Planned complex aims to help Pacoima neighborhood, entrepreneurs

At a busy but nondescript intersection in Pacoima, a real estate developer is trying to help revive the San Fernando Valley neighborhood with an open-air market and retail complex aimed at small entrepreneurs.

The complex on Van Nuys Boulevard at San Fernando Road will be called Zocalito of Pacoima, said developer Cary J. Lefton, chief executive of Sherman Oaks developer Agora Realty & Management Inc.

Zocalito will have walkways and plazas similar to small towns in Mexico when it opens in the fall. The concept has been successful at his company's larger Latino-oriented Plaza del Valle shopping center in Panorama City, Lefton said.

He hopes the new operation will become a template for developments in other neighborhoods where unpolished mom-and-pop operators seek to break out on their own.

The project is being built as a launching pad for first-time restaurateurs and shopkeepers, he said.

"We're looking for maybe someone who works in the back of a restaurant and trying to give them a helpful hand to get in their own business."

The help will not come as a direct subsidy; monthly rents will be above the market average at $2.50 to $6 a square foot. The advantage for tenants, the developer said, is that Agora will build the small restaurant spaces to meet city regulations. The spaces will have commercial-grade electrical and sewer systems and required food service fixtures such as grease interceptors that trap grease before it can flow into the city sewer system.

Lefton calls it a "plug and play" concept that will enable new businesses to rapidly hook up their equipment and hang out an "open" sign. They'll share the complex with two or three national brand tenants that should help draw foot traffic, he said.

Avoiding the upfront costs of preparing a small restaurant to meet building and safety codes can be a lifesaver for entrepreneurs launching on a financial shoestring, said Lefton, who has seen start-ups burn through all their capital trying to set up shop and fail before they can even open their doors.

The 18,000-square-foot Zocalito will have seven restaurant slots. Its 14 shops will be able to easily expand if a tenant's business takes off. At Plaza del Valle, for example, Milo's Pet Shop has grown from 200 square feet to 2,000 square feet since it opened a decade ago, Lefton said.

Zocalito's design is intended to invite people waiting for a bus to come inside, where there will be public restrooms and quick snacks for sale, said the project's architect, Alan Pullman, of Studio One Eleven. "A zocalito is a small public square."

There will be mature trees, landscaping, seating and a kids' play area.

Work begins on Playa Vista city center

Construction is underway on the long-awaited city center for the Playa Vista planned community near Marina del Rey that will include its first grocery store — a Whole Foods Market.

About the size of four city blocks, the $260-million shopping and apartment project called Runway is intended to be the commercial and social heart of the planned community that has been under construction for more than a decade on land south of Marina del Rey once controlled by aviation mogul Howard Hughes.

Playa Vista already has more than 3,200 residences and 2 million square feet of offices but lacks a commercial and social town center.

Runway is set to rise next to Jefferson Boulevard between Village Drive and McConnell Avenue and include a movie theater, "chef-driven" restaurants and shops. Apartments and office spaces are planned to rise above ground-floor retail shops and top out at four stories.

Upscale grocer Whole Foods is to move into a 35,755-square-foot space adjacent to McConnell Avenue on the retail center's ground level. Cinemark Theaters plans to operate a nine-screen theater with self-serve concession stands and an open plaza with a cocktail lounge.

Other planned retailers include CVS Pharmacy and a VeggieGrill, one of a chain of vegetarian restaurants based in Santa Monica. A national bank branch is also in the works.

The project, expected to be completed in less than two years, is being developed by Lincoln Property Co., Phoenix Property Co. and Paragon Commercial Group.

"This project has been a long time coming, so we are excited to be moving to the next stage in the development process and to be that much closer to injecting more energy into this already vibrant community," said David Binswanger, executive vice president of Lincoln Property.

The developers were aided by a new $150-million construction loan through a syndicate of banks led by Bank of America, Binswanger said.

Canopies are to mark entry points to Runway, and small gathering areas will be set up around fountains and fire pits. Included in the design by Los Angeles architecture firm Johnson Fain is a 1,400-car garage accessible from Jefferson.

A lantern-shaped tower with a steel mesh exterior and dramatic lighting is to house a central lanai lounge that will anchor the center and serve as Runway's central meeting place.

The town center is to have 420 apartments and 35,000 square feet of offices spread across three separate buildings.

New life for historic L.A. theater

One of the oldest buildings in downtown Los Angeles, the long-vacant Merced Theater near Olvera Street, will become the new home of city-run broadcaster L.A. CityView Channel 35.

The plan approved by the City Council will lead to renovations of the old building in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, the birthplace of Los Angeles. The Merced Theater was built in 1870 by William Abbot, the son of Swiss immigrants who settled in Los Angeles in 1854.

In 1858, he married the woman for whom he would name the theater, Maria Merced Garcia, the daughter of José Antonio Garcia and Maria Guadalupe Uribe, who were longtime residents of the Los Angeles pueblo.

The theater at 420 N. Main St. was designed by Ezra F. Kysor, the architect of the adjacent Pico House. The structure that seated an audience of 400 served as the center of theatrical activity in the city from 1871 to 1876. It was restored decades ago but does not meet modern safety codes necessary for occupancy.

L.A. CityView is the government-access television channel broadcast on Channel 35 to basic cable subscribers in Los Angeles. It provides live coverage of City Council meetings and original programming related to city departments, events and services.

The station will pay nearly $240,000 a year to rent the 14,255-square-foot property from El Pueblo, which is a city department. The station now rents a studio in the privately owned Union Bank Building in Little Tokyo.

"This is a win for the residents of Los Angeles, the historic Merced Theater and El Pueblo Historical Monument, as well as Channel 35," Councilman Jose Huizar said. "We will reactivate a building that has sat empty for years, while allowing us to continue to provide much-needed programming through Channel 35."

In addition to a structural retrofit to meet current code, the renovation will include construction of a digital television studio, electrical, gas, fire suppression, mechanical, plumbing, fire and security alarm upgrades, as well as historical preservation documentation.

The city's Bureau of Engineering and Information Technology Agency will set aside $19 million to $23 million to cover the expected renovation costs using Public Education and Governmental Access fee receipt revenue that can be used only for related capital expenses, Huizar's office said.

roger.vincent@latimes.com

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