Staff Reporters

The first seeds of redevelopment activity have been quietly planted in L.A.'s Chinatown, which remains a hodgepodge of mostly rundown shops and older residents largely resistant to the kinds of renovation taking place in other parts of the city.

In recent months, several private developers have begun acquiring property in and around Chinatown, and with a Pasadena Blue Line station on the drawing board, the long-deteriorating community is showing nascent signs of renewal.

While activity remains in its very early stages, today's Chinatown is somewhat reminiscent of Hollywood a few years ago, before the redevelopment boom took hold.

"People forget all the stuff we had to go through for years in Hollywood. It was a struggle to get anything done," said Len Betz, Chinatown project manager with the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency, and former Hollywood project manager. "Chinatown has kind of hit bottom. Communities have to get to that point before there's any real interest, but I see a resurgence of interest that wasn't there before."

Betz said L.A. redevelopment typically follows a pattern, Hollywood being a notable example. Immigrants move to an area, businesses thrive, succeeding generations take their prosperity elsewhere, and the old neighborhood is left to decline. Eventually, a developer with deep pockets and access to capital makes the first move back, sparking a revival.

In Hollywood, that deep-pocketed developer was TrizecHahn Corp., with its massive Hollywood & Highland project.

"You need a catalytic project, whether it's an outside developer or someone from within," said land-use attorney Jerold Neuman, who added that private developers are "poking around (Chinatown), trying to get a sense of how it will work."

Kim Alan Benjamin of Manhattan Beach-based LaeRoc Partners Inc. is one of those developers. He has just invested $10 million for a large retail center in Chinatown and is convinced that the community "has a real opportunity for prosperity and growth."

Benjamin plans to invest an additional $750,000 to renovate the 125,000-square-foot Dynasty Center, which is fully occupied with 113 family-owned retail and wholesale businesses. He's looking at other Chinatown acquisitions as well.

While Benjamin's investment is the largest thus far, Majestic Realty Co. is in the process of buying a 32-acre parcel just east of Chinatown, a site known as "the Cornfield," where plans are being made to undertake large-scale industrial development.

Within Chinatown proper, the Riboli family, which owns the nearby San Antonio Winery, has just acquired the Capitol Milling property behind now-defunct Little Joe's restaurant. Riboli has also purchased 9,500 square feet of land diagonally across from Capitol Milling.

"Chinatown is going to undergo a tremendous transformation," said Steve Riboli. "As a local company, eight blocks away, we feel very strong about the area. We're probably ahead of the developing cycle by two or three years."

Pointing out that Chinatown also used to be Little Italy, Riboli thinks the area will improve by blending non-Chinese businesses with its traditional offerings. "It's a wonderful area, but probably needs a mix of other types of businesses," he said.

Meanwhile, a group of non-Chinese investors are expressing interest in the Little Joe's site, where a major mixed-use project is envisioned to be tied in with a Blue Line Metro station proposed for the adjacent site.

"You're talking about 8,200 square feet of dirt that could be developed into a 500,000-square-foot space," said David Louie, a real estate broker at CB Richard Ellis Inc.

Already under construction is a 14,000-square-foot retail center at Spring and Ord streets, a project being developed by Peter Kwong, who has owned and operated two hotels in Chinatown for many years.

"My long-term thinking of Chinatown is, it's going to be taken over (by outside interests)," said Kwong, though he still expects that the "majority portion will remain Chinese."

Those outside investors may be waiting to see how two major wild cards are played out.

The first, and by far more likely of the two, is the light-rail line between Union Station and Pasadena, which is slated to begin operating in July 2003.

The envisioned Blue Line station at North Spring and College streets would provide an impetus for downtown and suburban residents to come back to Chinatown and bring much-needed dollars with them.

Developers have shown considerable interest in the prospective station, but any negotiations for the site are at least six months away, said Larry Miller, interim chief executive for the Blue Line project.

"The station, located at the gateway of Chinatown, should be a great catalyst for a whole range of opportunities," Miller said.

A second wild card is the possibility, first raised by NFL owners last month, of relocating the Dodgers to Exposition Park, freeing up Chavez Ravine, current site of Dodger Stadium, for residential development. Such a scenario, still in the preliminary stages, would bring thousands of new residents to the area, enhancing the viability of retail development in nearby Chinatown.

Even if the Dodgers stay put, said Neuman, there's an opportunity to create pedestrian and transit links between Chinatown and the rest of downtown, Little Tokyo, Olvera Street and industrial areas to the north.

"You have an underserved population from an entertainment and retail perspective, and an area that can handle industrial," Neuman said. "It has all the components that make for great economic development."

