Merchants, City Hope to Revive Prosperous Past of Olvera Street : Business: A newly appointed commission begins work on reversing the decline of the Downtown historical landmark.
Vivien Bonzo and other Olvera Street merchants have waited more than two years to bring new life to the city’s birthplace.
Now they have that chance. After a long delay, a commission has been appointed to oversee the historic El Pueblo de Los Angeles.
“We don’t want to turn it into a Universal Studios,” said Bonzo, president of the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. “We want it to be real. We want to promote the (historical) qualities that are inherent here.”
The 18-year owner of La Golondrina restaurant plans to go over a five-page wish list with the new El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority Department.
Her concerns and those of the 76 other Olvera Street merchants have piled up because it has taken more than two years for the mayor’s office to make appointments to the commission, which will take over operation, management and maintenance at El Pueblo from the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Five of the seven commissioners were confirmed by the City Council Tuesday, while the remaining two are scheduled to appear before the council by the end of the month.
“What I want to do is quickly start meeting with the merchants,” said Lydia Lopez, speaking for the commission. “There’s a lot of sorting out to do.”
Merchants and commissioners agree that the fledgling commission will have much to learn in the next few months about the two-block Downtown area where 11 families founded Los Angeles in 1781. The El Pueblo Authority will also need to understand the history and political squabbles behind the Mexican-flavored marketplace known as Olvera Street and the vacant undeveloped landmarks at the south end of the monument, such as the Pico Hotel and the Garnier Building.
Commissioners and merchants alike say they want to see a detailed plan for the historic park and to develop ways to promote El Pueblo as a multicultural center highlighting the history of its Mexican, European, Asian and African American settlers.
But some sticking points will have to be smoothed over once the commission takes over operations.
A key issue is that of the Pico and Garnier buildings south of the park, Bonzo and other merchants said. The Pico Hotel was built by Don Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. The first three-story building in Los Angeles, it opened for business on June 9, 1870. At the two-story Garnier building, Chinese businesses set up shop and Chinese community groups formed in the mid- to late 1800s.
Bonzo has been opposed to any major commercial or office development in that area. Instead, she prefers to renovate the historic buildings as cultural centers or museums.
But Peter Martinez, president of another merchants group, Business Leadership of Olvera Street, wants to draw the business crowd by turning some of those buildings into office space and by offering a variety of non-Mexican-style restaurants.
“You’ve got to stay competitive with the other theme parks around Southern California,” said the owner of Margarita’s Gift Shop and Lozen’s Trading Post. “It’s like Universal CityWalk, where you’ve got Tony Roma’s and all sorts of selection of foods.”
“Olvera Street has its own character. . . . You’re (still) going to draw people to the area,” he said. “I’d rather have those buildings be occupied than empty.”
Most of the commissioners polled about this issue said they need more time to listen to both sides. But some did agree to try to find ways to merge commercial and historical interests, if possible, to create a more attractive El Pueblo.
Though the two merchant leaders disagree on development, both have claimed that the monument has suffered from mismanagement and neglect by the parks department.
Martinez, however, has gone so far as to ask for the removal of El Pueblo director Anthony Gonzales.
“The first point (commissioners) should address, if anything, is to either remove or transfer some of the staff we have right now,” he said. Gonzales “hasn’t cared in three years. He’s not going to care now.”
The merchant and his wife, Emily Martinez, say the streets are dirty and Olvera Street maintenance staff are lax about picking up trash. The couple also questioned the nearly $1.6 million Gonzales budgeted this year for staff salaries and benefits--more than half the total 1994-95 budget of $2.4 million.
Gonzales said the 45 full-time and 20 to 25 part-time staff are doing the best job they can with the resources they have. The staff includes attendants at five parking lots, and clerical and maintenance workers.
“I’m the landlord and they’re the tenant,” he said. “It’s how the person views the cup, half-empty or half-full.”
Gonzales intends to provide all the information that commissioners may request about budget or staff supervision. “Based on the information, they will make the decisions,” he said.
City officials have yet to determine exactly what role the commission will have in selecting staff and appointing a general manager. The panel will also have to review a recent city controller’s audit report on El Pueblo that listed fund-raising problems and previous audit recommendations that have yet to be implemented. Those include the failure to recover $3,919 in overpayments to part-time employees and the need for cash registers at parking lots.
The city has also required the commission to find ways to renovate such buildings as the Italian Hall on the west end of the park and to establish a Chinese history museum to reflect the Asian influence in the early history of El Pueblo.
Overall, merchants, city officials and commissioners hope to increase the average 1 million visitors to the monument, which has declined in the recession and since the 1992 riots.
“We don’t draw a lot of people as we used to because Los Angeles doesn’t draw the people,” said Rudy Madrid, 67, owner of Rudy’s Gift Imports on Olvera Street.
Some even see the commission’s future actions as a do-or-die effort to revitalize El Pueblo.
“If this (does not bring) an improvement, then you’re writing a death certificate for Olvera Street,” Bonzo said. “For many of us, it has to be an improvement. . . . This is our livelihood. This is our family history.”
The commissioners are: Antonio Cardenas, 31, a Mission Hills real estate agent and Sylmar resident; Stewart Kwoh, 45, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, of Silver Lake; Lydia Lopez, 52, of Lincoln Heights, owner of a fund-raising consulting firm; Josephine Ramirez, 36, of Venice, an arts consultant; and Andres Topacio, of Montecito Heights, owner of a Downtown architectural firm and a member of the California Hispanic Cultural Society.
Commission appointees who still must be confirmed by the City Council are Philip W. Bartenetti, a partner in the law firm of Clark & Trevithick, and Juan Gomez Quinones, a UCLA history professor, of Pacific Palisades.