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Trouble on Broadway

[Updated 09/30/11: Ryan Vaillancourt, Staff Writer for the Los Angeles Downtown News, reported on the BID's troubles in two previous stories here and here. Read his latest story (here) for details on the BID's latest decision not to fire Russell Brown.]

The dismissal of the chief executive of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District (the BID) mixes up the politics of the city council with the politics of one of the myriad of special districts that work largely unseen in this city. In collisions like this, it's generally the big that wins. What's interesting here is discerning which is actually which.

The downtown BID fired Russell Brown, who had led the organization for about four years, in the aftermath of a failed effort to expand the boundaries of the BID to include some of downtown's residential redevelopment. The BID also has a looming deadline to reauthorize its charter. Brown's failure to get the votes of downtown property owners to expand the BID led to bigger worries about the BID's reauthorization in two years. That made Brown expendable.

But 14th District Councilman José Huizar sees a threat to his ambitions for Broadway in Brown's dismissal. When the BID board replaced Brown, whose loyalties to the board may have been suspect, the board immediately hired Roberto Saldaña, former legal counsel to developer Joseph Hellen (who owns nine properties on Broadway or nearby).

Hellen and Huizar don't get along. The two have repeatedly clashed over the direction Broadway development should take.

Hellen grumbles that new commercial and residential development downtown hasn't sparked parallel growth on his stretch of Broadway. Huizar has his own Bringing Back Broadway initiative for redeveloping the street, which includes laying a new streetcar line that would (in concept) connect Broadway to AEG's L.A. Live, the city's Convention Center, and Farmers Field.

Huizar may be fretting that a streetcar is his desire but not the BID's. Significantly, Saldaña has questioned how the $100-million streetcar project would be financed, since at least some of the funding would come from adjacent property owners.

Huizar has complained about Hellen's plans for putting up a parking garage on Spring Street. The garage could limit the reuse of three historic theaters on Broadway that Hellen owns (and rents to swap meet-type retailers). Hellen responded by putting up a billboard on Broadway supporting Rudy Martinez, who ran against Huizar in one of the nastier campaigns of 2011.

During the campaign, questions were raised about the way in which Bringing Back Broadway is being funded through Huizar's office. And now Huizar's operatives have raised questions about the way in which Brown was fired and Saldaña hired.

Saldaña had nearly unanimous support from the 13-member BID board, reflecting the board's discontent with the present and future profitability of their part of downtown. It's unclear, however, how far that discontent reaches into the community of largely absentee landlords who vote in the BID.

The little government that is the downtown BID is now faced off against the very big government that is the office of Councilman Huizar. The contest is over a street that hipsters occasionally stroll, preservationists want protected, and Latino shoppers have embraced as their very own mercado of everything from conjunto CDs to ecstatic Pentecostalism. The BID has developer muscle (usually more than enough to sway councilmembers). Huizar has lots of ways to impress on property owners that Saldaña's election may have been done in unseemly haste.

Developers like Hellen generally get their way in this town, generally by playing ball with their councilmember. Broadway may be a test of that tradition . . . and possibly a demonstration of the big power that a little special district wields to shape this city's future.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog

The image on this page was taken by flickr user David Blumenkrantz. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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