While Chinatown holds vast potential, the area remains full of contradictions and complexities. Several nondescript retail buildings have thriving shops inside, while others are ghost towns.

There are banks everywhere, but two neighborhood groceries recently closed, and there are no major supermarkets or fast-food restaurants.

The lack of big markets is testimony to a reluctance by major retailers to move into an area that has a large elderly population. The banks are testimony to the vast amount of cash held by older Chinese immigrants. Many Chinatown properties are owned free and clear mortgages having been paid off decades ago. Yet these owners have been reluctant to invest in redeveloping their properties, instead choosing to sock away the cash in neighborhood banks.

Still, there are some stirrings of interest from within. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce has formed a business development committee and budgeted $300,000 to come up with plans to revitalize the area. They also are discussing forming a business improvement district.

The hope is that such efforts will help reverse Chinatown's image of being dirty and unsafe (which some blame on the area's frequent use as a location for movies about martial arts and Asian gangs).

"Chinatown has always gotten a bad rap," said Don Toy, a resident and chairman of the CRA's Chinatown Community Advisory Committee. "It's an unfair image" (though to the chagrin of many there's an application pending for an adult entertainment nightclub on Alpine Street).

Besides movie producers, other targets blamed for hindering a revival include the CRA and district Councilman Mike Hernandez.

"The biggest problem we have is a lack of leadership and a councilman who totally ignores our interests. The CRA can't get anything done," said Peter Woo, the Chinese Chamber's president and an influential businessman. Hernandez "is an example of how a community can be destroyed by political leaders."

Some local leaders accuse Hernandez of letting Toy, Hernandez's appointee to the advisory committee, dictate the pace of development and obstruct plans.

"People who continue to make that accusation are the people who want to develop Chinatown for their own interests," Hernandez said. "There is a lack of ability to put together a common vision for Chinatown."

Some local leaders acknowledge that internal divisions have hindered progress. "The community is not cohesive enough to attract new development," said Dunston Chang, president of Cathay Bank, which is contributing $100,000 to the development committee. "We have a part of the community that is not pro-business enough."

Chinatown, which originally had been farther east, was populated by workers brought to Southern California in the 1870s to build wagon routes, and later, railroads. Old Chinatown was displaced when Union Station was built. It was moved to its current location in 1938, and thrived there for several decades.

"When I first came to this country (in the late 1960s), I worked in Chinatown as a waiter. At that time, it was busy," said Pedro Chan, who has started educational and entertainment programs about Chinatown for seniors and students. "Business was there. Any time of day, there were a lot of people."

There still are. On a recent morning, Chinese men played Mah-Jongg in a small room at Central Plaza, where colorful lanterns are strung from one pagoda to another. School children crowded the sidewalks, while a handful of tourists threw coins into bowls marked with "long life" and "wealth" at the Chinatown Wishing Well.

Even so, many successful entrepreneurs have moved east, to Monterey Park, Hacienda Heights, Alhambra and other parts of the San Gabriel Valley. In fact, only 3 percent to 4 percent of L.A. County's Chinese population actually lives in Chinatown.

"When they get more affluent, they won't try to live here. It's almost a prestige thing," said Henry Leong, a Chinatown native who runs his family's noodle business, Quon Yick.

The dispersion of the community also means a lot of the amenities that once made Chinatown unique, including a language school and restaurants featuring various delicacies, can be found elsewhere.

But now some second-generation entrepreneurs are returning to the community, and some who never left are working to spur a turnaround.

Leong, for example, grew up in Chinatown. His father had an herb shop there in the late 1940s before he established the noodle company. Leong remembers watching Chinese movies with subtitles in three different theaters, as well as Chinese operas.

Though the noodle factory moved to Lincoln Heights and Vernon, Leong retains strong ties to Chinatown through his involvement in the Business Development Committee. He also built a new house on the site of his childhood home.

"For years, I made my living from Chinatown. My livelihood was derived from serving Chinatown. I feel very attached, not only because I grew up here," he said.

But others especially outsiders seem just as driven by economic opportunity as by nostalgia and a sense of duty.

"I love Chinatown and wish it were more vibrant. I think it will be so again," said Benjamin. "Where else can you go in L.A. County that's close to downtown and buy at a (good) price and have an opportunity for an infill location and upside?"

Betz agreed that attitudes may be changing.

"There seems to be a new viewpoint emerging from the Chinese community in Chinatown," he said. "They're looking at Little Tokyo and other neighborhoods and seeing those neighborhoods improve and thinking, 'Why aren't we improving? What do we need to do to get this community to remain the center of the Chinese-American community?' "

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