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Merchants Offer Plan to Restore, Revitalize Historic Olvera Street

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The confused history of Olvera Street, part of the city-owned El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Park, reflects the fluctuating status of the Latino community in Los Angeles.

Called a “dirty alley abandoned to slums and desolation” in the 1930s by the late historian and Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Carr and “a South of the Border tourist trap” by a current architectural guidebook, Olvera Street is seen by local Latinos as a prime symbol of communal pride and an important link to the city’s colonial past.

A $25-million plan for its restoration, commissioned by Pueblo merchants, is an attempt to assert that pride and ensure the future of the street as a viable economic entity.

Feeling the threat of encroaching developments in the area, the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. decided to take the initiative 18 months ago, said Vivien Bonzo, association president and owner of La Golondrina restaurant.

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Saved Oldest House

“There seemed to be a danger that when the ownership of the Pueblo Historic Park is transferred from the state to the city at the end of the year, we would be rolled under in the massive projects planned for neighboring Union Station, Chinatown and Little Tokyo,” she said.

Olvera Street’s most recent revival was the inspiration of an Anglo romantic, Christine Sterling. Sterling saved the Avila Adobe, built in 1818, the oldest house in Los Angeles, from demolition in the early 1930s, and created the present Mexican marketplace on a run-down alleyway.

“Sonora Town, as the area that includes the Pueblo was named in the 1920s and ‘30s, was a slum,” said Raul Escobedo, project director for Barrio Planners Inc., the Eastside planning firm commissioned, along with the Los Angeles-based Archiplan urban design collaborative, to prepare the $100,000 study for Olvera Street’s restoration and development.

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“Even after 1953, when the state took it over, it was not a pretty sight.

“But it has always mattered to Mexican-Americans. My dad used to bring me down here on weekends, to hang out with friends and family,” Escobedo said. “Shabby as it was, it was our common meeting place.

Four-Point Plan

“The Latino community feels that the Pueblo, where the city was founded in 1781, is a central element of its heritage and a monument to our often unhonored contribution to the growth of Los Angeles.”

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The merchants’ plan for the 8.3-acre Olvera Street site--bounded by the Old Plaza on the south, on the west by Spring Street north of the 1822 Plaza Church (the oldest religious edifice in the city), by Macy Street to the north and on the east, by Alameda and Los Angeles streets--has four main objectives:

1--Restore, renovate and seismically upgrade the area’s many historic buildings.

2--Improve the commercial and entertainment environment for the street’s 1.5 million visitors annually.

3--Protect the merchants and restaurateurs, many of whom have been active in the Pueblo for more than 40 years.

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4--Offer prospective developers 50,000 square feet of new commercial space, compatible with the existing architecture, plus a new parking garage for 500 cars.

Weekend Street Closing

Development would take place in three phases, allowing the Pueblo to continue functioning.

The first phase would include the new parking garage, the second, rehabilitation of existing structures and the third, new construction.

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The plan also suggests that the stretch of Main Street that runs through the site be narrowed and closed to traffic on weekends, when most visitors come to the Pueblo, and that walled-in shop facades along Main and Alameda streets be opened up to their sidewalks with pedestrian arcades, and connected with Olvera Street by means of passageways with skylights.

In the brick-paved alley of Olvera Street, stands or puestos that clog the center would be regrouped into a series of kiosks, each with a different theme representing the various national components of the complex Latino community.

Gateways would be created at each end of the street, particularly at the north end, where the 1932 mural painted by Mexican artist David Siqueiros was boarded up in the 1950s because of its socialistic content.

Asked for Critique

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“I am impressed by the scope, boldness and sheer robustness of the development plan,” said Alan Kreditor, dean of the USC School of Urban and Regional Planning, who was asked by the merchant association to critique the plan.

“I admire the self-reliance of the merchants, who are willing to risk their own funds to commission a study rather than wait for handouts from the public purse.”

The city Planning Department is preparing a request-for-proposals that will be available to prospective developers later this month. Of prime concern to Olvera Street merchants is the question of future rent levels.

“At the moment we pay an average of $1 per square foot per month,” Bonzo said. “If these rents go up drastically after redevelopment, many longtime merchants could be forced out.”

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The merchants association would like to act as a co-developer for Olvera Street, under the aegis of its nonprofit Olvera Street Restoration Corp.


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