A Vision for L.A.'s Broadway : Developer Ira Yellin Hopes to Tie Together the New Downtown

Times Staff Writer

From atop his ornate Million Dollar Building at 3rd and Broadway, Ira E. Yellin surveys the patchwork that makes up downtown Los Angeles and dreams of ways to tie the diverse pieces together with Broadway as the centerpiece.

To the west rise the gleaming office and residential towers of Bunker Hill. To the east lie Little Tokyo and the site of the new state office building. To the north are the Civic Center and Chinatown, and to the south, the city's core of financial institutions, law firms and office buildings.

In the center rests Yellin's own historic pocket--Grand Central Market, the Million Dollar Building and the soon-to-be-purchased landmark Bradbury Building--on the bustling block of Broadway between 3rd and 4th streets that is a shopping and entertainment mecca for Latinos.

By the end of March, when the Bradbury deal is expected to close, Yellin and his team will have invested more than $21 million in buildings, land and initial improvements to the market's colorful food stalls. Over the next few years, the group intends to invest as much as $23 million more to restore these inner-city gems, now mostly empty, as office and retail space.

With the payoff years away at best, Yellin recognizes that Grand Central Square, as the project is known, is a big gamble that hinges on patient investors, painstaking restoration, expensive modernization and success at negotiating a maze of bureaucratic systems.

But he feels passionately about the need to revitalize the area and optimistic about adapting historic buildings to modern needs.

"I see Broadway as buildings being brought back to life, with full economic benefit for the owners, the merchants and the city," Yellin said in a recent interview. "I don't want it to be (just) L.A.'s quaint piece of history."

A diminutive man with curly brown hair and keen, gray-blue eyes, Yellin was born in 1940 outside Boston to parents whose families had immigrated from what is now Poland. His father and maternal grandfather were both Orthodox rabbis, and he was reared in strict Jewish tradition.

In 1948, the family moved to California, and Yellin grew up in Santa Monica, Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys. He recalls visiting downtown Los Angeles in the early 1950s and has vivid memories of Grand Central Market, the Alexandria Hotel on Spring Street and Angel's Flight, the erstwhile hillside people mover. "Broadway," he recalled, "was booming and alive, if old. It had the feel of a city."

Even then, Yellin, who considers himself a "frustrated architect," often could be found "doodling and drawing pictures of buildings."

His family placed great emphasis on learning a profession, so Yellin headed east to study at Princeton and then Harvard Law School before going to UC Berkeley for a master of laws degree.

From 1967 until 1975, he was a lawyer at a Beverly Hills firm, then moved to the Hapsmith Co., a Beverly Hills real estate development and management company whose president is Fred Nicholas, now chairman of the building committee of Disney Hall, the new Music Center expansion project. During the next 10 years, under Nicholas' tutelage, he grew less interested in law and more in land development.

In 1985, he opened his own real estate firm, Yellin Co., and began negotiating with the owner of Grand Central Market, Beach D. (Cub) Lyon Jr. Lyon initially laughed off the idea but after months of talks accepted the $6-million bid of Yellin and his partners. Yellin retained Lyon's son, Tracy, as general manager of the market and gave him a portion of his own 15% stake.

Sporty Car

Yellin drives a sporty, racing green, 1966 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL that he bought 20 years ago for $4,750 and works out of offices on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, with a clear view east toward downtown. With his wife, Adele, and two teen-age children, Jessica and Seth, he lives in a home in Santa Monica Canyon.

He has earned warm regard from friends and associates, who praise his calm, thoughtful approach to business. They say he tempers a strong profit motive with a sense of aesthetics.

When Marc B. Nathanson, Yellin's best friend and the president of Falcon Cable TV in Westwood, celebrated his 40th birthday, Yellin enlivened the festivities by "kidnaping" Nathanson and driving him around Beverly Hills in the back of a pickup truck. The party progressed to Yellin's home, which he had turned into a wild animal park dotted with large, stuffed animals. All the guests spent the night in tents.

"We actually camped out and even went rappelling off his roof," Nathanson said. "That's the kind of friend he is."

Nathanson said Yellin also used to participate with friends in a study group that met monthly for long philosophical discussions and readings of their own poetry. Yellin was a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the fledgling Dance Gallery and is on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Theater Center.

