September 30, 1997 - From the September, 1997 issue

The Potential of Historic El Pueblo: A Candid Prognosis

L.A.’s birthplace is preparing for major changes. Proposals are coming in to redevelop the South Block area. And the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument Authority is exhibiting great leadership in beginning to manage Olvera Street and the rest of El Pueblo as a single entity, worthy of its central position in Downtown’s Civic Center Diamond. But despite being a top tourist stop, the job is not easy. It entails balancing ethnic interests who have shared in El Pueblo’s history—[Tongva,] Chicanos, Italians, Chinese, French and Yankees. And it means striking an even more difficult balance between merchants on one side of Olvera Street loyal to City Councilman Richard Alatorre, and merchants on the other who are loyal to his rival, County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

TPR explores these issues in the following interview with Lydia Lopez and L.A. City Assets Manager Dan Rosenfeld, both driving forces in L.A.’s civic revitalization.


"We are supposed to be the salespeople as well as the policy makers."

Lydia, as the first President and now the Vice President of the Board of Commissioners of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority, share with our readers the composition and purpose of the El Pueblo Authority?

Lydia Lopez: It’s a five member board, made up of an architect, a historian, an arts person, an attorney, a real estate person, and a community person. It was created by ordinance around 1992.

The idea was to bring governance closer and to El Pueblo. That includes renegotiating long-term leases with the merchants who have been renting month-to-month, developing a merchant advisory board, developing a "friends" group to raise some additional revenue, and establishing a department. We have already established the City department, and we have an acting General Manager.

What are your dreams and expectations regarding the El Pueblo Authority's ability to capitalize on the emergence of Union Station as Los Angeles' metropolitan multimodal transportation center?

Lydia Lopez: It's going to be a boon for us. As the number of people using mass transit increases, more and more people will be able choose to come here to shop, eat dinner or have a  drink. The challenge I would is right here before us.

I would love to see tables and chairs in the Plaza area so people could come after work and hear some music, have a drink, and then get on the train. We are limited only by our own imagination and what we can put together in the political world.

I must say that the people around us have been really good neighbors—the Catellus people, in particular. We've had events together. And we have been involved in some of the planning for their potential work in this area.

On the Main Street side, the County Building has been something of an eye­sore, though. So we asked L.A. County Supervisor Molina to help. She came to our meeting last month and said that she was embarrassed at the sight of these buildings, and felt it is the County's responsibility  to paint them and secure them.

Dan, as the staff asset manager for the City of Los Angeles, elaborate on the City's role in revitalizing Olvera Street, Union Station and the City Hall connection—the Ten-minute Diamond?

Dan Rosenfeld: In less than a half-mile, there are about eight separate projects occurring. These should help create a continuous retail and pedestrian-oriented environment from Union Station all the way to the Civic Center. If the Union Station multimodal transportation center is ever going to serve the Civic Center and its over 50,000 office workers, we have to make the experience of leaving the Station into an attractive one.

Even though to walk from Union Station to Olvera Street takes only about seven minutes, you are only in the shade for about five seconds. The King of Spain instructed Spanish settlers—I guess we've forgotten this along the way—that in hot climates, you should have narrow streets and leafy trees. Those kinds of  improvements aren't that expensive. 

So the Plaza area, Olvera Street and the Pico-Garnier Buildings become part of a continuous pedestrian experience. We are hoping Union Station will anchor one end of it, and the City's redevelopment of the L.A. Mall will form the other end. This will be available to literally tens of thousands of people a day—not just visitors, but, most importantly, regular office workers walking through this district as part of their normal day.

The eight projects: please sketch out for our readers each one.

Dan Rosenfeld: Union Station has been undergoing a major transformation under the Catellus Corporation. It's already a gorgeous facility and will only get more beautiful as they continue to restore it. Also, they are making good progress on plans to build underground parking and create a surface-level park immediately in front of Union Station. The third project involves a minor relocation of Los Angeles Street so that pedestrians leaving Union Station can cross directly into the plaza.

The fourth project is the repaving and landscaping of the Plaza itself, a project that Nick Patsouras and the MTA have been working on—something this City should have done long ago. The Plaza is the birthplace, the heart, and the symbolic and historic center of this City. As such, it deserves treatment appropriate for one of the largest cities created the by King Philip the II.

