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New Theater to Be Latest Piece of Downtown L.A. Revival

Sun October 28, 2007 - West Edition

LOS ANGELES (AP) A new theater clad in brushed aluminum and bright video screens is beckoning concertgoers into a once-seedy corner of downtown where entertainment used to be limited to peep shows and X-rated movie houses.

The Nokia Theatre is part of a $2.5 billion project known as L.A. Live that includes a 54-story condo-and-hotel tower, ESPN studios, a Grammy museum, movie theaters, restaurants, nightclubs and a bowling alley.

The complex, being opened in phases over the next few years by developer AEG, is seen as a major milestone in the ongoing revival of an area that used to be an urban wasteland of small dying factories, empty lots and flophouses.

“It’s another example of the return of real life to downtown Los Angeles, a place that was stripped of its real life,” said D.J. Waldie, who has written several books about Southern California history and culture.

The Nokia Theatre is sandwiched between the Staples Center sports arena, also developed by AEG, and a huge hole in the ground where the 1,225-unit condo-and-hotel building operated by the Ritz-Carlton Co. and JW Marriott will soon rise.

Inside the glass-and-metal theater is a 7,100-seat auditorium where the Eagles and the Dixie Chicks will perform Oct. 18 on opening night.

Neil Young, Bjork and Anita Baker are to appear later this year on the Nokia’s 14,000-square-foot stage — said to be the largest in Southern California — which is flanked by jumbo screens affixed to sparse gray walls.

The Nokia Theatre, whose namesake paid a fee for branding rights and the privilege of showing off phones at concerts, also is scheduled to host this year’s American Music Awards.

AEG spokesman Michael Roth said the company is negotiating with other major awards shows and will soon announce which ones are moving to the Nokia.

That raises the prospect of events now broadcast from venues in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Universal City being concentrated on one downtown stage.

But the most impressive performance could be that of the booming downtown neighborhoods outside the Nokia.

“I would speak of it as another patch in the quilt of revitalization that we’re weaving here,” said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Association, a business advocacy group.

Central Los Angeles’ recent successes range from the high-profile (the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall) to the mundane (the opening of a Ralph’s grocery store in an area that had no major supermarket for decades).

Meanwhile, groundbreaking is expected this year on the $2 billion Grand Avenue project about a mile north of L.A. Live. The 16-acre development will include a hotel, condo skyscraper, a park, and clusters of shopping and dining areas.

The boom in condominium and apartment construction boosted downtown’s residential population from about 18,700 in 1998 to more than 28,900 in 2006, according to the Central City Association. That’s a small fraction of the 3.8 million within the Los Angeles city limits, but still a major increase.

By 2009, some 40,000 are expected to be living in the roughly 4-sq.-mi. downtown area.

“I’ve seen it just magically come out of the ashes,” said former mayor Richard Riordan, who led the city in the 1990s and owns the Original Pantry Cafe, a venerable all-night diner near the new theater. “When I bought the restaurant in the 1980s, it was in the slums.”

Many historians pin the area’s downfall on redevelopment projects in the 1960s that demolished downtown neighborhoods and replaced homes with high-rise office buildings.

The result was “a kind of acropolis of Fortune 500 companies” where there were once vibrant residential districts and bustling shopping streets, Waldie said.

Aside from the homeless people on Skid Row and transients who lived in residential hotels, downtown was a ghost town once the stately skyline-defining office buildings nearby closed.

Crime, recession and the economic fallout from events like the South Los Angeles race riots in 1992 and the 1994 Northridge earthquake thwarted efforts to revive downtown neighborhoods, Waldie said.

The turning point came in the late 1990s, when the city passed its so-called adaptive reuse ordinance that allowed office buildings to be transformed into condos and apartment buildings. Developers bought up long-empty but architecturally spectacular vintage office buildings and warehouses that were converted into lofts now selling for millions.

City officials also extended a package of loans and hotel-tax rebates to AEG, which led the company to build Staples Center, home of the Lakers, and commit to finishing L.A. Live.

That downtown gamble encouraged other developers to break ground on their own projects, said Timothy J. Leiweke, president of AEG subsidiary AEG Live, which owns and operates the complex.

“We didn’t build the grocery store and we don’t have any dry cleaner, but all of that came because they saw L.A. Live, they saw Staples Center — they knew where the downtown community was going,” he said. “I think we probably gave everyone spine.”

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