Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow at the Reason Foundation

With Hollywood's long-anticipated revival underway, Los Angeles' quest to recapture its urban soul can shift to an even more difficult and daunting target, the downtown historic core. Much of that core, encompassing Hill, Spring and Broadway streets, remains a mishmash of boarded-up buildings, tawdry first-floor shops at the mouths of vacant offices and parking lots.

Nowhere is this decline more acute than along Broadway, once the city's premiere retail street. "It was the middle-class shopping district in the '40s and '50s," remembers consultant and downtown resident Estela Lopez, a leading force behind a proposed new business-improvement district for the area. "It was everyone's downtown."

Despite the dirt and decay that conceals Broadway's former glory, it remains the only true grand boulevard of Los Angeles. What it lacks in the Albert Speer-like monumentalism of Grand Avenue, with its county building, the Music Center, the planned Disney Concert Hall and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Broadway possesses in architectural originality, human scale and connectivity to L.A. history.

But finding a new and sustainable future for Broadway is no easy task. A planned resurfacing of the street this summer will give it more cosmetic appeal, but it will take much more than smooth asphalt to restore "everyone's downtown." None of the other successfully revitalized districts in Southern California--Old Pasadena, Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and West Hollywood--had endured the years of neglect that Broadway has.

Broadway's decline began with the growth of suburban shopping malls, which lured middle- and working-class consumers away from the civic center. But the district also suffered what may be considered a city-administered wound. The Community Redevelopment Agency's mammoth redo of Bunker Hill emptied older office buildings along Hill and Spring streets and moved workers into new office towers, separating them from their Broadway colleagues. By the 1990s, many large department stores--Bullocks, May Co. and the Broadway--had closed.

"The development [on Bunker Hill] took people off Spring, Seventh and Broadway and moved them up the hill," recalls Robert Clifton, whose family-owned Clifton's Cafeteria opened on Broadway in 1931. "The city took all our customers away." The eatery, legendary for its generosity during the Depression, has gone from serving 10,000 to 15,000 meals daily in the 1950s to barely one-tenth that number.

With the predominantly Anglo middle class either out in the suburbs or hermetically sealed on Bunker Hill, property owners and merchants on Broadway found a new life serving immigrant Latinos. The district continued to deteriorate physically, but the upsurge of Latino shoppers was an expanding market for bargain retailers, owners of Spanish-language movie theaters and modestly priced restaurants. By the mid-1980s, the district was profitable, with rents on some properties nearly doubling between 1980 and 1985.

But the economic recession of the early 1990s, coupled with the 1992 riots, drove Broadway property values into a tailspin. Surveys conducted by David Zoraster, a former county assessor and now an appraiser for CB Richard Ellis, show drops in rental rates as dramatic as 50% to 65% since the late '80s. Office space above the street's ground-level storefronts is largely unoccupied, driving vacancy rates in many buildings to as high as 80%. The historic core is "the hole in the doughnut," asserts Zoraster. "The tide has not been rising enough to lift all the boats of downtown."

Politics is part of the problem. Hollywood has benefited from the unlikely alliance of pro-business Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council's leading leftist, Jackie Goldberg. In contrast, Broadway is not a top mayoral priority. Furthermore, the district's representation is divided between Richard Alatorre and Rita Walters. By most accounts, Alatorre's alleged scandals have greatly compromised his effectiveness, while Walters is almost universally seen on Broadway as indifferent to the downtown section of her district.

But Broadway's most critical problem is its lack of a definable and sustainable economic niche. The produce, jewelry, toy and garment districts have made impressive economic comebacks, with market valuations rising and vacancy rates declining. Their success is chiefly attributable to an agglomeration of specialized-service providers, manufacturers and immigrant entrepreneurs.

The mentality of some of the street's tenants and property owners makes adapting this kind of approach to Broadway problematic. Attempts to upgrade, such as the short-lived merchant-based "Miracle on Broadway" business improvement district in 1995, didn't take root because some proprietors saw no need for, or lacked interest in, renewing the boulevard. Others have even contended that cleaning up Broadway would frighten away their Latino customers.

"Broadway was the first Hispanic shopping district and some people thought it would scare [Latinos] away if it became too clean," recalls developer Jose de Jesus Legaspi, who has sought to interest merchants in upgrading their properties. "One merchant actually told me that 'Hispanics like dirt,' then threw a piece of paper on the floor to prove his point." Such attitudes only serve to calcify Broadway's economic malaise.

Most of the street's Latino customers have taken their business to more pleasant and family-friendly shopping environments like Huntington Park, downtown Whittier and the Montebello town center. But Legaspi and others believe the loss of shoppers could be reversed if Broadway reconstituted itself as more mainstream, albeit still largely Latino-oriented. The success of Macy's Plaza, located at the edge of the Broadway district, could serve as a guide. The store and other plaza occupants have experienced an upsurge of Latino weekend shoppers, many commuting by subway from Pico-Union and MacArthur Park. Nearly 50% vacant in 1994, the mall is now 92% occupied.

But turning Broadway into a downtown version of a suburban mall would waste its greater potential. Once cleaned up, Broadway would reveal, like a retouched old photo, a bracing urban landscape, a cornucopia of early 20th-century architectural gems unrivaled west of Chicago. With the restoration of such grand old theaters as the Los Angeles, the Orpheum and the State, developer Legaspi envisions the emergence of a kind of urban shopping and entertainment district with a special, but not exclusive, emphasis on Latino culture. He cites the huge success of Fiesta Broadway as evidence of the area's potentially magnetic appeal to the increasingly dispersed Latino populace.

Broadway's buildings also should attract more arts-oriented Angelenos, particularly the under-30 crowd who have been a critical element in urban restorations in cities as diverse as Denver, Houston, New York and Boston. Speculators have been buying older properties in the historic core as well as in the adjacent jewelry district. Tom Gilmore, a real-estate investor, believes apartment and loft conversions could spark the area's development along the lines of San Diego's Gaslamp district.

At least one high-end user has discovered Broadway's potential--the entertainment industry. Over the past few years, the district's magnificence has attracted many a location shooting in its deserted alleys and on its gilded stages. The Los Angeles Theatre, built in the late 1920s, has become a virtual annex of the film and television industry, with more than 170 days of filming in the building in the past year alone.

Nicholas Latimer, who manages the property, says the theater, which hosted the premiere of Charles Chaplin's "City Lights," also attracts many European and Japanese visitors. "These theaters are evocative of a grandeur of the golden age of Hollywood," says Latimer. "It has a viable future. Remember: Broadway's no deader than Burbank was 20 years ago."

Another Broadway champion is the Los Angeles Conservancy, whose movie program, Last Remaining Seats, aims to bring people downtown to experience the street's movie houses. Ken Bernstein, the conservancy's director of preservation issues, said the organization has just launched a Commercial Center Task Force aiming to revive historical business districts. Initially, Hollywood was the district of choice, but success there has made Broadway its top priority.

To enjoy a renaissance, Broadway will require many things, especially inspired political leadership and entrepreneurial adventurousness, two assets sadly missing in most downtown recovery efforts. But the potential windfall to greater Los Angeles of restoring "everyone's downtown" would also be commensurably greater, proving to the world, and to ourselves, that this much maligned "city of suburbs" also possesses an urban heart as diverse, architecturally stunning and exciting as any in America.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World