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Old Posted Nov 29, 2012, 3:12 PM
Lwize Lwize is offline
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(photos from LATIMES.COM)

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Originally Posted by LATIMES.COM
As downtown L.A. grows trendier, Spring Street Arcade is left behind

The stores that were once crowded with immigrant shoppers struggle to stay in business. The family that owns the 88-year-old complex has plans to try to attract young, hip residents.

By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

November 29, 2012, 5:00 a.m.

The salesmen at the Spring Street Arcade spend their day gazing out at a city that's passing them by.

All around, a trendy downtown is on the rise — pet stores selling gourmet dog chews, chic bars with ginger and juniper soda cocktails, a new generation of mostly young residents jogging in spandex and cruising on bikes.

But inside the 88-year-old shopping arcade, with its giant curved skylight, arched Spanish Renaissance entryways and Beaux Arts exterior, many of the stores are vacant, and the remaining merchants seem stuck in another era. Bargain-rate clothes, toys, suitcases and DVDs share shelf space with dusty boomboxes and T-shirts from '90s rock bands like Korn and Nirvana.

Mohad Azimi lingers through the morning outside his kitchen appliance shop, chatting with the Taiwanese salesman at the toy store next to him. These days, the jokes focus on a new Starbucks that's just opened at Spring and 6th streets. Maybe that's where all the people are going now, the merchants say.

"Look around here — business is dead," Azimi says as he looks across the arcade's empty corridor, which stretches from Spring to Broadway. "Nobody comes inside."

Azimi opened his business in the early 1990s, after emigrating from Afghanistan. Back then, Los Angeles was still enjoying a boom in immigration from places like Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador, and the mall was so busy on the weekends that you could barely walk inside. Broadway was a bustling promenade, with shoppers pouring in on bus lines from all over the city.

Families would come to buy kitchenware at Azimi's shop, sometimes shipping the products back to relatives in Latin America. And while they were there, he says, they'd pick up toys and clothes for their children.

Azimi still stacks the same goods on a white plastic table at the front of his shop — toaster ovens, blenders and microwaves in battered cardboard boxes. Inside the cluttered shop, there are old keyboards, calculators and Nintendo GameCube consoles.

But he makes only a few sales each week, he says, and he's not sure he can make it to the end of the year.

"The new residents, they don't have a family, they don't have anyone to cook for," Azimi says. "They just have a dog."

::

When the Spring Street Arcade opened in 1924, it was hailed as Los Angeles' premier shopping center — and celebrated with a bash that brought out Will Rogers and Charlie Chaplin.

Back then, the area was filled with department stores, high-end shops and rows of movie palaces. Even as downtown faded after World War II and the department stores and movie houses closed down, the small merchants along Broadway, Main and other downtown streets managed to find new customers.

By the 1980s, hundreds of them were making a good living catering to the city's rising Latino immigrant community, both new immigrants and Mexicans who would cross the border for shopping runs.

The retail economy was so strong that Broadway storefronts famously commanded rents similar to those of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

But changes in immigration patterns, improved economic conditions in Mexico, competition in other communities and the recession have left many downtown merchants fighting to survive. While new, "500 Days of Summer" residents are frequenting bars and restaurants and coffeehouses, they have little need for the bargain shops that line the arcade.

Joel Kotkin, an urban studies fellow at Chapman University, says the shift is evident all around downtown.

It's the "gradual dissolution of one economy — a really vibrant, unique economy — and an attempt to replace it with another," he says. "The question is, are we just seeing the death of something that will be replaced, or will we have this parallel universe of yuppies alongside the decline?"

::

Inside the arcade, merchants are quick to reminisce about the prosperous years — and lament how it went so wrong.

"Any store you opened here on Broadway, it was a gold mine," says Cesar Balbuena, a 60-year-old electronics salesman who has worked downtown since 1971. For the last 28 of those years, he's been a fixture at Audio Video Plaza, a glass-walled electronics shop at the edge of the arcade.

The first signs of decline, he says, came around 2000, when an economic downturn hit many of the low-income workers who did their shopping at the arcade. Broadway began facing stronger competition from markets in such communities as East L.A. and Huntington Park and, later, chains like Costco and Wal-Mart. Mexico's economy was rapidly improving, cutting the supply of shoppers who would come north to buy merchandise.

These days, the dozen or so remaining businesses inside the arcade are desperate. Many of the merchants scrape by on month-to-month leases, and aren't sure how much longer they can hold out.

Before the Great Recession, Balbuena says, Audio Video Plaza cleared more than $10,000 in sales on a good day. Now, it hopes for $3,000.

"It's empty!" Balbuena says as he steps out into the open corridor of the mall. "Ten years ago, eight years ago, there was no way you could pass."

::

Over the last decade, the Hellen family has watched as the arcade's fortunes have faded.

The Australian family bought the landmark in the 1980s during the boom times. Like many property owners along Broadway, the Hellens generated their revenue from storefront rents and didn't bother to lease out the eleven floors above, which were in such disrepair that the city ordered them vacated.

But in the last few years, the family has started to embrace a vision of a trendier Broadway, fueled by downtown's growing residential population. The family recently converted the floors above the arcade into upscale apartments. Next, they're working on major renovations to the arcade itself, hoping to attract the new downtown dwellers.

By this time next year, the family hopes to add an English pub and a host of new restaurants to the mall offering gourmet tacos, vegetarian cuisine, crepes and gelato. Construction work has already begun in some of the arcade's vacant shops, says Greg Martin, a vice president at the Hellens' company, Downtown Management Inc.

"The dynamic has changed," Martin says. "But Broadway is still a valuable piece of the puzzle."

Rather than a mecca for immigrant shoppers, the city sees Broadway's future as a shopping and entertainment center anchored by the old movie palaces that line the street. There's also a proposal to bring back the streetcar that trundled down the street in the 1930s and '40s.

"The 'cowboy days' of Broadway are slowly coming to an end," says Tom Gilmore, a veteran developer in the historic core. "Landlords are beginning to invest in a longer view of how the street evolves."

For Brittany Luttio, one of the new residents of the apartments at the arcade building, the shopping space is more of a curiosity than a destination. But she'd go there regularly if it had more restaurants, she says.

"There are holes that still need to be filled — we could use more places to eat," says Luttio, a 21-year-old fashion student. "But I like it here; it has character."

Arcade veterans like Balbuena and Azimi wonder about what all the changes will mean to them.

On this Sunday afternoon, they go through their familiar routines, checking through the week's receipts hoping for a big day of sales. But things are quiet once again.

Shopper Jackelin Panuco, 17, walks past with her younger brother Raul. Years before, she says, her mother would bring her to the arcade to buy toys and dresses.

But this afternoon nothing catches her eye. Balbuena's electronics store doesn't have the iPod she wants.

"There's not really much to find here anymore, and it's not busy," she says as she walks out to Spring Street. "I think we're going to look somewhere else."

sam.allen@latimes.com
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