The ambition was admirable, but the dream, to some folks, seemed unrealistic and unattainable.
The transformation of the 700 block of W Sheridan Avenue is almost complete. Crowds are gathering for monthly art walks, tables are filling up at Joey's Pizzeria and Chopt. Arts patrons make regular visits to the IAO Gallery. The Paramount has established itself as both a popular coffee shop and film screening room. And a few hundred people now office in what was once derided as “skid row.”
On Jan. 18, 2006, I got a glimpse of the vision that has become reality. The area of interest was in such bad shape that no building was suitable to host a meeting of civic leaders and planners attempting to figure out a way to fix this long-blighted stretch of Sheridan Avenue west of the Central Business District.
Developer Chip Fudge had just started buying some of the early 1900s Art Deco buildings after being pitched on the area's potential by designer David Wanzer. It was Wanzer who studied the history of Film Row and learned how the stretch was once one of 35 film-distribution centers across the country, home to branches of Paramount, Warner, RKO, 20th Century Fox and other studios.
But by the 1980s, the area was derelict, most of the buildings were boarded up and transients were sleeping on doorsteps along Sheridan Avenue.
Ann Simank, then a city councilwoman, and city planners bought into the vision of changing the area's fortunes. But as I listened to the ideas exchanged that January evening at Fudge's office building on Classen Boulevard, I struggled to see how such a transformation could take place.
The City Rescue Mission was a block to the south along California Avenue and wasn't going anywhere. The Union Bus Station was at the east entry to Film Row, and efforts over 20 years to relocate the operation had proved fruitless. The Jesus House, Salvation Army and other shelters all formed a circle around this cluster of attractive old buildings.
The vision, however, had a core of true believers. Fudge worked with the city to establish not just a streetscape to rebuild the street, but also agreed to rally support for the area to join the downtown business improvement district to pay for irrigation required to support enhanced landscaping.