As the Aug. 15 deadline for voting draws near, proponents of a plan to create a business improvement district in Chinatown believe the measure is increasingly likely to pass.

"I'm pretty confident, and so are the merchants, that the votes are there to win," said Marco LiMandri, principal of New City America, a consulting firm on BIDs that is handling the proposal.

If passed, the BID would be the first effort of its kind in a Chinese ethnic neighborhood in the United States.

The Los Angeles Chinese Business Council (CBC) and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce have asked property owners to approve a contract that would provide for clean and safe streets, beautification, and marketing campaigns to revitalize the 24-block Chinatown area. Approximately 200 bilingual petitions were distributed to area business owners asking if they would participate.

Heavy-hitting backers

The BID has the support of City Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose district includes Chinatown, and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who is running for the local Assembly seat. It has been guided by an all-volunteer advisory committee enlisted by the CBC that is made up of such civic heavyweights as philanthropist Caroline Ahmanson, Gayle Garner Roski (wife of high-profile developer Ed Roski Jr.), and Pacific Asian Museum Director David Kamansky.

The BID proposal was driven by a sentiment that the neighborhood is living through hard times and something needs to be done.

"We need to get our Chinatown back to where it was in the '50s and '60s. We need to make it clean and safe, and a place where people want to come. Otherwise we're dead," said Roland SooHoo, a member of Chinatown Corp., the owner of Central Plaza, mixed-use complex in the heart of the neighborhood.

SooHoo says a number of developments have brought new energy to Chinatown, including an influx of art galleries over the past two years, a change of ownership at the vacancy-riddled Bamboo Plaza, the coming construction of a Pasadena Blue Line Metro Rail station and Laeroc Partners' plans for a luxury hotel, eatery, and cultural center on the former Little Joe's Restaurant site.

LiMandri pointed to China's probable designation as a favored trading partner as another positive for the area. "As Chinese capital looks to concentrate in Southern California, where does it put its base?" he asked. "If Chinatown can capture a lot of that business, it can do some tremendous things."

LiMandri, whose San Diego-based firm specializes in BID proposals for ethnic neighborhoods, confirmed that the process has not come without opposition or acrimony.

"There are tremendous social forces in Chinatown," he said, adding that the community is organized differently than any other ethnic group he's worked with. "It has family associations, and understanding that dynamic was one of the biggest challenges."

These family associations are as old as Chinatown itself. Many own property that is noncommercial, and these families are not thrilled with the assessment necessary to finance a BID, said Holly Barnhill, marketing director for the CBC.

The proposal calls for an assessment of $1.2 million each year for 10 years, with each property owner assessed according to the property's value, the income it generates, and other characteristics.

Barnhill said there is a sentiment that many of the BID proponents are outsiders, even speculators, with little history in Chinatown.

"There was a sense that BID proponents didn't go through the normal channels in trying to get it approved," she said. "They ran a grassroots campaign rather than address the association elders."

SooHoo, whose great-grandfather Peter help found Central Plaza, dismisses such criticisms. "These people are demonstrating a true commitment with their time and money," he said, referring to BID supporters like Ahmanson and Roski. "Their hearts are in the right place. I wouldn't put the legacy of Peter SooHoo up for sale."

A controversial project

Some of the neighborhood conflicts have crystallized in a battle over the future of the Cornfield parcel north of Chinatown. Ed Roski's Majestic Realty has proposed development of a light-industrial warehouse complex. That proposal has split Chinatown between those who feel the project would bring much-needed jobs and money, and others who want the land to be used to address a shortage of schools, parks and housing.

The project got a big boost last week when it was approved by the Central Area Planning Commission. Construction of the $80 million complex could start by the end of the year, unless it is delayed in court.

Chin said the Cornfield issue raises so much emotion because the parcel is perceived as a last opportunity for Chinatown's expansion. The land touches the L.A. River at a certain point, so it is also on the agendas of environmental groups.

"There's so much activity going on in Chinatown," concluded LiMandri, "and the broad base of property owners have decided to respond to all the forces acting upon the area. Places like Chinatown have an ethnic history and charm that can't be reproduced. BIDS are key to taking advantage of that."

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