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MTA considers major makeover for Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights

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The iconic Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights has already seen its share of changes. Decades ago, there was little more than a hotel and a donut shop. Outside, musicians gathered waiting for work. Five years ago, a Metro Gold Line station opened, bringing foot traffic - and talk of creeping gentrification - as nearby downtown development took off.

Now the plaza could be further transformed, if the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approves plans for approximately 120,000 square feet of retail and office space surrounding it.

Long-dormant plans by the MTA to develop the plaza - stemming from the days before the real estate bust and recession - were revived late last year. Now they are taking shape, with a proposed site plan unveiled last week.

The MTA’s planning committee recommended earlier this week that the board approve an agreement with a developer to build 70,000 square feet of retail space surrounding the plaza, along with 50,000 square feet of medical offices.

"It provides some... activity around that station by increasing the amount of retail space and office space that would open out onto the plaza," said Cal Hollis, who oversees the MTA’s real estate department. "So it's really a way of activating that space.”

Hollis said the current plan calls for three buildings on MTA property and an adjacent privately owned parcel. An existing building on the latter now houses several small businesses; Hollis said it would be demolished to make way for new development.

One of the businesses that could be removed is the Santa Cecilia Restaurant, a tiny but popular Mexican restaurant that's been there for 19 years. During the Friday lunch rush, owner and chef Armando Salazar said he was aware of a plan to develop the property, but not of the details. He said that while he hasn't heard anything yet from his landlord about relocating, he fears he’ll have to.

“The only thing I do know is that if they are going to build everything new, the rent is going to be high, and it’s not going to be in our hands to get a place to rent or keep the business," Salazar said. "There is no way to do that.”

The full MTA board is scheduled to vote on the development plan next Thursday. After that, 18 months’ worth of negotiations, reviews, and public input should begin. The board is also weighing development plans for two nearby Eastside Metro stations, both involving affordable housing.

Not everyone on the plaza expressed reservations about the new construction. Roberto, a trumpet player who’s worked the plaza for decades, said he's welcomed the changes he's seen so far - even though he says the renovated housing at the Boyle Hotel, once popular with the mariachis, has become too expensive.

"It wouldn’t affect us, on the contrary, it would be good," he said. "I think it would be better – more commerce, more people coming from different places."

And, as he sees it, the possibility of more customers for the musicians - the mariachis - who are the plaza's namesake.

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