L.A.’s Big-Bucks Plan for Upper Floors on Broadway Overlooks Facts at Ground Level


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)

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They already do housing

LA already allows housing to go into their old office buildings downtown. It's made a big difference for the downtown area. This money sounds like its for use residential or commercial projects. Sounds good to me.

This Is Not a Residential Proposal

The money is not intended for residential development on upper floors. It is directed toward commercial renovations, with the goal of drawing office tenants. As state by city officials, the funds from the the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, drawn from a pool of money originally intended to be used as secondary loans to developers in need of bridge financing, etc. The city has apparently gained--or expects to gain--HUD's approval for a switch in the regulations to allow the money to be used for primary loans.

Maybe they should try residential instead

I'm not familiar with the LA economy, but trying to catalyze office space development in this economy does seem like a dubious proposition. Affordable residential space might be a better bet. Everyone needs a place to live, after all. The downtown of my city has a lot of vacant upper-story space in old buildings that was formerly used for offices, but has been converted to residential. It has helped bring new life to the old commercial district, for the reasons that I stated in my previous post.

Much Appreciated

I just wanted to say that I appreciate your comments for their intelligence and the considerate tone of voice.


Jerry Sullivan

What federal program does the money come from?

This revitalization effort sounds like a classic Main Street approach as developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. These multi-pronged stakeholder-driven efforts have been proven to work in hundreds of older commercial districts nationwide.

I don't have enough information to fully evaluate the criticisms about the use of the $150 million. Is it CDBG money? If so, it's more flexible than some federal funds, but there are still many strings attached. For one thing, you can't use it to pay for cops. Using some for promotional activities would draw the skepticism and scrutiny of HUD. CDBG could be used to help pay for renovations for storefronts, but that would come with labor standards restrictions that would likely suppress contractor participation. These restrictions are very burdensome for small projects. Loans for upper-story apartments would actually be a good use for CDBG funds in a commercial district, because the use for housing renovation/production is not subject to labor standards restrictions. Also, don't forget that upper-story apartments generate income for building owners, helping to alleviate pressures to raise rents on businesses. If the first-floor business owner also owns the building, having an income-producing apartment directly contributes to the bottom line. And depending upon the types of businesses in the district, a strong upper-story resident presence can increase the customer base.


The Bringing Back Broadway Initiative and the mix of meetings, plans and feasible studies mentioned by the blogger-booster have nothing to do with the $150 million mentioned in the piece. That money comes from the federal government's Department of Housing & Urban Development. The plans that were announced in regard to the money very clearly called for the funds to be made available as loans to developers to finance renovations of vacant upper floors on Broadway. It's that simple, and every thing else mentioned by the blogger-booster is a distraction. And, by the way, if so much is already being done, and everything on Broadway is in the works, then why not take the $150 million and provide mortgage relief for the folks who are picking up all the tabs on bailouts? Just because someone attends a meeting doesn't give them any additional authority over how public money should be spent.

Jerry Sullivan

This article is unreliable info - "Lacks Big Picture View"

I came across a response to this article at www.blogdowntown.com - apparently the writer of the Newgeography article is uninformed on the overall project being written about, and hasn't even attended any of the project's meetings.

Broadway Critique Lacks Big Picture View
By Eric Richardson
Published: Friday, December 05, 2008, at 01:16PM

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — Running today on New Geography is a Broadway critique by the Garment and Citizen's Jerry Sullivan, who scolds the Bringing Back Broadway effort for announcing redevelopment funds and not working to fix the street's increasing vacancy for ground floor retail.

Yet the Broadway effort has put a focus on exactly that, in both programs announced and those in the works. Sullivan's criticism attempts to indict one program for not addressing all of the street's needs, but fails to recognize many parts of the effort that speak directly to his concerns.

The Bringing Back Broadway effort, announced back in February, has accomplished more in ten months than nearly anyone would have expected.

Committees formed as part of the effort have been meeting monthly, bringing dozens of Broadway stakeholders together to discuss and strategize the needs of the corridor.

The project to bring a streetcar back to Downtown has gone from a dream with a feasibility study to a real project with a non-profit under formation, initial engineering funding earmarked and significant public outreach completed.

In October, City Council passed a motion by Councilman Jose Huizar that created the "Commercial Reuse Task Force," a group that will be responsible for reshaping the rules that allow old commercial spaces to be brought back to life. Weeks later, Huizar's office announced the creation of a program with the Community Development Department to make $150 million per year available annually in loans to projects looking to renovate historic structures.

Sullivan takes particular aim at that last program, asking "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." He paints the picture of a retail street with growing vacancies, and asks why the city isn't doing anything about those tenants.

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.

Sullivan, who to my knowledge hasn't attended any of the Bringing Back Broadway committee meetings, may simply not realize how many of his suggestions have been the working goals of those involved.

The Planning and Preservation committee has been hard at work on Design Overlay Guidelines that would help guide Broadway's aesthetics. Those guidelines should soon be entering the public outreach stage, and that process will certainly involve the tenants Sullivan mentions. Along with those new guidelines will come incentives to help shops comply with the new codes.

The Marketing committee is working on an inventory of the street's current uses, and hopes to create a business assistance program after talking to shop owners and finding out what they need to succeed on the street.

In fact, the most immediate impact of Huizar's Commercial Reuse Task Force motion was directed straight at those looking to start ground floor businesses on Broadway. By placing projects on the corridor into the city's case management program, Huizar's office hopes to see shops, restaurants and cafes open more efficiently.

Broadway's revitalization will depend on a wide range of uses, with the theatres, upper floors and retail all playing critical roles. Why should one program of a larger effort be criticized for not providing for all the street's needs?