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The Return of Broadway

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Los Angeles Theater. | Photo: Courtesy of SoCal Connected.

A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" is based on this story. Watch it here now.

On a recent festive night, the 104-year-old Palace Theatre, the oldest Orpheum theater in the country, presided over Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, sparkling like a grand dame from the last century miraculously rejuvenated.

Its polished marble finish gleamed; its ceiling murals glimmered; intricate detail abounded, leaving onlookers agape. Inside, a parade of red velvet seats unfolded amid multicolored terra cotta swags, flowers, and fairies. Depending on the hour, guests were treated to the soothing strums of the ukelele by the Honolulu Avenue Strummers or the buoyant folk style of Skylarks. For one night, the once lonely madam became a belle of the ball.

"Every person that walked in would pause with big eyes and jaws dropping. I wish you could have seen the look in people's faces," says 14th District City Councilman José Huizar.

It wasn't only the Palace that received its long delayed due, January 31st, seven historic theaters on Broadway opened to the public, eager to showcase their oft-forgotten beauty.

Close to fifty thousand people filled the streets that night, says Huizar. Historic theaters hosted free shows such as a rock and roll cabaret, sonic installations and immersive 3D black light murals. The party spilled onto the street -- vintage cars, mariachi players, burlesque dancers -- all illuminated by hypnotic neon signs of the theaters.

It was one heady night and Huizar thinks it shouldn't be the last one. For the past seven years, the councilman's office has been working to resuscitate Broadway Street, historically one of the city's most prominent thoroughfares.

"It was one of the most important streets in the city. The first city hall was on Broadway. Its where arts and entertainment first started, before they all moved to Hollywood," cites Huizar. Nowhere in the world can visitors walk by so many historic theaters and movie palaces. Block after block, stunning Beaux Arts, Art Deco, and revival-style buildings attract the eyes upward, teasing out its many intricate details. Famed acts such as the Marx Brothers, Houdini, and Duke Ellington once walked here, but it seems that time has dimmed the street's glamour.

With the decline of downtown also came Broadway's evolution. As demographic shifted, these movie palaces, the upscale shops and department stores on the street shuttered. By the 1970s and 1980s, the shopping options catered to immigrant communities that patronized cheap stores populating the bustling sidewalks.

The Globe | SoCal Connected
The Globe. | Photo: Courtesy of SoCal Connected.

This was the Broadway Huizar came to know. "I would go there as a kid to do back to school shopping," he says. "You could make a whole day of it on Broadway on two bucks and change. For 20 cents, you could take the bus from Boyle Heights to downtown Los Angeles; 99 cents gets your popcorn, and another 99 cents gets you three Bruce Lee movies."

Perhaps it was that precious childhood memory or the more logical eminence of the city street that first spurred Huizar to push for this revitalization, but Broadway is reaping the benefits of the council office's focus.

In the last few years, Broadway is slowly getting back its sheen. Trendy Ace Hotel opened at the Olympic corner, renovating the United Artist Theatre. The Rialto now houses an Urban Outfitters on 8th. Stylish Swedish retailer Acne Studios has even opened a flagship store within the Art Deco department store turned luxury condo, Eastern Columbia building. Eateries have also popped up along the street such as Alma, named Bon Appétit's best new restaurant in 2013 and Umami Burger even Grand Central Market and Clifton's have been experiencing upgrades.

Los Angeles Theater | SoCal Connected
Los Angeles Theater. | Photo: Courtesy of SoCal Connected.

Huizar says the idea for reviving Broadway wasn't new by any means, but it has been the most successful. In previous efforts, the city was willing to consider the idea, but property owners weren't on board, reasoning that their ground level rents still made enough money to offset the losses from vacant upper floors. In another effort, it was the other way around, with property owners ready, but the city busy with other priorities.

The councilman's office, it seems, came at just the right time. But it also didn't come without some planning. Two years was spent doing research, interviews, and brainstorming, trying to answer the question: "What prevents this revitalization from happening?"

The answer to that seemingly simple question wasn't so straightforward. Restoring the theaters is just one piece of the puzzle that makes up Bringing Back Broadway, a ten-year plan to revive the corridor between 2nd Street and Olympic Boulevard, which was initiated in 2008.

The team's planning yielded a multi-faceted plan that addressed all the regulatory hurdles the street faced. Bringing Back Broadway comprises efforts address lighting on the streets, maintain the characteristic signage of the area, and guide the future rehabilitation of the historic buildings on the street.

One of its most significant milestones is its streetscape plan. "That was the turning point," says Huizar, "When you change legislation, it's not really tangible, but when the streetscape plan came in, it signaled to people that something different was happening on Broadway."

The plan removed a traffic lane and piloted outdoor seating areas, pocket parks, and greenery. Because of the flexibility of these improvements, the team has the ability to road test iterations to see what works best for the neighborhood, before eventually making changes permanent.

One of the initiatives resolved the conflicting and confusing nature of historic codes of the state and city. "Building owners told us that was confusing to go to the city, but also deal with state historic building codes. It was easier to leave the building the way it was," says Huizar. His office helped reinterpret state building codes and adapted it to the city's standards, which made it easier and cheaper to reopen the historic buildings.

The most exciting proposal from the city is its move to bring back a four-mile streetcar system that would go through Bunker Hill, Music Center, historic Broadway, down to the Los Angeles Convention Center. "I think that's the shot in the arm we'll need," says Huizar. The project is finishing an environmental review and has already secured about $300 million in operating dollars for the next 30 years and $60 million for construction.

There are three years left to go on the initiative's timeline, but things are looking bright for Broadway. Diverse populations are returning to the historic street and, more importantly, they're lingering. Huizar predicts that despite its achievements Bringing Back Broadway would need a second phase. "We need to continue paying attention to Broadway and see how we can improve it."

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