City officials and private business owners recently gathered to celebrate the extended holiday hours of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Metro Red Line train service between Hollywood and Downtown. Private businesses put up $50,000 or so to pay for the Red Line to run an extra two hours — until 3 a.m. — on weekends through December 27. The local business community also came up with private funds for free service on city-operated DASH buses that will offer connections to late-night Red Line riders and others.
There’s room to question the timing of those moves amid an economic slide. Yet there’s just as much reason to see good sense and courage behind efforts to kick-start economic activity in the face of the frozen confidence of consumers. The effort falls within the realm of a privately financed gamble, too, so that’s fair enough.
It’s another thing altogether for our city officials to take such chances on an economic stimulus program, as they apparently intend to do with a plan to make $150 million a year available for loans to property owners along the Downtown stretch of Broadway.
The plan, as stated by 14th District Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar, is to provide incentives for property owners to renovate some of the long-empty upper floors of buildings along the thoroughfare, where many of the structures have few tenants besides ground-floor retailers.
Huizar has noted that the empty spaces provide no jobs and little tax revenue, and that he hopes to reverse that by lending money to property owners from a pool of federal funds. The funds would finance renovations in hopes of drawing commercial tenants and jobs to the upper floors on Broadway.
It remains unclear why any of the property owners who didn’t see incentives to renovate their properties during Downtown’s recent boom years would find reasons to do so now. It’s also unclear what sort of tenants would fill the empty spaces. It could be several years before we see anything resembling a hot economy in these parts.
Again, there is always room for bold ideas that are counter-intuitive. Fortune magazine launched in 1930 — just four months after the stock market crash that signaled the Great Depression — and the publication has done just fine all these years. There’s also room to figure that renovations take awhile, and such work along Broadway might be ready just as the economy picks up.
This economic mess of ours is big and immediate, though, causing extreme difficulties for folks everywhere. There’s some irony here, because you can get a picture of the pain by walking along Broadway. Don’t bother looking at those empty spaces on the upper floor. Take a gander at the ground floors, where many of the retail shops that buzzed with customers just a short while ago have closed, and those that remain face uncertain prospects.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether $150 million might be better spent on something other than loans to property owners on the hopes that renovations will someday bring jobs from somewhere to the upper floors along Broadway.
Meanwhile, there’s never been a better chance of getting a change on the rules that come with federal funds. That should be enough for Huizar and other city officials to re-think their plans. They should consider that Broadway — while it’s not everybody’s cup of tea — has been one of the busiest commercial streets in the city for years. It’s a place where merchants sell, workers earn, and shoppers spend.
Maybe the action is mostly bargain retail on the ground floor, but Broadway is a working street — and we need all of those we can get right now.
So why not focus ways to help retailers hang on, and draw more to fill the new gaps at street level? How about renovations for storefronts, with merchants allowed a voice in the process? Or more cops for the area to help improve the atmosphere for shoppers? Or aggressive promotions of the retail scene? All of that might even entice a few more mid- and upper-scale merchants to set up shop on Broadway, sparking some organic changes in the marketplace.
Pick a program, but keep in mind that this is no time to overlook — quite literally — Broadway’s long-standing role as a street-level heartbeat of our city.
Jerry Sullivan is the Editor & Publisher of the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen, a weekly community newspaper that covers Downtown Los Angeles and surrounding districts (www.garmentandcitizen.com)