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Mariachi Plaza development plan worries L.A. musicians

Musicians feel threatened by a plan to transform L.A.'s Mariachi Plaza into a modern shopping center

The mariachis of Los Angeles have flocked to their plaza for nearly 80 years — to sing, to hustle for work, to pass the time.

In the last decade, they've seen the Boyle Heights square transformed: Their favorite doughnut shop went away, and a Metro Gold Line station was built, along with a sleek stage. The Boyle Hotel, where so many musicians have lived, was given a face-lift.

The changes brought some inconvenience — drilling, dust and construction scaffolding — but the renovations, many said, have been worth it. There are big concerts now, and lots more visitors.

But the latest plan to remake Mariachi Plaza, this time into a modern shopping center, has the community worried that the mariachis' livelihood and their cultural center could be threatened, even wiped out.

The proposal calls for a significant overhaul of the corner of 1st and Boyle streets. Buildings that now house an ice cream shop and a restaurant, among other businesses, would be torn down and two new structures would be built: one an eight-story building with six levels of parking and two floors of medical offices, and the other three stories housing a gym, restaurants and stores.

"Everything will change," said Arturo Ramirez, president of the Los Angeles United Mariachis Organization. "What we want to know is, what will happen to us? We're a community, and this is our home."

Mariachi Plaza is the historic gateway to the neighborhood, a quaint and beloved space that resembles Mexico's famed Plaza Garibaldi.

Here, musicians from across Los Angeles have gathered since the 1930s in hope of being hired by someone in search of a full band, trio or solo singer.

Front and center in the square stands a ceremonial cobblestone kiosk, a gift from the governor of the Mexican state of Jalisco. Along the north end, the plaza's backdrop includes low-slung buildings housing several mom-and-pop establishments that operate in sync with the mariachis.

They provide meals and outdoor seating for musicians, pass out the mariachis' business cards and feature images of musicians on murals splashed across their walls.

"We all know each other," said Armando Salazar, who has owned Restaurant Santa Cecilia for 23 years. "If this change happens, rents will probably go up, and only big chains and corporations will be able to move in."

The development plan, still in the beginning stages, is being orchestrated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns most of the land.

The agency faced a public backlash last month when it submitted the project for initial approval. Mariachis and business owners said they were kept in the dark before the move, and they called for major changes to the plan.

The musicians would prefer a development that brings more mariachi-friendly business: restaurants and shops catering to Latinos.

"Why would a gym want to have anything to do want with mariachis?" Salazar said.

Metro officials, who said that the bidding process had limited them from releasing information, promised to conduct plenty of community outreach in the months ahead.

"The perception is that this proposal is fully cooked and there's no room for input, but that's a big misunderstanding," said Jenna Hornstock, Metro's deputy executive officer for countywide planning and development.

Because of complaints, the agency has delayed moving ahead with the proposal until February.

In Boyle Heights, a tight-knit community known for its ability to organize, the development plan probably will continue to generate criticism. Residents along 1st Street already were on edge about potential gentrification creeping in from downtown.

In an effort to smooth over community fears, the project developer has said that the mariachi tradition is precisely what attracted the firm to the site; the proposal submitted to the county, Arturo Sneider of Primestor Development added, was simply a first step.

"Our goal is to find out what the community needs the most and what's feasible," Sneider said.

But whatever the final plans look like, the mariachis will remain the heart of the square.

"They will continue doing exactly what they do — looking for work and playing music," Sneider said. "We just look forward to elevating what's already there."

Twitter: @LATbermudez

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