Moving south, the next project is the Pico and Garnier  Buildings, which are out to bid for redevelopment. The sixth project is a series of bridges over the freeway proposed by the MTA and Nick Patsouras, who are working on them.

Seventh is the Los Angeles Mall. We got approval this morning from the Municipal Facilities Committee to issue a request for qualifications for the redevelopment of that mall with the emphasis on improving the street-level environment. The eighth and last project, is the seismic rehabilitation and restoration of Los Angeles City Hall.

Lydia, please share with us, as an El Pueblo Commissioner, your reaction to the Civic Center Master Plan. And, could you share with our readers the substance of the exchanges between the Civic Center Authority and your commission? How does, for example, the El Pueblo Commission maintain the authenticity and dignity of Olvera Street in the midst of this potential redevelopment of the Civic Center?

Lydia Lopez: We were welcomed to the Civic Center Authority's meetings and met early on with Nick Patsouras and some of the project teams so wouldn't be left behind. We are very enthusiastic about seeing these plans develop.

We'll be greening and moving some of the streets to make the intersections work a little bit better. So maintaining this quaint Mexican marketplace and not getting overrun by what's happening around us will be a challenge. But the mix that grows in the area could be a wonderful thing. Other cities have to recreate oldtowns to get people into their centers. We already have our oldtown, our historic district. It just needs a little fixing up.

One of our main projects during our first year was a great deal of seismic retrofitting. These buildings are very, very old and needed quite a bit of work. So, with the assistance of the City, we did all of the retrofitting necessary to protect the masonry prior to another major earthquake.

Those improvements spurred some of the merchants to make investments themselves. And once the merchants get their long-term leases, they will begin to look at their business in the long term, not just month-to-month. And they will begin to make changes on their own. I hear that from them already when we talk about improving the Plaza and talk about the South Block development. We also have the support of our Councilman and Supervisor, which makes a huge difference.

Offer us your thoughts on the proposed new connections between Olvera Street and Chinatown and Fort Moore, as well as what the El Pueblo Commission believes are the advantages and disadvantages of those connections?

Lydia Lopez: Some of the streets here are so wide, they have obviously been produced for cars, not for people. This plan gets people back on the street and the sidewalk, and gets greenery up again. If a roof goes in over the 101, maybe shops could be put in.

The new connections will recreate a feeling of a center. There will be a better set of linkages. People could actually walk here from Chinatown. People could walk from here to get on the train. I'll know that if I'm going in to L.A., I can leave the car behind. I'II take the train from Pasadena and be at Union Station in 10 minutes. And I then can walk to the Children's Museum because the door will be open on the north side as opposed to on the south side. It makes all of this more manageable.

In Los Angeles we don't think we have feet. Maybe people will discover that they have feet again.

Dan Rosenfeld: In addition, one of the fascinating things about this territory is the inclusiveness of its history. As we all know, the City was founded in this spot by 44 individuals from Mexico, 28 of whom were of African descent. This area later became an Italian neighborhood, a Chinese neighborhood, and, on its borders, a Japanese neighborhood. And, up the street a bit, the Fort Moore area stands as a symbol of the American conquest and occupation.

In this middle ground, the Civic Center area, you have the meeting of all these historical elements that have contributed to the form of the City. 

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There has got to be some way in the environment we've created, without being tacky or superficial about it, to respect the tremendous contributions of each of these influences. 

Lydia Lopez: Yes. This neighborhood was a very important gathering place for Italians at the turn of the century. On one of the walls of Italian Hall there is a Siqueros mural. We're working with Dr. Miguel Angel Corso of the Getty Conservation Institute to conserve it, provide a viewing stand over two buildings here and produce interpretative information and exhibits. We've already built the elevators.

The Museum of Chinese American History is also being built as we speak in the two bays over at the Garnier building.

So amidst all of this talk about a multicultural city, we have it here in reality, we don't have to make it up. It was here right from the beginning.

Lydia, why don't you summarize for our readers why you believe all previous efforts at El Pueblo rehabilitation have failed?