As a developer, Yellin is rare because he "combines a hard-headed practicalness with a vision of how he wants to make changes," said Kate Bartolo, who for four years sold and leased downtown retail space for Coldwell Banker. "Ira represents a breath of fresh air, a long-term visionary."

"He brings to the table an ethical dimension that you don't see with other business people," said Bruce Corwin, a longtime friend and president of Metropolitan Theaters Corp., which runs the Million Dollar Theater. "The means do not justify the ends when it comes to Ira."

Corwin, one of several of Yellin's friends who have invested in the Grand Central Square project, views it as "a bet on the future." The largest investor, with about a one-third stake, is Shamrock Holdings, the Burbank investment firm owned by the family of Roy E. Disney.

"Ira recognizes that it's going to take five to seven years" to start getting a return, Corwin said. "He wants to be the leader in getting things to turn around."

Plans for the Grand Central Square project call for upscale restaurants and cafes and a below-ground supermarket. In addition, there will be a 448-space parking garage at 3rd and Hill with an international newsstand and a tower with clock faces by Los Angeles artists. Yellin's hope is that the complex will draw Anglos, Asians and Latinos alike and recapture some of the spirit of the 1920s, when the market served the elegant mansions on Bunker Hill.

Office tenants are expected to include lawyers, politicians and consultants spilling over from the Ronald Reagan State Office Building at 3rd and Spring, scheduled for completion in 1990.

As part of the exterior restoration, the turquoise tiles will be lifted from the Grand Central Market entrances on both Broadway and Hill streets. The oversize marquee of the Million Dollar Theater, which for years has highlighted Spanish-language films and entertainers, also will be removed.

'A Lot of Choices'

Yellin is wrestling with how best to renovate the historic, 96-year-old Bradbury across the street. It still has, for example, the old cage-style elevators and is poorly lit, making it impractical for nighttime use. "We'll have to make a lot of choices," he said.

As part of this effort, Yellin and Corwin two years ago used funds from the Community Redevelopment Agency to form Miracle on Broadway, a nonprofit group of merchants and developers eager to improve the street's appearance and fortunes.

Given his interest in downtown, Yellin is finding himself in demand for other projects as well. One morning last week he participated in the first meeting of a blue-ribbon task force formed by Councilman Richard Alatorre to formulate plans for redeveloping the area containing Olvera Street, Union Station and Terminal Annex.

Later that day, Yellin took Jay Rounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, on a tour of his Broadway buildings, traipsing up dusty stairways and down shabby hallways and riding clanky elevators. In the Million Dollar Building, Yellin proudly showed off the old 12th-floor, paneled board room of a former tenant, Metropolitan Water District, still largely intact. Yellin plans to restore the room as part of the renovation, scheduled to begin in June.

Yellin's regard for the structures came across to the city's main preservationist. "I'm really delighted to see someone like Ira take on this project," Rounds said.

Bureaucratic Maze

Such support is expected to ease the project's way through the maze of community agencies and city commissions that must approve his plans. Negotiations with the Community Redevelopment Agency, from which Yellin is hoping to secure some financial help, are expected to end by summer, according to James M. Wood, the agency's chairman.

Problems of traffic and density have yet to be worked out, Wood said, but he added that the agency supports Yellin's effort because it "has a clear public benefit."

If friends fault Yellin, it is because they fear he is not politically cutthroat enough and might not realize how much of an uphill battle attracting tenants to secondary locations like his will entail. (Yellin, a committed Democrat, has a backer in Mayor Tom Bradley, whom he has loyally supported for years.)

"Broadway lies uneasily between two different universes," noted Daniel P. Garcia, an attorney and former president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission who as a child watched his father unload trucks at Grand Central Market. On one side, Garcia noted, is Skid Row, with its colonies of homeless and vagrants, in sharp contrast to the yuppie office workers and developers on the western side. Moreover, the future of the current client base, which depends heavily on immigrant population, is uncertain.

He said he admires Yellin's vision but fears that the rewards will be a long time in coming unless the area's social problems are addressed.

Without playing down the challenges, Yellin cites other urban redevelopments such as Faneuil Hall in Boston, which has become a magnet for local residents and tourists. "I see Broadway as a crossroads," he said, "one of the great treasures of the city."

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