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Streetscape: The Plan That Saved a Community

by David Wallace

Back in 1992, a group of business people and residents of Wilshire Center, the area surrounding the most historic two miles of Los Angeles' famous boulevard - Wilshire Boulevard, sat down together amid the devastation of the L.A. riots, business flight, and the physical upheaval of the Metro Rail subway construction, and pledged $3000 to begin the effort to take control of their community.

Eventually, some $6,000,000 in federal, local and private funds would be raised to fund the effort - called Streetscape - the just-completed first stage in one of the most ambitious and significant urban rehabilitation projects found anywhere in America.

Designed to enhance the environment and lifestyle of residents, visitors and workers in the area, Streetscape has been an unqualified success. Said Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan in saluting the project: "The community has led the drive to return Wilshire Boulevard to a place of prominence and splendor, and even more energy, beauty and vitality than ever before."

THE GOLDEN ERA OF WILSHIRE CENTER. If Sunset Boulevard was, in its heyday, the center of the world's dream making, it was to that stretch of Wilshire Boulevard between Hoover and Wilton (called Wilshire Center since the mid-fifties), that generations of Angelenos went to find their own dreams.

There they shopped in glittering Moderne palaces like I. Magnin and Bullock's Wilshire (in its famous Tearoom, they also rubbed elbows with the city's socialites, many of whom lived in nearby Hancock Park). There they took power lunches (long before the term was invented) in such delightfully kitsch restaurants as the Brown Derby or the aristocratic Perino's not far away.

They danced the night away in the Ambassador Hotel's world-famous Cocoanut Grove or, in the 1950s, may even have discovered the talent of the young Nat Cole in one of the local jazz clubs. There they may have worshiped in the gothic grandeur of the 2000-seat Immanuel Presbyterian Church (where ushers in tailcoats escorted members to their seats) or in the equally imposing Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

For entertainment, one needed to go no further than the Art-Deco Wiltern Theater (now a national landmark and showcase for the performing arts). They may have lived in The Talmadge, built for silent film star Norma Talmadge by her husband, United Artists president Joseph Schenck, or in the nearby Los Altos, where publishing czar William Randolph Hearst ensconced his vivacious mistress Marion Davies in a huge apartment neighboring that of the "it" girl of the era, Clara Bow, and, later, Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Loretta Young. Wilshire Center was, as many called it, L.A.'s "Golden Hub."

Then it all ended.

It took a while though; as commerce moved to the City's less congested Westside (as well as the San Fernando Valley), businesses and the population- at least the affluent population-eventually followed. I. Magnin closed, Bullocks Wilshire held out until 1993. Rental rates in office buildings plummeted from an average of $1.65/sq. ft. to a dollar between 1991 and 1996;

property values probably dropped from a high of $120/sq. ft. to $30 or $40 per foot in 1998. In 1987, the Ambassador Hotel, social linchpin of the entire city (where, once, Errol Flynn cavorted with his girlfriends and where, of course, Robert Kennedy was assassinated after celebrating his win in 1968's California presidential primary) closed. Left behind was a huge, highly visible, abandoned memorial to what the area once was.

The L.A. riots of April, 1992 (whose fires, vandalism and terror rolled through the area as if it were Beirut), the seemingly endless traffic upheavals caused by the construction of the new Los Angeles Metro Rail subway, and 1994's massive earthquake were almost mortal blows. Wilshire Center was becoming "a ghost town" said Mike Davis, author of the novel "City of Quartz."

He was wrong.

THE MODEL URBAN COMMUNITY. Throughout the bad days there were many residents as well as local businessmen and women who believed in Wilshire Center as a potential model "urban community." This became particularly valid as the ethnic mix of the area, once overwhelmingly Caucasian, changed dramatically into what is today an exciting mix of Latin, Asian, African-American and European cultures living together in a 1.8 square mile area that has the highest population density west of the Mississippi. (Especially vigorous has been the development of the urban enclave known as Koreatown bordering the area on the south.)

Also, after the subway (with three stations in the area) was completed, traveling in and out of Wilshire Center - for workers, residents, and visitors - became a snap. One of those who continued to believe in the area was asset manager Andrew Miliotis, today president of the Wilshire Center Business Improvement Corporation (WCBIC), the guiding entity in the area's rehabilitation; another was architect Gary Russell, now executive director of the organization. "I was in Andy's office back in August, 1992, four months after the riots." Russell recalls. "We looked out the window and saw how bleak everything looked. Andy had just come back from Santa Barbara where State Street looks so beautiful with the flowers and trees in medians and he made a comment about doing something like this as a start in improving the morale of the area. I said I thought it was possible." Russell recalls.

