Downtown LA Is Back in Fashion as Big Brands and Retailers Revive Its Historic Broadway District

Downtown L.A. is back in fashion — and it’s a revival that took nearly 35 years to happen.

At the turn of the 20th century, the area was the epicenter of commerce and entertainment, with department stores, markets and theaters lining the Broadway strip. Shows headlined by Charlie Chaplin and Houdini to Lena Horne and Judy Garland lured big crowds and their dollars. It rivaled commercial cosmopolitan hubs in San Francisco and New York.

But by the 1980s through the early 2000s, the middle and upper classes, as well as retailers, mostly bolted for the suburbs and satellite cities, leading to vacancies and limited access to popular footwear and apparel chains in L.A. proper.

“Major brands went to Beverly Hills or Santa Monica or Century City,” said Brigham Yen, a real estate agent who has blogged about DTLA’s development for nearly a decade on his namesake website. “Flagships are [typically] located in city centers of major cities. In L.A., it’s never in L.A. — and that’s embarrassing. That’s why it’s not looked at as a serious city.”

Now the Broadway area is having a revival in retail with sneakerheads, artists and trendsetters. In the last five years, the South Broadway section in particular has attracted a growing roster of athletic and streetwear businesses — earning the name Sneaker Row by some young consumers who frequent the Footaction, Jumpman LA, Sheikh Shoes, WSS and independent shoe stores there. Acne Studios, Theory, Urban Outfitters and Ross also call the turf home.

Vans is the latest giant readying to set up an outpost on the budding stretch, with doors expected to open in spring.

“As a brand engrained in action sports, music, arts and street culture, the decision to pursue a location in downtown Los Angeles made perfect sense to us, given the area’s strong historical tie and relevance to each of these pillars,” said Carly Gomez, senior director of marketing and direct-to-consumer.

The Costa Mesa, Calif.-based brand’s new digs feature a 9,000-square-foot experiential concept store in what was once a Singer sewing machine factory. The urban surroundings also represent an opportunity to tap a new kind of clientele and test new strategies.

“Vans was looking for an elevated customer who would appreciate the product line and core demo,” said Matthew Lux, VP of real estate services firm Beta, who helped facilitate the store deal for the brand. “It’s a fashion-forward company, but they sell core products, so they wanted to capture a market with influence-makers and sell base product. It’s ahead of the curve and represents geographically where the brand is going — urban and vibrant.”

Vans will arrive at an auspicious time. According to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District’s 2018 Downtown L.A. Survey, residents in the area had a median household income of $98,900, 47 percent of the population is between 18 and 35, and 54 percent of respondents want more fashion retailers.

As a bonus, buildings with facades designed in art deco and beaux-arts style — along with the neighborhood’s urban vibe and an engaged consumer base — make the area an attractive locale to leave a footprint.

“We have one of the largest stocks of historic structures on the West Coast,” said Yen. He added that the Broadway strip failed to lure commerce until the trendy Ace Hotel arrived in 2014 and sparked market interest. Consumer foot traffic, hip restaurants and bars followed. “Urban Outfitters was one of the first retailers to sign on in South Broadway. For the longest time, the buildings have been sitting there dilapidated.”

Another desirable aspect of the corridor is that it’s not within the migratory path of downtown’s large homeless population and Skid Row, which would obstruct foot traffic.

Last year, Jordan Brand set up shop on South Broadway and opened Jumpman LA — a three-story, 19,000-square-foot space dedicated to Jordan product, boasting a full regulation rooftop court and a fitness facility for shoppers, among other amenities.

“Instead of focusing on the challenges of the downtown area, Jordan Brand saw the opportunity,” said Scott Dixon, the label’s VP and GM of North America. L.A. is one of Nike Inc.’s top 12 global cities, so establishing roots alongside competitors on the strip was a matter of strategy. “We believe DTLA is the sneaker hub of the future for Los Angeles, and Jumpman LA gives us the opportunity to be at the heart of the new wave.”

Similarly, Footaction expanded its position in L.A. on South Broadway in 2016, but the move also presented an opportunity to shape its narrative and connect with underserved constituents. “We’re deeply rooted in youth and sneaker culture, and we had stores in L.A., but they were all mall-driven,” explained Ken Side, VP and GM for the retailer, adding that the team sought out what was a burgeoning “high street” in downtown. “Now it’s way beyond Sneaker Row. Even in 2013, when we looked at it, we knew that was about five years away. As New Yorkers, we understood we were on the field of dreams — if you build it, they will come.”

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