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Signs of Trouble in Pico House 'For Rent'

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First, the sellers of Mexican-ish souvenirs on Olvera Street rebelled against a rent hike. A dispute then arose over whose heroes should be remembered on the old plaza, pitting one set of ethnic grievances against another. Next, the bones of early Angeleños were unceremoniously resurrected from their misplaced graves. Then the management of the nearby La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which was supposed to celebrate the city's Latino origins, imploded.

Meanwhile, two million visitors a year passed through the old plaza while many of its historic buildings stood empty, as they have for for decades, under city management.

The plaza where Los Angeles began has long been an unquiet place, as William David Estrada made abundantly clear in The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space. While most of the recent turmoil has subsided, a troubled history of political indifference, divided management, lawsuits, and recriminations has made the plaza a tough sell for business development.

Those old habits will have to change. Unless the city finds a better way, the big transit-retail-residential projects L.A. Metro plans for Union Station will open on a tattered and wayward plaza.

The finest of the plaza's empty monuments is the Pico House, the first three-story building in Los Angeles and its first grand hotel. Designed by Ezra Kysor in 1869, the architect of the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, it was built by Pio Pico, the former Mexican governor of California.

The Pico House had eighty rooms, broad windows, an interior courtyard for more light and air, a fountain, and an aviary of tropical birds. Its heyday was unfortunately brief.

Then in 1953, after decades as cheap lodging for transients, the Pico House was acquired by the state. It's now part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument, a state park (although it's run by the city). The building was renovated in 1981 and 1992 but never tenanted.

The empty Pico House needs an imaginative, risk-taking developer (there are some in Los Angeles), but finding one has been unusually difficult, as reported recently by Richard Guzmán in the Los Angeles Downtown News.

The rotten economy is one explanation for the low turn out at a recent inspection by prospective leaseholders invited to submit bids. Just as likely is the distrust of developers, who remember a call for bids in 2010 that went unanswered. Prospective bidders may also be calculating the unknowns in a long-simmering lawsuit between the city and a previous developer over the city's plans to reuse the Pico House and adjacent historic buildings.

The Pico House and the other buildings around the old plaza could be the gateway to Metro's transit hub, the city's hip historic core, and the bright lights of Grand Avenue redevelopment. Given the way the past has been mismanaged in Los Angeles, the Pico House will probably stand grandly empty for more years, a mute witness and not a participant in downtown's ongoing transformation.

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