REDESIGNING WILSHIRE CENTER. That Labor Day weekend, Russell measured the Boulevard and drew a plan, complete with medians and trees, which subsequently became the basis of a master design for the entire, 21-block stretch of the Boulevard (including two 30-foot gateway monuments). "Much of it," Russell says, "echoed the goals of a plan formulated years earlier by the Wilshire Stakeholders Group, a group of concerned property owners, local businesses and residents." "With the riots only weeks behind them and signs of devastation everywhere, safety was the paramount concern of everyone who lived and worked in the area," says Linda Rees, assistant to the pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church and Wilshire Chamber of Commerce board member. "Neglect adds to concerns about safety. As important as the reality of actually making the streets safer (among the innovations were today's popular police and private security bike patrols sponsored by the WCBIC, and inexpensive shuttle buses), we had to create the perception of safety," Rees adds.

"Putting it bluntly." Russell explains, "Streetscape was an elaborate marketing plan. You can't just say 'we exist' to turn around a neighborhood; you've got to do something physical to repair the classic 'broken window' syndrome, you've got to provide a catalyst to give people hope."

PLANTING THE SEEDS. The first step in creating that environment of hope was the formation of a Streetscape Committee of the Wilshire Chamber of Commerce, and the pledge of seed money to launch the project. The next was a feasibility study developed by Russell  and Associates with the architectural and engineering firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, and Urban Innovations, a UCLA planning/architectural consultant group.

They identified several sources of public funding for such a project, among them the State of California's Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program (EEMP), a program established to provide funds to plant trees to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and the Federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). With the support of L.A. City Councilman Nate Holden, money (more than $400,000) was received from EEMP in 1994, and used to secure matching funds from other sources.

Eventually the Streetscape program would receive grants totaling some $6 million ($1.412 million from ISTEA; $2.08 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; $425,000 from the City; $200,000 from the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency; $1.4 million from the Federal Economic Development Agency, and $125,700 from private funds).

"Raising $6 million in five years from a $3000 start is clearly some sort of record," says Dick McDermott, former president of the Wilshire Chamber of Commerce. "It was certainly a measure of the public and private commitment to the project." "The crucial element for success was the unique partnership that developed between the private and public sectors," says Transwestern Property Company's leasing manager Linda Hedden. "The City's Department of Transportation, Department of Public Works and Cultural Affairs gave us extraordinary support."

"The first grant was to buy 1500 trees," Gary Russell says, "but we had to find an inexpensive way to plant and maintain them, and we also had to find a way to involve the residential community. That was critical," Gary adds. "We didn't want to be an island of business people."

With support and expertise of the TreePeople, Gary, his wife and business partner, Linda, and their colleagues learned how to plant trees and train others to do so as well.

"We became Citizen Foresters," he says happily of the TreePeople's accomplishment award. Then followed community training seminars and more than 20 Saturday tree planting parties and independent planting efforts.

"We involved the Councilman's office, the police, various block associations, apartment building managers, local residents, TreePeople staff volunteers, and the Korean Youth & Community Center" Linda Russell says. "We'd have anywhere from 30 to over 200 people at our community tree planting parties."

"It also turned out to be a great way for people to meet their neighbors whom most didn't even know," Gary adds. "And, by the end of the day, there were anywhere from 15 to 50 trees planted." The first tree - a crepe myrtle - was planted in June,1994, near the Astor Apartments at 8th and Mariposa; Gordon Tuthill, president of Kemarco Management Company which runs the building, remembers its impact well. "A lot of apartment owners suddenly started to see the light," he says. "It wasn't long before you saw a lot of newly painted buildings when you drove through the neighborhood. The business community became more positive too. When the first tree was planted there were lots of empty storefronts, and now most of them have filled up."

Since that first tree was put in the ground, 2000 more have been planted both on the Boulevard and on adjacent streets. Fifteen flower and tree filled medians have also been constructed along the Boulevard, dozens of brick crosswalks have been installed, and 330 huge flowerpots have been placed along the sidewalks. Soon, streetlights will be upgraded and new, custom-designed bus shelters, modular newsracks and trash receptacles will be installed.

A NEW WILSHIRE CENTER. Crime began to drop dramatically (in fact, by over 60%), and pride began returning. So did commerce, attracted by the area's accessibility, population density, and by more than 8 million square feet of office and retail space available at some of L.A.'s best values.

