Have you noticed that Los Angeles is falling apart? It is. And for those of us who have been here for a while, there’s a certain morbid fascination in watching it crumble—sometimes literally.
You can see it happen in fast forward on the much-hyped Sixth Street Viaduct, opened a couple of weeks ago with a big city party, already defaced with tagging, donuts and burn outs.
But down on Broadway, beautiful National Register boulevard, the decay is slower. A lot of the property owners don’t care, and the city doesn’t, either. You can almost get used to it—unless you’re our friend Doug Dunn.
And because he takes such pride and works so hard to restore funky old things to full functionality, as he travels through a collapsing urban landscape, he can’t help but ask why nobody is doing anything to fix it.
Which brings us to the Broadway Trade Center, better known to architecture and history lovers as Hamburger’s Department Store / May Company (architects Alfred F. Rosenheim and Alexander Curlett, 1906-1929). Taking up half a city block at 8th and Broadway, the massive Beaux Arts complex was until seven years ago a thriving fashion industry hive, with swap meet style retail on the ground floor and manufacturing in the loft spaces above, supporting many small service businesses in the blocks around it.
A decade ago, after watching in horror as councilman Jose Huizar’s boneheaded policies started to kill off Broadway’s fragile coral reef ecosystem of independent businesses catering to low income workers, shoppers and public transit users, we decided we had to do something. (We assumed Huizar was just a wannabe urban planner with more power than smarts, but recent prosecution reveals he was also getting paid for land use votes.)
Our response to Huizar’s Bringing Back Broadway initiative was a series of free LAVA walking tours called Broadway on My Mind, where we critiqued BBB’s proposals, documented the fast changing landscape, educated concerned Angelenos about the neighborhood’s history and treasures, and talked about the enormous challenges and risks of “reviving” huge swaths of Los Angeles through planned displacement and repopulation by different, wealthier, whiter users.
Broadway on My Mind tour number 3 (September 2013) brought us to the still humming Broadway Trade Center, across from the under construction Urban Outfitters in the old Rialto Theater, where longtime Community Redevelopment Agency policy maker Donald Spivack shared insights into how careful planners ensured that the 1.1 million square foot landmark found a second life, as the big department stores fled Downtown for the ‘burbs and new demographics flocked to the central city.
The huge property had just been listed for sale as a development opportunity, citing the new Ace Hotel and other projects on the rise. Joel Schreiber’s Waterbridge Capital paid $130 Million for the opportunity to develop the biggest adaptive reuse project in Los Angeles history, promising hotel, retail, residential, restaurants and of course a green roof garden.
Public criticism had no effect on Huizar’s rampage through the most historic and beautiful sections of Los Angeles. He blew public funds putting racing stripes on the Bradbury Building. Ignored community demand to restore rather than reimagine Pershing Square. Took out a lane of traffic on Broadway and scrambled bus connections all over the city. Colluded with recently defeated CD1 councilman Gil Cedillo to manufacture public demand for demolition of Parker Center in a scheme to bring private development to the steps of City Hall. Let the property owner who put JOSE HUIZAR on the marquee of all the Broadway theaters shut down the wonderful al fresco dining scene in St. Vincent’s Court. And rewrote our Los Angeles Times landmarking application for the benefit of Canadian developer Onni Group’s demolition plan. (Don’t worry: he doesn’t like us, either.)
Around that time, the FBI raided his City Hall office and Boyle Heights home. Huizar didn’t listen to Angelenos, but he couldn’t ignore a Federal indictment. Bringing Back Broadway slipped away without a whimper, and eventually Huizar was out of City Hall, too.
But the damage continues. Back to the Broadway Trade Center and our observant and increasingly concerned friend Doug Dunn.
Not long after our walking tour visit, the tenants were gone and the vast building shrouded in scaffolding, then gutted. Years went by. The owners sought an additional big loan and then another. Rumors circulated about the viability of the project. Then in August 2020, it was reported that the property was being quietly shopped for sale, this time asking $425 Million. The lender gave the owners a little more rope.
So what’s the latest? Debt is overdue, and work stopped years ago. In February, a publicist got a few websites to run with the goofy rumor that “new creator economy startup” (read: affiliate marketing channel) Emcee—partly owned by current owner Joel Schreiber—plans to buy the Broadway Trade Center to build a cryptocurrency “metaverse hub,” with the deal to close by April 2022. Soon after, The Real Deal reported on multiple cancelled public equity auctions of some of the distressed debt, and an auction set for May 26 was also cancelled.
Meanwhile, the Broadway Trade Center was a mess. The upper story scaffolding came down in 2017, but the developer never removed the wraparound street level scaffolding. Like almost everything else in the neighborhood, it is covered with graffiti. But as neighbor Doug Dunn has noticed with growing alarm, it’s also become structurally unsound and a danger to the pedestrians who use the sidewalks beneath it.
