After years of languishing in downtown's shadow, Chinatown is poised to become the next frontier for mixed-use development.


Several projects are expected to break ground within the next year that could spark even further interest in the area, including a major residential, retail and cultural center complex next to the Metro Gold Line station and a massive apartment complex on the southwest side of Chinatown.


Also on tap for next year are an adaptive reuse project and an affordable housing building. Other projects are in the planning stages and could break ground in the next couple of years.


"This activity is long overdue and we hope it's a catalyst for future development," said Charles Woo, chief executive of Megatoys Inc., who is also president of the Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council that includes Chinatown.


Assuming these projects go forward, they have the power to change the character of one of L.A.'s oldest neighborhoods, established nearly 150 years ago to accommodate Chinese laborers brought in to build wagon routes and then lay railroad tracks. The current Chinatown is about a mile to the northwest of the original settlement, which was razed in 1933 to make way for Union Station.


Chinatown went into decline in the 1950s after the Hollywood (101) Freeway sliced through the community. Small family-owned shops that dominated the neighborhood struggled to make ends meet. Starting in the 1970s, a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs moved to newer communities in the San Gabriel Valley, leaving behind a large population of elderly and poor residents.


In 1980, the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency declared the area blighted and set about building affordable housing projects. But the private investment needed to bring new market housing or commercial development didn't materialize.


When developers did broach projects, they often were met with stiff resistance from community activists who said the proposals were out of character for the neighborhood. Most notable was the intense opposition to a warehouse project proposed for the Cornfield, a 47-acre former rail yard bordering on Chinatown. That land is now being turned into a state park.


'The right time'
In recent years, the completion of the Gold Line, fa & #231;ade and streetscape improvements and a spillover effect from the hot downtown market have made Chinatown a more attractive place for developers of mixed-use projects. "It's the right time now for development. The pieces are all in place," said Bibiana Yung, the CRA's assistant project manager for Chinatown.


The Gold Line Chinatown station helped draw the interest of developer Larry Bond, who bought the site of the former Little Joe's Italian restaurant from Laeroc Partners LLC two years ago. Bond is proposing to build up to 262 market rate condominium units, 33,000 square feet of retail space and a 7,000-square-foot cultural and community center all within yards of the station.


The $100-million-plus project called Blossom Plaza after the mother of Laeroc president Kim Benjamin also includes a 660-space parking garage that would be used as a park-and-ride lot for Gold Line passengers.


"We view our project as a bellwether for the community," Bond said. "We especially like the proximity of transit and the Cornfield park area."


Bond said he would like to get final City Council approval for the project this fall and break ground next summer.


Just a couple of blocks away, developer Steve Riboli, whose family owns the nearby San Antonio Winery, is proposing to convert the old Capitol Milling building on Spring Street into artists' lofts and studios, along with some first-floor retail.


On Chinatown's south side, Bridge Residential Advisors plans to use the city's adaptive reuse laws to convert an old retail/restaurant building at Broadway and Ord Street. Bridge Residential's project calls for retail on the ground floor and 43 rental units on the upper three floors.


To the west, some of the most massive residential and mixed-use building Chinatown has ever seen is underway in the Orsini project by G.H. Palmer Associates. Located on the corner of Cesar Chavez Avenue and Figueroa Street, the three-phase project will bring more than 1,100 market rate apartments to the Chinatown area, which has suffered from a shortage of new market-rate housing.


"We view this as bringing suburbia to the downtown area in the form of workforce housing," said Peter Novak, executive vice president at G.H. Palmer.


Some complaints
The first phase, consisting of 296 rental units and 10,000 square feet of retail, opened last year. The second phase, which will have 566 rental units and 27,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, has begun construction and is expected to open next summer, Novak said.


A proposed third phase with 260 rental units and 13,000 square feet of retail and commercial space is in the preliminary planning stages.


While the Orsini project is being greeted enthusiastically by many Chinatown boosters, not everyone is pleased. "I have absolutely no objection to more housing, but the design of these buildings is terrible. They are fortress-like, not open to or facing the community," said Don Toy, president of the Chinatown Community Advisory Commission (set up under Community Redevelopment Agency auspices).


Toy also said the market rents will be out of reach for Chinatown's older and lower income residents.


One project in the planning stages is targeting just these groups. Affordable housing developer Advanced Development Inc. is proposing to build the Yale Terrace Apartments on a vacant parcel at Yale and Ord streets. The project would include 55 affordable units, each with at least three bedrooms.


The project, which will also include 10,000 square feet of space for social service agencies, is in final negotiation stages and could go before the CRA board next month.


Meanwhile, at the intersection of Alameda and Bruno streets, the non-profit Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members, is slated to break ground this fall on a new headquarters building. Besides administrative offices, the facility will also include a bakery, caf & #233; and a retail outlet.

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