By Roger Vincent
After Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927, thousands gathered on Broadway to give the famed aviator a ticker tape parade. A similar throng hailed John F. Kennedy during the presidential campaign of 1960. For most of the 20th century, Broadway was Los Angeles’ cultural center.
Now, after decades of neglect, the Broadway corridor is on the verge of a major revival. Amid the return of new stores and restaurants, the owners of the landmark former May Co. department store have unveiled plans for an ambitious makeover that could lift the surrounding blocks the way Staples Center did for its neighborhood more than a decade ago.
“This is a once-in-a-generation building that will dictate the path of the entire Broadway corridor,” said Robert Cohen, president of RKF, the real estate firm in charge of leasing retail space in the former May Co. building.
The project would be among the biggest developments in downtown Los Angeles since the early 1990s. But its most significant effect will be as an anchor to the comeback of Broadway and adjacent streets in the city’s historic core.
The massive structure was most recently home to inexpensive merchandise vendors and garment manufacturers. A proposed renovation would restore much of the glamour the structure had a century ago, when it was home to one of the region’s finest department stores.
The new owners want to start by creating a two-story food hall on par with Chelsea Market in New York or Harrods in London. They also hope to land high-end retailers such as Tiffany and Louis Vuitton, along with upscale fashion boutiques and restaurants.
“We’re aiming fairly high,” Cohen said. “We would love to have a great, sexy food hall-market centerpiece.”
The property, now known as Broadway Trade Center, is so big that the proposed 200,000 square feet of retail – about the size of a typical neighborhood shopping center – would make up only a fraction of the 1.1 million-square-foot complex. The plans include 500,000 square feet of office space and a hotel with as many as 200 rooms. There would also be child and pet care facilities, a health club, two swimming pools, a community park, an urban farm and a luxury spa with a Turkish bath.
The roof would have restaurants, bars and outside decks around light wells to be carved into the building to add illumination.
With the opening of the Ace Hotel on Broadway and Olympic Boulevard last year, the blocks near the trendy inn have attracted upscale retailers and the attention of investors who have tracked gentrification of once-downtrodden neighborhoods in other big cities.
Cohen compared Broadway to New York City’s SoHo in the 1980s, when it was in transition from a rough-edged haven for artists into a desirable neighborhood for restaurants, shops and loft dwellers.
“You still had to look over your shoulder, but you knew something cool was coming and you weren’t going to be able to stop it,” he said.
For half a century, Broadway was the undisputed theater and nightlife district of Los Angeles. But by the 1980s, longtime retail businesses, including May Co., had left downtown to set up shop in new growing population centers in the suburbs.
Broadway carried on as low-cost shopping corridor primarily serving the immigrant Latino community, but many of the buildings were unoccupied above the first floor. Now mainstream retailers such as Ross Dress for Less, Urban Outfitters and Walgreens have returned.
The blocks near the Ace Hotel have some especially upscale new additions, including Acne Studios, where a men’s polo shirt can cost $350, and Alma Restaurant, praised by critics as one of the best in the city.
“We saw the beginning of a neighborhood coming back to its roots with the launch of the Ace Hotel,” said Joel Schreiber, chief executive of Waterbridge Capital, the real estate investment firm that bought the Broadway Trade Center last year after a bidding war with other investors.
The planned makeover over the next two years should further elevate the area, he said.
“We can create a lot of value and help change the neighborhood,” Schreiber said, helping it evolve as an area where residents and visitors fill the sidewalks at all hours.
The project still needs city approvals, but the owners hope to build offices in the former department store that would appeal to businesses in creative fields.
“We are seeing a tremendous amount of interest from the high-tech and fashion industries,” Schreiber said.
He vowed to maintain the historic elements of the complex, which dates from 1908 and was once a retail showplace. Among its surviving charms is one of the city’s first escalators.
Schreiber declined to discuss financial aspects of the development, but Waterbridge paid about $130 million for the property, and real estate experts familiar with downtown say the company would have to spend that much or more to bring it to market.
Waterbridge is a prominent New York firm known for its investments in historic properties in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods such as Williamsburg and the Flatiron District. Their experiences there probably influenced their decision to take on such a big, risky development in a long-neglected part of Los Angeles that other developers shied away from, said Los Angeles consultant Hal Bastian, who has worked for years to lure businesses downtown.
“It took people who weren’t so parochial and didn’t have the prejudice about historic downtown that many local developers still continue to have,” Bastian said.
The former May Co. building is woefully underutilized, he said, and has the potential to be “another catalytic project along the line of Staples Center and L.A. Live” for the historic core.
Public and private officials have mounted a 10-year plan called Bringing Back Broadway intended to reopen its historic theaters and put more than 1 million square feet of vacant commercial space back into use.
Much of the development so far has clustered between 7th Street and Olympic and to the west, where thousands of apartments are under construction and one residential complex nearby will include a Whole Foods grocery store.
“The south part of Broadway is really going to lead,” said Cohen of RKF, “and Tribune may be another bookend on the north.”
Tribune Co. owns the former Times Mirror Square complex on 1st Street between Broadway and Spring Street where The Times is a tenant. Tribune said last month that it is seeking partners to help develop the site that is now about half vacant.
The old May Co. building will apparently set the bar high for reuse of historic structures. The Beaux-Arts-style building opened in 1908 as the Hamburger department store, and in addition to selling clothing and home furnishings, it had an 80-foot-long soda fountain, a restaurant, a grocery store, a post office and a roof garden. The third floor housed the L.A. Public Library for a few years.
There was a house physician’s office with a fully equipped operating room ready for emergencies “and a corner where a fainting woman can rest and be restored to strength,” The Times reported at the time. There was also a theater where an audience of 1,000 could watch a moving-picture show or a vaudeville act.
The department store grew even bigger after its 1923 purchase by May Co., a St. Louis department store chain that went on to build many Southern California locations. Among the downtown additions by May Co. was a nine-story tower connected to the original five-story structure and a stately garage at 9th and Hill streets that was one of the nation’s first parking structures when it opened in 1926.
It ceased being a May Co. in 1986.