Developers are showing an increased interest in building residential and retail projects in Chinatown. But while these newcomers are making a splash, Chinatown's largest landowners tower over them.


The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has seven properties that encompass nearly eight acres of the district, according to a survey by CB Richard Ellis Inc. This includes St. Bridget's Chinese Catholic Church, St. Peter's Italian Catholic Church and Cathedral High School.


The Los Angeles Unified School District has three properties covering 4.8 acres among them Castelar Elementary School and Los Angeles County operates a vehicle maintenance yard spanning nearly four acres.


City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose 1st District includes the area, said having such large institutional landowners provides stability, but he noted that there are parcels that could find other purposes.


"We have a huge lack of market housing and workforce housing," he said. "I don't want to compromise their facilities, but maybe we can create a partnership."


Chinatown, first located on the site of Union Station, was originally inhabited by Chinese workers brought to Southern California after 1859 to construct a wagon route between downtown and Newhall. Later, the workers helped build railroad tracks. After the neighborhood was razed in 1933 to make way for Union Station, Chinatown was rebuilt to the northwest.


Construction of the Hollywood (101) Freeway cut Chinatown off from downtown, but construction of the Metro Gold Line light rail station reconnected the community.


The Gold Line's Chinatown station opened in 2003, with its Chinese themes and faux Pagodas. It has begun attracting new residential and retail projects. Today, more than 15,000 people live in the district.


However, the expected crowds streaming from the Gold Line station for Sunday Dim-Sum haven't fully materialized.


"We expected more but I think it will continue to improve as we build more housing units around the Chinatown station," Reyes said. "We need to do a better job connecting local circulators like the DASH bus into Chinatown to made a difference."


Two projects that could transform Chinatown are expected to break ground in the next year. Developer Larry Bond is planning a mixed-use complex of housing, retail and a 7,000-square-foot Chinese cultural facility at the site of the closed Little Joe's restaurant.


Bond said the size of the project alone could have the same impact on Chinatown that his mixed-use Sunset + Vine complex had on Hollywood, with its new retail and housing developments.


"We need a certain amount of land, a critical mass," Bond said. "Unless a project is of a certain scale it's not going to have an effect on the community that's meaningful."


Meanwhile, developer Steve Riboli is working on converting the Capitol Milling building on Spring Street into artists' lofts and studios.


And Homeboy Industries, the East L.A. non-profit helping to reform former gang members, is planning to open a site in Chinatown near the intersection of Alameda and Bruno streets. The group wants to open a bakery and caf & #233; with an office for its vocational programs.


Chinatown is also slated to get greener. Near the neighborhood, a former rail yard will be transformed into a 32-acre park and another park that would run along the Los Angeles River.


"People are investing in Chinatown," Reyes said. "You can see these projects evolving and it's interesting to see the interplay between them."

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