Dating back to 1917, Grand Central Market has gone through periods of popularity and quiet. Now, with structural upgrades underway and new vendors inhabiting the stalls, it is bustling with activity. TPR spoke with Adele Yellin, the woman behind these changes and wife of the late Ira Yellin, a developer who saw the potential of Downtown LA in the late 1980s when he purchased the space. Brenda Levin, the architect behind current improvements who realized Mr. Yellin’s original vision, joined the conversation.
“Finding concepts and vendors willing to take a risk on Grand Central Market was very difficult in the early months. Little by little we built on our successes integrating new tenants with our legacy tenants.” —Adele Yellin
Adele, much discussion is taking place about Downtown LA as a new and happening place. You are the owner of—and responsible for—one of the most significant, older institutions Downtown. What are you envisioning for refreshing and renewing Grand Central Market?
Adele Yellin: About two years ago our occupancy rate at Grand Central Market was 65 percent. Because of the downturn in the economy it was obvious that some legacy tenants in the market were struggling to survive. In addition, throughout the LA basin, newer Latino markets were taking a toll on our vendors’ sales. The population in Downtown Los Angeles was growing, but they were not frequenting the market. Many new foodie establishments—wonderful restaurants, with chef-driven ideas—were being opened Downtown. Grand Central Market always had small entrepreneurial vendors. Commercial, institutional vendors were never part of our market landscape.
The concept of entrepreneurial, high quality, chef-driven establishments resonated with me. We created a business plan that provided the structure to move the project forward. With the consent of our lenders, we began implementing the plan. Finding concepts and vendors willing to take a risk on Grand Central Market was very difficult in the early months. Little by little, we built on our successes integrating new tenants with our legacy tenants. The key to making the market democratic is maintaining the diversity of patrons and vendors. I hope that never changes.
Tell us about how Broadway has changed in the last 15 to 20 years.
Adele Yellin: Historically, Broadway was a vibrant street, but in the last many years it has fallen on hard times. Many buildings have ground floor tenants devoted to serving the Latino population, but the office buildings above, in most cases, are vacant. Historically, the newest immigrant population frequented the market and Broadway.
The market was a great place to go to buy certain foods that you probably couldn’t get anywhere else. I believe what happened over the last 15 years is that many unique offerings only available Downtown became available throughout the city. Who needs to go to the market for chilies when chilies are common at every supermarket in the city? Over time, we lost the business of the Latino population who frequented the stalls at Grand Central Market. The market began its decline.
Here, I must credit José Huizar with his initiative to revitalize Broadway. “Bringing Back Broadway” has transformed the area by attracting new businesses and cleaning up the streets. LAStreetcar along Broadway, another Huizar-championed concept, is close to becoming a reality. He is doing a yeoman’s job. I am appreciative of his commitment to and vision for the community.
According to the 1984 census, there were 3,000 people living in the historic core. That was the year Ira purchased the market. Now, in the Historic Core, there are over 50,000 residents. The median income is about $98,000. The new, young demographic living Downtown needs and wants produce, meat, cheese, and quick food offerings, but Grand Central Market did not attract these new residents. All in all, Ira’s initial investment in Downtown spurred development. However, in the process, the market in particular suffered from the changing demographic. When I took over the day-to-day operations, it was clear we needed a new direction.
Adele: You mentioned Ira, your deceased husband and his vision for Broadway. The City Council okayed the Grand Central Loan in 1992. Martha Groves wrote a piece in 1989 in the LA Times called “A Vision for LA’s Broadway: Developer Ira Yellin Hopes to Tie Together the New Downtown.” I wonder if you would allow me to quote a little bit from that article, and perhaps you could comment on what was written in 1989? Groves writes: “From atop his ornate Million Dollar Building at 3rd and Broadway, Ira E. Yellin surveys the patchwork that makes up downtown Los Angeles and dreams of ways to tie the diverse pieces together with Broadway as the centerpiece. To the west rise the gleaming office and residential towers of Bunker Hill. To the east lie Little Tokyo and the site of the new state office building… In the center rests Yellin’s own historic pocket—Grand Central Market, the Million Dollar Building and the soon-to-be-purchased landmark Bradbury Building.” Can you remember back, Adele, to talk about the vision and how it has evolved?
Adele Yellin: Ira went to Berkeley after graduating from law school. There, he did a Masters in Law, but he also took urban planning classes. Ira’s thesis posited that a city, deteriorating from the inside—the core—created a decline in the entire region. He believed reinvestment in the historic core is the key to creating a dynamic city as a whole. So, as I said, in 1984, he decided to test his idea in Downtown LA. He convinced many people to support and invest in the concept. Simply put, Ira was ahead of his time. Personally, at the time I thought it was a crazy undertaking. But it’s working now. His early investment has ultimately paid off, because what is happening here is a direct result of Ira putting all of those deals together, beginning in 1984. The new urbanism of Downtown is stimulating the entire region.
He was also a patron of historic architecture. Brenda Levin, you were the original architect for Ira. Your thoughts on the 20 years that have passed, from the perspective of Broadway?
Brenda Levin: It’s really exciting, Adele. I think of Ira all the time—about his prescience and about how sad it makes me that he’s not here to see it. I think we must note the change in the Downtown in terms of its residential character, and the age difference in terms of who frequents Grand Central Market, lives on Broadway, and lives in the historic core.
