Friday, April 06, 2007

Downtown's Main Street Goes From Heroin Row to Retail Row!

All the work the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and other groups and individuals have put into turning Main Street from the drug center of Los Angeles to the true Main Street for all residents of Downtown is finally paying off:

Main Street Makeover

Crime Crackdown and New Businesses Are Changing One of Downtown's Roughest Strips

by Kathleen Nye Flynn

Take a walk on Main Street between Fourth and Seventh and the most remarkable thing is what's no longer there: Mostly gone are the loitering crowds, the drug dealers and the addicts looking to buy.
Gilad Lumer plans to open three retail spaces on the ground level of a Main Street parking structure. A recent clean-up between Fourth and Seventh streets has led to a flurry of construction. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Instead, last Monday morning, the street was lively with area workers and dotted with construction crews. While it's no Beverly Hills, or even Bunker Hill, a cleaned-up Main Street has been an increasingly common sight in recent months, following an LAPD and City Attorney crackdown on crime in the area.

Now, there are even signs of financial investment in what has historically been one of Downtown's roughest strips.

The trend is helping connect two emerging residential hubs: the Old Bank District at Fourth and Main streets, and the buildings on either side of Sixth Street.

For decades, the area teemed with drug dealers, gangs and crime. Even as other neighborhoods in Downtown Los Angeles grew safer and pedestrian-friendly, the Main Street strip - at the western edge of Skid Row - was known as a place to buy heroin.

Recently, the LAPD brought down the Fifth and Hill gang, which had used Main Street as a drug bazaar for nearly 30 years. Since then, crime has remained low in the area, according to Central Division officials.


Building on the Old Bank

The Fourth and Main hub began in 2000, when developer Tom Gilmore opened his first apartment complex, the San Fernando Lofts. Two other apartment buildings and Pete's Café followed.

In ensuing years, a collection of art galleries sprung up around Fifth and Main streets. Additionally, a group of retailers and restaurants opened south of Gilmore's apartment complexes: Old Bank DVD, the Stella Dottir clothing boutique, Vietnamese restaurant Blossom and Metropolis Books joined Banquette cafe and the Old Bank District Market. Blossom and the market are currently expanding.

However, the momentum stopped at Fifth and Main. The corner was home to a food market called Alina's Place and an adult bookstore. Drug dealers held court in front of the buildings and people loitered on the sidewalk.

Last July, the Central Division's narcotics unit raided Alina's and found drugs and stolen merchandise. Now the space is being transformed. A construction worker at the former Alina's last week said a new restaurant, with an outdoor patio, is almost complete. The property owner, who also owned the market and adult bookstore, could not be reached for comment.

The City Attorney's office has also targeted Main Street businesses where the owners allegedly turned a blind eye to drug dealing and prostitution. In February, the office filed charges against Craby Joe's bar and Mr. Fish restaurant, located at Seventh and Main streets.

Mixed Neighborhood

The makeup of Main has long been diversified by the block between Fifth and Sixth streets, which bustles with social service organizations such as Chrysalis and the Weingart Center, as well as several single room occupancy hotels.

Here, too, entrepreneurs are eyeing business opportunities. Monica May, owner of Banquette, has tentative plans to transform a taco stand at 524 S. Main St. into a diner in the vein of Swingers. She said she hopes to debut in four to six months, seat 50 people and stay open late into the night.

On the west side of the street, the owner of a parking garage is also creating retail. On the ground floor of the parking structure, a 3,500-square-foot building will hold up to three commercial businesses, said Gilad Lumer, Los Angeles regional manager of Five Star parking. Although the lot was always outfitted for ground-floor retail, Lumer said that the company waited for the right time to utilize the space.

"When we started this whole project we had at any given hour a handful or dozens of homeless people gathered in front of the lot, which doesn't help in getting tenants. Now that has disappeared," he said.

Lumer has hired a broker to fill the spaces, which will be complete in about a month, and said he is looking at both national retailers as well as independent start-ups. In addition to the retail, Lumer said he plans to paint the parking garage; the garish turquoise will give way to a modern mix of gray and burgundy. He said he is looking for public funds to replace a faded mural on the side of the garage.

The area clean up could create a walkable path between the Old Bank District and Sixth and Main streets, where two major housing complexes are also building new retail and restaurant outlets.

The Santa Fe Lofts, a market-rate condominium building on the northwest corner, is currently awaiting permits for a restaurant, bar, gallery, cafe and a barbershop. The restaurant will face Main Street.

On the southwest corner, the ground-floor retail of the 314-apartment Pacific Electric Lofts will open within six months, said Elizabeth Peterson, CEO of EPG Entertainment Services. That development will include a fine-dining restaurant and a gourmet grocer, she said.

Also on the ground floor, facing either Sixth or Los Angeles Street, will be two cafes, service stores and The Association, a jazz club run by the team responsible for The Room in Hollywood and Little Temple in Silver Lake. The building's original bar, Coles, will reopen, operated by 213 Ventures.

"The area between Sixth and Fourth and Spring and Main streets is going to be the most densely populated place in Downtown so far," said Alex Moradi, managing partner at ICO Development, which developed the Pacific Electric Lofts. "Ultimately, it's going to be Main Street USA with an artsy twist to it."

Alternative to L.A. Live

The law enforcement crackdown coincides with a recent city grant that allocated $100,000 for street lighting. Another $250,000 will add trees and planters to Main Street within six months.

All told, the street is changing quickly. Business owners who once battled it out in an underserved area now are seeing a new clientele.

"We moved in here two and a half years ago, and were chasing people from smoking crack in front of our door," said May of Banquette. "Yesterday, I stood outside and watched a guy walk by with two dogs and a baby stroller. This neighborhood is completely changed."

However, some are wary that the fix could be temporary. They say that if the police ever stop their heightened patrols, the dense homeless population will return to the area for the available services, and the drug dealers would soon follow.

"There are now fewer people on the streets and I barely ever see drug deals any more," said Adlai Wertman, CEO of Chrysalis, an agency that helps the formerly homeless re-enter the work force. "The question is, when will they return? I have every reason to believe they are going to come back."

Brady Westwater, vice president of DLANC, said that Main Street's mixture of homeless services and several permanent supportive housing facilities, along with low-income units at the Rosslyn Hotel at Fifth and Main streets, will keep the neighborhood diverse.

He added that the economic variety will make Main Street an alternative to Downtown mega-projects like L.A. Live and the Grand Avenue development that will bring expensive eateries and high-end stores.

"Main Street is going to become Main Street by having a little of everything on it," Westwater said. "There will be residential service stores that appeal to everybody of all price ranges. It's always going to have the mix of businesses on it, and it is a healthy, organic mix."

Contact Kathleen Nye Flynn at


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