Downtown’s development boom nears historic Olvera Street

$135-million mixed-use development near Olvera Street is approved
Artist’s conception of development that will have 341 apartments as well as shops and community facilities. Twenty percent of the residential units will be set aside for affordable housing.
(Johnson Fain)

The revitalization of downtown Los Angeles is reaching the heart of the city’s historic birthplace with the approval Tuesday of a $135-million development of 341 apartments as well as shops and community facilities near Olvera Street and Union Station.

Olvera Street merchants hope the project will give a boost to the tourist attraction just north of the Civic Center, in an area which so far has not seen the development boom remaking other downtown neighborhoods.


Downtown development: A headline on an article in the Oct. 29 California section about downtown development misspelled Olvera Street as Olivera. —
The plan will funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the nonprofit La Plaza de Cultura y Artes Foundation, which runs a nearby cultural center dedicated to Los Angeles’ Mexican American history.


The deal, unanimously approved by the county Board of Supervisors, allows La Plaza Partners — an affiliate of Dallas developer Trammell Crow — to build on two public parking lots. The cultural foundation will lease the lots from the county for $1 and sublet them to the developer for $250,000 a year during construction and $400,000 or more annually thereafter.

Twenty percent of the residential units will be set aside for affordable housing, available to families making as much as 80% of the area’s median income. Space for restaurants and retail shops, as well as a kitchen the foundation would use for cooking classes and demonstrations, are being incorporated into the design. So is a bicycle parking and repair area, and a pedestrian trail linking Union Station to the nearby Fort Moore Pioneer Monument.

Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles, a downtown business group, said the area around Union Station has “kind of languished in terms of development” as other downtown areas have been revitalized over the last 15 years.

“We think this is a very important project,” she said.


The county will give up about $565,000 a year in income from the parking lots. That loss will be partially offset by property tax revenues of about $325,000 a year from the development, officials said.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, who serves as an unpaid board member for the La Plaza foundation, said the development will benefit the community.

“Instead of just having these parking lots there that aren’t doing anything, we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the whole area,” Molina said.

The county — and Molina’s office in particular — provided most of the money to open the La Plaza cultural center three years ago and now pays $2.5 million annually for maintenance costs. The foundation has periodically struggled to bring in additional money needed to run its programs.

John Echeveste, CEO of the foundation, said that the group’s finances have stabilized and that income from the new development would enable the cultural center to expand its offerings, including possibly adding a farmer’s market.

Shop and restaurant owners on nearby Olvera Street said they expect the project to bring more foot traffic and potential customers.

The street had struggled in recent years, with some merchants blaming the recession as well as increased competition from L.A. Live and other downtown venues.

Olvera Street, situated in the area where the city was born in 1781, is home to dozens of craft shops, restaurants and businesses. The new development site is just north of the 101 Freeway between Hill and Spring streets.


“Right now we have a desolate piece of property being used for nothing more than parking space,” Edward Flores, whose family has owned a cafe on Olvera Street for 80 years, told county supervisors. “It will beautify the area and finally bring in night life.”

Some expressed concern about increased traffic and how the new structures will blend in with older buildings in the historic area.

Gina Rodriguez, another Olvera Street business owner, voiced support, but cautioned, “We do not want retail establishments that will be in conflict with any of the merchants currently on Olvera Street.”

Edward Martinez, an employee at one of the kiosks along Olvera Street, said he was curious to see what kind of retail the project would attract. The opening of a nearby Chinatown Wal-Mart store affected mom and pop shops in the area, he said. That “probably won’t happen to us,” he said. “This is more historic handcrafted arts.”

Overall, the new homes and businesses in downtown have dramatically changed the area for the better, Martinez said.

“But when I look at the buildings, I wonder who can really afford to live there,” he said. “Probably someone making six figures, not someone making minimum wage.”

Times staff writer Adolfo Flores contributed to this report.


Get our Essential California newsletter