Olvera Street celebrates 80th anniversary amid fears of steep rent hike

Posters saying
Posters saying "Save Olvera Street" greet visitors to the 80th anniversary celebrations of Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles on on April 24, 2010.
Newly Paul/ KPCC

Diane Bertoldo, 57, has been coming to Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles ever since she was a little girl. On Saturday afternoon, she was there with her daughter, Roxanne, at the 80th anniversary celebrations of the historic Mexican marketplace. "This place has a lot of sentimental value," said Bertoldo. "The refried beans, taquitos and churros here are made just the way our mothers cook...to lose this place would be terrible."

Bertoldo was referring to a notice served to merchants on Olvera Street, several of whom have been in the area for decades, to pay increased rent, about 200-900 percent of the existing amount, or face eviction. The rent increase, which was to be put into effect in April, has been delayed by a month by the city. The merchants are hoping an amicable solution can be worked out.

According to the Olvera Street Merchants Association, small retail stores of 68 square feet that are paying $3,084 a year, will be paying $11,688 a year under the new rule. Medium retail spaces of 1,402 square feet that were paying $14,304 a year, will pay $56,360 annually, and large retail stores with an area of 1,749 square feet that were paying $20,148 will now pay $70,310.

"These steep rent increases are impossible for merchants to pay, considering the economy and the sharply falling sales," said Vivien Bonzo, president of OSMA.

An audit of Olvera Street, released last June by the L.A. City Controller's Office found that the rents in the area have been below market value for several years. By bringing rents to market rate, the budget for the city's El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Commission, which looks after the Olvera Street market, is expected to get a boost, according to the audit.

At the celebrations Saturday, Olvera Street was packed with hundreds of locals and tourists. Mariachis played music, dancers performed traditional dances at the plaza in the center of the market, and restaurants served piping hot food. The only signs of the impending crisis was the SOS--Save Olvera Street--posters displayed at several storefronts, and badges that some store owners wore.

"The thought of not having Olvera Street is heartbreaking," said Alyce Escareno, co-owner of Olvera Street Candle Shop, which has been in business for 25 years. Added her sister Nancy Madrid-Alley: "The City must take into consideration the tradition we represent. It's not fair to compare us to other retail businesses."