time a large amount of money has been dedicated to the effort.
Some question whether Broadway needs a face-lift. UCLA law professor Gary Blasi noted that the Latino-oriented businesses have stood the test of time.
"Unless you have a different vision, aesthetically and ethnically, then why?" Blasi said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun