News And Politics

The Dunbar will open again, but not as a hotel

March 3, 2011, 6 a.m.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Safran and Associates

Editor's note: This is part of a two-part series, examining the past and future of the Dunbar Hotel. To read about the history of the hotel, click here

Central Avenue’s historic landmark the Dunbar Hotel is set to undergo redevelopment starting this fall. The project is being called the Dunbar Village, and will include the restoration of the Dunbar and the rehabilitation of 86 units of affordable housing. The project will also create 158 jobs and three permanent jobs.

The famed Dunbar, which was once the center of the African American community and entertainment, will be integrated into one community with neighboring buildings Sommerville I and II to "provide affordable housing for low-income families and seniors," said Will Cipes, Assistant Project Manager for the Downtown region for the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).

The hotel, which was once the venue for iconic musicians such as Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, has 72 small units, and considered to not be up to date, said Cipes. Those units will turned into 41 units. The hotel will feature new plumbing, a media lounge, a fitness room for residents and community space for the CRCD. The people who are currently residing in the property are in the process of looking for relocation.

The budget for the entire project is approximately $31 million, said Cipes, while the budget for the hotel is $16 million. Funds come from a variety of sources, such as tax credits and a loan from the CRA.

The project is being spearheaded by co-owners of the property, Coalition for Responsible Community Development (CRCD) and the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) and is in partnership with developer Thomas Safran and Associates.

History of the Dunbar

Built in 1928 and originally called Hotel Sommerville, the Dunbar became one of the first up-scale hotels for African Americans while other hotels refused to accommodate them. The ground floor included a barbershop, beauty shop, a tailor shop and a doctor's office. The ground floor had a dining room that seated one hundred and included a balcony for an orchestra and a coffee shop.

The hotel also hosted the first meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on the west coast within the first year of its opening.

But what was once an essential part in the thriving business street known as Central Avenue, fell into disrepair. Two factors that led to this, according to Malcolm Bennett, State Court Receiver and president of International Realty Investments, the company that oversees the day-to-day operations of the hotel, were the changing demographics and the declining economy.

When Bennett got the call from the city to look over the hotel three years ago, he was more than pleased since he has a strong kinship with the hotel.

“I used to sell Jet Magazines in front of the Dunbar when I was about 11 years old,” Bennett said. "It's mind boggling that 30 years later the building where I used to sell magazines in front of, I would end up operating it."

After years of disrepair, Bennett says what halted plans of redevelopment on the property was finding someone who had the financial capacity and experience to do such a renovation. But now that the property is co-owned by the CRCD and LAHD, and with so many supporters behind it, Bennett hopes that the hotel becomes a "destination" in South LA.

Councilwoman Jan Perry wrote on her blog that the site is a "testament to the history and strength of the South Los Angeles community."

Although there are no plans as of yet to use the hotel as an entertainment venue that it once was, Cipes said it is still an important project in the revitalization of the area.

"It is a tremendous asset in the community," Cipes said. "To see it restored to what it once was will create a focal point in Vernon Central."

Construction is set to begin September of this year and is expected to finish December 2012.

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