The plans for transforming downtown Lancaster into a lifestyle destination are moving forward with the opening of an artist’s gallery and a new deli on Lancaster Boulevard. Residents received a preview of what the city envisions for its main street on July 17 at Celebrate Downtown Lancaster, a festival featuring live music, and food and craft vendors. The boulevard was closed down for several blocks with performance stages at either end. Developer Scott Ehrlich presided over the opening of the gallery next to his Arbor Lofts project. Ehrlich estimated that 5,000 people came through the gallery to see the artwork of area artists, some of whom will reside at Arbor Lofts once they are completed this month. “It was an amazing event. I felt so positive for the whole downtown,” Ehrlich said. “There is nobody in the whole city that is having any negative comments right now.” Some of Ehrlich’s other projects are near completion or are under construction. A former Bank of America building has been transformed into the Brooklyn Deli, what Ehrlich calls the only authentic New York-style Jewish deli in the Antelope Valley. A block away construction fencing has gone up around a long-closed furniture store as it’s transformed into Bex, a restaurant, lounge and banquet facility. Ehrlich hopes to have Bex open by the fall. The city, meanwhile, moves ahead with its part in the makeover with a preliminary design to make downtown a place where people want to stay rather than just pass through. This will be done by making the area more pedestrian friendly, adding parking along a median in the middle of the street, creating multi-use spaces and mitigating the heat and wind. A new streetscape design calls for new lighting, trees, plantings and other improvements along the boulevard and the side streets. Lancaster Boulevard for years was a main commercial strip in the city until the Antelope Valley Freeway drew businesses away. The area, however, was not completely abandoned as it became the site of a new city hall, the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, a sheriff’s station and Los Angeles county library. The downtown specific plan adopted by the Lancaster City Council last year goes beyond just municipal uses for property there, dividing the 140-acre downtown area into seven distinct districts identified by their primary use commerce, transit, small offices, public parkways, the arts, and residential. With a projected build-out of 2030, the downtown would encompass nearly a million square feet each in retail and service space, and office and public space; and 3,500 residential units. In conjunction with the downtown rebranding, the Lancaster Old Town Site merchants group decided on a name change to The Blvd. Association. While historical preservation will still be a part of the association’s mission, the membership recognized that there is not much of the original old town site that visitors can physically see. “The image is going to be a much more modern feel,” said association President Josh Mann. Deserted Inn The City of Lancaster is wrapping up its investigation of the Desert Inn, the Sierra Highway motel shut down with much fanfare last month to keep the Mongols motorcycle gang from staying there. Reading the initial stories in the Antelope Valley Press about the actions taken by the city I became incensed enough to see it as an overreaction. Yes, the city was obligated to take whatever steps needed in the face of a threat to public safety. But I came away thinking that the Desert Inn owner was being put in the middle of the dispute between over-the-top rhetoric of Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris and the Mongols, who paid $16,000 for rooms and access to the banquet hall, restaurant and bar. What I found odd was that the city would later claim it was closing down the motel showing up one morning with a whole lot of chain link to keep leather-clad bikers or anyone else out over unpaid transient occupancy taxes totaling either $170,000 or $180,000, both figures being reported in the AV Press. Whatever the figure, it is not an amount that accumulates in a day or two. It would take months. So just how did the Desert Inn manage to get away with it and stay open in the face of not paying the tax? It appeared that Lancaster up until July 16 did nothing about not getting the payments. But add in the Mongols labeled by Parris as domestic terrorists and then the attitude of the city changes and up goes the chain link fence. As it turns out, there was a part of this story not being reported. This information never showed up in the coverage by the AV Press (as of July 27) or in the Associated Press story that for a two-day period made Lancaster, Parris and the Mongols national news. While talking with William Litvak, the attorney representing the city in its enforcement case against the motel, Litvak asked if I was aware of the prosecution of the owner by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. Uh, no, I told him. According to Litvak, the owner has a pending criminal charge for not transferring money intended to pay the hotel occupancy tax. The charge pre-dated the situation with the Mongols. With one call to the District Attorney’s office, this is what I found: a person with the same name of the hotel owner was charged Sept. 2, 2008 with two felony counts, one being grand theft by embezzlement. The victim was the City of Lancaster. A plea of not guilty was entered. The case is up again on Aug. 24. A criminal charge of course is not evidence of any wrongdoing but certainly adds a new dimension into what happened at the Desert Inn. But it still doesn’t quite absolve the city of its actions that were directly aimed at the Mongols rather than clearing up a substantial amount of money owed to it. Litvak said that it was the condition of the motel itself that was behind the city’s enforcement action. City staff became concerned when hearing that more than 250 guests planned to stay there. “Even the Mongols deserved a safe place to stay,” Litvak said. Staff Reporter Mark Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or by e-mail at email@example.com . He recently returned from a six-day vacation in Chicago.
Openings Bring Continued Changes to Downtown Lancaster