As Doug explained: “In short, the owners stopped maintaining the scaffold some time about 2-3 years ago. Over time metal supports have been stolen or tampered with, to the point that close to half the length is not supported. The wood has warped and in places is leaning 30 degrees into the walkway. The whole thing creaks and twists on windy days. Parts of the supports are now supported by various trash, including what appears to be a post topper. There’s also exposed nails, and exposed/cut wires on the nonfunctional safety lighting. I have seen the building security guard attempting to do his best to close breaches in the upper anti-trespassing plywood, but this hasn’t been done in a safe or secure manner. The worst part is along the Broadway side, but the other two sides have issues as well.”
Christopher immediately inquired with Bureau of Street Services. On June 8, he wrote back: “Our Bureau of Street Services Investigator (BSS) investigated the situation and found out that the owner of the building has valid permits for the scaffolding. When asked by the Investigator as to why they have had this scaffolding up for so long and have made no progress, their response was that they were unable to conduct work during the pandemic and that they would be starting work soon. I have asked our BSS Investigator to find out when this permit is up for renewal so that we can request that their permit not be renewed unless we see evidence of work being conducted at this location.”
On July 12, Doug again wrote to Christopher with a distressing update: “There has been no sign of progress around the building other than some cursory cleaning. They have stopped painting over advertising posters. The area of scaffolding where the support is missing is now actively sagging, I could hear it creaking in the wind. The whole section of scaffolding is leaning out probably 10 to 15 degrees. The upper boards are loose and there are hundreds of exposed rusty nails. It is an active hazard at this point.”
Christopher immediately replied, “Our council office is meeting with the BSS Investigator and the new property owner tomorrow morning to address this issue.”
Then four days later, on July 16, Christopher wrote again with a message about what’s really going on with the Broadway Trade Center. This didn’t come from a New York publicist, and there’s no crypto-metaverse gobbledygook lingo to parse. Just the facts, ma’am.
Christopher Antonelli: “Along with the Bureau of Street Services and LADBS, our council office met with the court appointed receivers for 801 S Broadway/826 & 832 S Hill St. The receivers updated us on the current situation and the fact that no work will be conducted anytime soon as the property will soon be going to auction. As such, we have requested that the receivers remove the scaffolding, board up the building and secure the building as soon as possible as their scaffolding permits expired months ago. This building could be yours for a mere $250 million. I will keep you updated when I have more information.”
We’ve got a (well-named) Broadway walking tour on the calendar, and didn’t look forward to having to cross the street at 8th to keep our guests safe from falling beams and rusty nails.
So we’re hoping the receivers can clean up their part of the Broadway mess before August 13, and that this beautiful and useful building can again be alive with the sound of creative Angelenos doing cool stuff, instead of held vacant for years by increasingly unhinged speculators. Could it be affordable housing and artist’s lofts above, community serving retail, restaurant and service businesses below? It doesn’t seem any crazier than a cryptocurrency “metaverse hub.” And that rooftop garden Omgivning designed is too alluring not to build.
The Broadway Trade Center hype engine is dead. Long live Hamburger’s Department Store!
Update August 5, 2022: Dot.LA reports on the pending foreclosure, with links to our reporting, and an interview with an anonymous Downtown broker who says of Emcee’s proposed tenancy, “it sounded like some kind of cockamamie sham put together to find more time with the lender… nobody in their right mind would invest in that building in DTLA.”However, they appear to be talking specifically about the landmark’s lack of viability as housing. This building was until recently a thriving mixed use fashion manufacturing and retail hub, and we think a return to appropriate use would be much better than letting much of a city block sit boarded up to rot. If the city can really “buy it back for pennies on the dollar now,” it should.
Update August 10, 2022: The Real Deal reports that Joel Schreiber has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on an “emergency basis” to stave off yesterday’s planned auction of the Broadway Trade Center by lender Starwood as he cooks up a new marketing plan. What is even stupider than the “metaverse hub” concept? Stay tuned!
Update September 27, 2022: The Real Deal reports that Joel Schreiber is being sued by lender Starwood Capital over his attempt to wiggle out of foreclosure through a bankruptcy that was allegedly news to partner Jack Jangana. More worrying, Schreiber somehow maintained ownership of the landmark while not paying on his loan, property taxes or maintaining property insurance.
Update October 5, 2022: Doug Dunn reports that five months after he reported it to the city, the dangerous scaffolding surrounding the Broadway Trade Center is finally being removed!
Update October 18, 2022: It seems we got our hopes up for no good reason. Doug Dunn reports that there still collapsing scaffolding over the sidewalk next to the Broadway Trade Center. This is a peril for all pedestrians. We’d complain to Downtown councilman Kevin de Leon, but he’s presently in hiding, refusing to resign for his racist remarks. [On October 28, 2022, a local on Facebook shared a photo showing that the scaffolding finally had come down.]
Update November 14, 2022: The Real Deal reports that foreclosure is looming again, after Joel Schreiber’s promised bailout by Quintin Primo came up goose eggs.