In 1994 the shuttered Bullocks Wilshire department store was purchased by Southwestern University School of Law for its library; integral to the acquisition agreement was the commitment that the new owners would honor the building's remarkable "Zig-zag" Art-Deco design - inside and out. They had, by spending more than $10 million, restored the building to its original 1929 splendor.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles chose to headquarter its huge operation in Wilshire Center in 1996. A major supermarket-- the first in the area in years-- also opened in 1996. A new, 24-hour fitness center opened in 1997 and a huge new sports center, complete with an enclosed driving range, is scheduled to open in the Fall of 1999.

The Art-Deco I. Magnin building was also being transformed into the Wilshire Galleria; shops, restaurants and even a bowling alley under one roof. The Talmadge Apartment building is again full with a waiting list. And, giving the entire Wilshire Center area a dramatic nighttime presence, dozens of vintage neon signs high atop many buildings along the Boulevard have been restored to colorful life under the guidance of Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department and an area resident

So what's next!

EXCITING DEVELOPMENTS. Because of the success of Streetscape in bringing back an upbeat feeling within the community, plans to transform the four-block Ambassador Hotel property into a large retail, cinema and entertainment center for the area, have taken on new life. Michael Dunn, director of corporate services for the Charles Dunn Company, the international real estate firm retained to lease the planned project, already has commitments for several hundred thousand square feet of rentals if the plan goes ahead.

"A project of this magnitude will certainly add to Streetscape's enhancement of the area and provide the entertainment and service amenities supported by business and the surrounding residential community," says Donna Dalton, property manager and first vice president of the Wilshire Chamber of Commerce.

Russell adds: "Coming after the tremendous impact of Streetscape, the project can provide the entire Wilshire Center area with the same catalyst for growth as the development of Rockefeller Center did for mid-Manhattan in the 1930s."

PLANNING FOR TOMORROW. Currently, the Wilshire Center community, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the City Planning Department are also working to better define that future growth via meetings with residents and business leaders.

Councilman Nate Holden, a vigorous supporter of the Streetscape project from its earliest days, says: "The hope is that, by 2001,Wilshire Center will be-again-one of the major centers for both business and residents in Los Angeles, and it all started with Streetscape."

"Travel down the Boulevard today and you can see the results of this effort," says Mayor Riordan. "The local property and business owners who have invested in their community have shown commitment to their neighbors, the city and all Angelenos. Street trees, box trees and date palms now line the street. Green medians with tree shaded flower gardens dot the landscape with refreshing patches of color. Benches, kiosks, and shelters invite pedestrians to stop and enjoy this new Wilshire Center, while new sidewalks and street crossings invite all to explore the beauty and the creativity," he says.

"Wilshire Center is a shining example of entrepreneurial spirit and cultural strength that makes Los Angeles great."

Written by David Wallace in the fall of 1998, an internationally published freelance journalist specializing in the arts and design.


The Streetscape Private/Public Partnership

Wilshire Chamber of Commerce's Wilshire Center Streetscape Committee:

- Andrew Miliotis, Chairperson
- Donna Dalton, Vice-Chairperson
- Linda Hedden
- Michael Prestridge
- Peggy Gibson
- Ralph Murphy
- David Bussert
- Marvin Weinstein
- Stephen Lawler
- Frank Tysen
- Ken Bernstein
- Steve Breuer
- Tresa Crisswell
- William Farris
- Kathryn Hansen-Russell

Project Team:

- Russell & Associates-Project Manager & Designer-Gary Russell, Linda Russell
- DSK Associates-Landscape Project Designer-Samuel Kim
- HNTB Corporation
- Edward Henning and Associates

City of Los Angeles' Wilshire Streetscape Committee:

- James Okazaki (DOT), Chairperson
- Pauline Chan (DOT)
- SamiWassef (DOT)
- Sandra Herrera (DOT)
- Mike Stafford (BOE)
- Roger Ketterer (BOE)
- Jerry Ellison (BOE)
- Fred Brown (Contract Admin.)
- Cooke Sunoo (CRA)
- Deborah Murphy (Planning Dept.)
- Leroy Dunson (Street Maint.)
- George Eslingerr (Street Lighting)
- Stan Horowitz (Street Lighting)
- Robert Kennedy (Street Trees)
- Willie Bradford (Street Trees)
- Adolfo Nodal (Cultural Affairs)
- Haroot Avanesian (Cultural Affairs)


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