Lydia Lopez: Because there wasn't close hands-on management and there wasn't a direct dialogue with the merchants. We now have a unique & very important relationship with the merchants. If we don't blow it, we have a wonderful opportunity. 

Dan—Elaborate on the request for bids for the Pico-Garnier building. 

This round will be a good set of test cases. The restoration of the Pico House, a hotel built in 1869, and the Garnier building, built by a Frenchman as a tenement for primarily Chinese families, is just a small part of the wonderful irony of this place. 

The mission in the Pico-Garnier bid is to do an extensive historic restoration, providing a considerable amount of space for non-profits but still having enough tasteful retail space to pay the bills. The load of non-revenue producing goodies in proportion to revenue producing opportunities is going to be a very interesting challenge for a developer. 

The City Mall presents similar challenges in the sense of limiting the amount of retail we can create because of the deference we have to pay to the surrounding federal court buildings. 

The real test—as with the Civic Center Master Plan—is, can these different groups work together? We have the County on one side of the street and the City on the other. They haven't always had the closest of personal or institutional relationships. We have the merchants association, who is very protective of their special circumstances. We have the ambitious private-sector plans for Union Station. We have City parking authorities—bureaucratic institutions, all coming together voluntarily to try to do something that no single part can individually control. It's going to be a test of collective will and, again, the ability to cooperate. 

Lydia—Do you believe this test of collective wills and successful cooperation will actually come to pass?

Lydia Lopez: In the last several years, I've seen that the various merchant groups are talking to one another. That relationship is very fragile, but they're doing it in the midst of some competing interests. And just the fact that they're talking to one another is very significant. 

Dan Rosenfeld: This environment intrinsically possesses so much tradition, heritage and international significance that the potential is really enormous. 

We talk about not having money. But it's hard for me to believe that one of the top two or three tourist attractions in California, if properly managed, shouldn't have the money to accomplish whatever it needs to accomplish. 

It has to be done with great sensitivity to the scale of the area and to what succeeds today. It's not a theme park, it's not a regional mall, it's not even a main street like in Santa Monica or Pasadena. It's something very different here. And that's going to be a real challenge for all of us.

Why isn't Olvera Street like Faneuil Hall in Boston or Pike Street Market in Seattle? What's been the inhibitor? 

Dan Rosenfeld: I hope that in ten years it will be. Faneuil Hall, as you know, was a very difficult project to get started. There was great skepticism in Boston about ever using the waterfront. And the Pike Street Market—I recall from my days as child in Seattle—was in a deteriorated area of the City—the original Skid Row, in fact. 

In both cases they found a unique local flavor. It's the flying fish in Seattle, and it's the maritime themes and very old New England traditions in Boston. Somehow that theme has to be found here, too. It's really a self-analysis process for Southern California, what happened here? How do we present it to our kids? To what degree is it mythologized by Zorro and Ramona? 

It's a very potent opportunity and I hope it is done with great respect for historical integrity. We have some very good historians on the El Pueblo Commission staff and we don't want to turn it into a kitsch, T-shirt-oriented tourist place. We want to do something much more respectful of the past.

Lydia, let's close by asking you what readers should be looking for in the way of signs of progress and signs of retreat, especially in light of the commissions' most recent action which effected the rents of the current merchants. 

Lydia Lopez: I'm hopeful we will be able to come up with rent agreements that are fair to the merchants and, at the same time, fiscally responsible, so that we are able to fulfill our revenue needs. People can watch for the signage to perk up for the development of the South Block. They can look forward to more and more events that they will hear about soon. 

When I tell friends all over the region and the country that I have a connection to Olvera Street and El Pueblo Park, they say, Oh, yes—Olvera Street. I was there as a kid with my parents. They used to take me there and we'd have taquitos, I believe taquitos were invented here. 

So I invite them to Olvera Street for lunch and show them the different shops—the beautiful silver, beautiful folk art and the beautiful costumes they can buy. 

We are supposed to be the salespeople as well as the policy makers. And we can actually see the fruits of our labor. We can say thank goodness the buildings are in a safer condition. We're now looking at the parking situation to make sure that we're optimizing our revenues there. And we're going to continue looking at the development and the RFP in September. 

Watch the news. And come to our fiestas—they're wonderful.

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