The youth have made this a vital neighborhood. It’s very exciting to see what you’re doing in the market. It is completely extraordinary. There’s been a preservation of the notion of entrepreneurial tenants, who continue to find the market such an appealing venue—and now slightly more upscale or foodie-oriented offerings are being added. It still maintains that entrepreneurial spirit that brought those original tenants, and all those who have evolved over the years, to the market.
Adele, share with our readers how you describe Grand Central Market to those who haven’t been there in years.
Adele Yellin: Grand Central Market is a mélange of different vendors. It brings together the cultures and cuisines of all LA. “Amazing Food, Amazing Place” is our tag line, and I think it describes the place perfectly. The market is open from 8am in the morning until 6pm. Grand Central Market applied for and received a CUP to serve beer and wine throughout the market. Now, individual vendors within the market are working with the state to obtain their individual ABC license. Once this happens, we’re hopeful the market will be open at night.
Diversity is the essence of the market. The legacy tenants include the world-famous pupuseria, Sarita’s Pupuseria, as well as the renowned Tacos Tumbras a Tomas and China Cafe. My team and I are recruiting a group of vendors who are literally transforming the look and offerings available. For example, we’ve just added Belcampo Meat. It’s a vertically integrated company selling organic grass-fed meat. Their butcher shop appeals to everyone shopping here. Belcampo is delighted that goat necks, sheep heads, and cow hooves have an audience here—as do their delicious beef, chicken, and pork cuts. They also have a counter where burgers, fries, and broccolini are served. Farm to table—what an exciting addition!
What physical improvements are you making?
Adele Yellin: The market was opened in 1917. We must deal with maintenance issues that are unique to a structure this old. I have convinced Brenda to work with me to update and refresh the design as she did with Ira in the 90’s. I feel she understands the market, she knows what Ira wanted, and she knows what I have in mind. We are very simpatico in our taste and attitude to the project. What I have in mind is a cleanup, but nothing fussy. I do not want this to be a gentrified place. I want this to be a real, authentic environment. I want the stalls to feel like they belong, reflecting the history of the market but moving into the 21st century.
The second half of this year we plan to start painting the entire market now that we have our color palette chosen. We plan to do some bathroom upgrades, as well. First, we’re going to do improvements to the existing bathrooms to tide us over until we can make an investment in new and expanded state-of-the-art bathrooms in the basement.
A cohesive table and seating plan is being worked on now. More seating up on the Hill Street side is a priority. The Market is a civic place to gather, and I want people to simply hang out—not in luxury but in comfort. Enjoy a coffee from G&B and a petit four from Valerie while you work on your computer.
We’re sharing ideas and resources with Redcat, CalArts, MOCA, the Music Center, dublab, KCRW, and the library, as well as the soon to open Broad Museum. Our shared goal is to create a full and meaningful Downtown experience. Working together we can bring people to the market, and bring the community together. That is part of my commitment.
Adele, consider the market and Ira Yellin Square’s connection to Bunker Hill, and thus the funicular, which has been so on-again-off-again. Can you talk about what must happen to make that connection permanent?
Adele Yellin: First off all, we absolutely need Angels Flight back. I think it’s as safe as it has ever been, because I personally brought in outside, third-party people to look at it. I know now that it is safe. But, we need political will to bring it back. I’m hopeful this will happen over the next month or so.
If we come back in two or three years and do this interview again, what will we be talking about that is different from today? What will have happened?
Adele Yellin: I think you’ll see a refreshed market. The place is going to be thriving. I think every single stall that we can lease will be full. It’s going to be fresh. I’m hopeful that the population will continue to be as dynamic as it is now.
There was a time about a year and a half ago when you walked through the market and it was empty. Now, you can hardly squeeze through. It’s fun, and just a thrill to see that. The crowds aren’t just the people who are living Downtown. They are some of the older visitors to the market that have been coming here for many, many years. We want to encourage that.
I feel like there’s going to be this cohesiveness. I even feel right now that all the vendors are working together inside the market in a way they never have before. They’re sharing concepts and they’re sharing insights. That is something that I want to continue.
I’m hopeful that in three years, maybe the streetcar will be in operation. This will make it easier for people to move up and down Broadway. I know that we’re going to have a new streetscape out there this June that is going to change everything on Broadway, as well. There will be more seating, chairs, tables, and not as much street traffic. It’s going to be so much more vibrant.
Adele, I want to close by going back to that Martha Groves article, with the following text, “With the payoff years away at best, Yellin recognizes that Grand Central Square, as the project is known, is a big gamble that hinges on patient investors, painstaking restoration, expensive modernization and success at negotiating a maze of bureaucratic systems... ‘I see Broadway as buildings being brought back to life, with full economic benefit for the owners, the merchants and the city,’ Yellin said in a recent interview. ‘I don’t want it to be (just) LA’s quaint piece of history.’” How’d he do?
Adele Yellin: I think Ira did really well and I believe I’m doing well interpreting his vision as well as expanding it. I’ve got a lot of help—supported by a crackerjack team, including Brenda and Andrea from her office. Tacos Tumbras a Tomas—a legacy tenant—is so excited about and committed to the future of Grand Central Market that he wants to upgrade his space and add eight linear feet to it. What an endorsement!
Brenda Levin: He’s number one on Yelp—the best tacos in LA.
Adele Yellin: We’re working with so many fabulous people. We’re trying to keep the people coming and it’s happening. It is thrilling.