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Darryl Holter and Shammas Group Fuels Auto Row Plan
Proposal Would Bring 11 Car Dealerships to Area by 2006

by Chris Coates | Los Angeles Downtown News


Category: Darryl Holter, Shammas Group
One of Downtown Los Angeles' largest landholders has unveiled plans to turn a portion of the Figueroa Corridor into a major auto sales center. Although the $16.5 million proposal could mean increased foot traffic for the neighborhood and tax revenues for the
darryl holter

Darryl Holter is building a $16.5 million, 75,000-squarefoot
auto dealership at Figueroa Street and Washington
Boulevard. He hopes the Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche
dealerships will help create an auto row in the Figueroa
Corridor. Photo by Gary Leonard.

city, some observers are questioning its overall benefit for the community.

Darryl Holter, the CEO of Shammas Group, which owns numerous car dealerships and nearly 20 acres of property in the Figueroa Corridor, said he is creating a project called the "Downtown Auto Center" on a triangular portion of land bounded by Figueroa Street, the 110 Freeway and the 10 Freeway. The development, modeled after suburban auto malls, could cause the number of dealerships in the area to jump from the current four to 11 by 2006.

"The idea is to capture the advantages of the suburban auto mall and implant that in an urban setting," Darryl Holter said.

The plan would capitalize on a car dealership and real estate empire that Shammas Group has been building for decades (see sidebar). It would involve moving some auto dealerships Shammas already owns near USC, and luring other car makers to open showrooms.

From a consumer perspective, Darryl Holter said it would mean numerous dealerships, within walking distance of each other and close to freeway exits.

Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche

Darryl Holter's plan abuts the Downtown LA Mercedes-Benz dealership his father-in-law, Nick Shammas, founded 36 years ago on the northwest corner of Figueroa Street and Washington Boulevard. On the southwest corner, Shammas owns Nissan of Downtown LA. Also in the vicinity are Kaiser Bros. Oldsmobile-Honda at 1540 S. Figueroa St. and Toyota Central at 1600 S. Figueroa St.

Last November, crews started building a 75,000-square-foot facility on the southeast corner of the intersection. Plans by Whitfield Associates call for three identical two-story buildings.

The space will be filled by Shammas-owned Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche dealerships that now sit a dozen blocks south at Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard, said facilities manager Jason Chang (the Felix Auto Center at Figueroa and Jefferson will stay put). The new auto centers will have rooftop space to display cars, cutting back on expensive storage costs, Holter said.

The concept is already proving fruitful, according to Holter, as prospective car sellers want to be in a locale that thousands pass every day. He said a Volvo dealer has signed a lease for a plot on the west side of Figueroa Street, and that talks are being held to bring in Chrysler Jeep and Dodge.

It's a process made possible by Shammas' vast holdings. Holter estimated that the company owns about 40% of the land near where the freeways intersect. The company also controls many vacant commercial buildings and open lots.

"Land and buildings that haven't been used are being filled in," Darryl Holter said.

Pedestrian Questions

Once the Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche dealerships leave their current homes, their buildings will be razed. As previously reported, they will be replaced by a $130 million mixed-use residential center for USC undergrads called University Gateway. Developed by Urban Partners, the project will house 1,658 students in 421 units and include 83,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space.

While Holter touts the jobs and tax revenues to be created by the concentration of dealerships, some contend it does not fit with the area's trends or potential.

"It's a somewhat dubious strategy in the long term for Figueroa to have auto-oriented uses all along there," said Nate Cherry, a vice president of architecture firm RTKL Associates, which is working on the LA Live entertainment complex adjacent to Staples Center a half-dozen blocks north of the proposed auto row. "I would consider [Figueroa] a very pedestrian oriented street."

Cherry's concern is prompted partly by the corridor's recent mini-resurgence. Along with the activity created at the northern end of the stretch by Staples, developers have built or are planning a handful of residential projects. In May, crews wrapped up the mixed-use Texere Plaza at Figueroa and 23rd streets. The 300,000-square-foot mixed-use Tuscany project is expected to break ground this month at Exposition Boulevard and Figueroa Street.

Meanwhile, USC, the corridor's southern anchor, is spending $288 million over the next year to improve its University Park campus, including constructing the $70 million Galen Center at Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard. Also nearby, Los Angeles Trade- Technical College is getting a $240 million renovation. The planned Mid-City/Exposition Light Rail Line, a $632 million project to link Downtown with Culver City, would also pass through the corridor.

Some expect the dealerships will have a positive impact. Mike Pfeiffer, president of the South Park Stakeholders Group, said that portion of Downtown needs an invigorated retail component. He thinks the string of showrooms will help fuse Downtown with USC and Exposition Park. Holter's plan "will only attract more kinds of business and residential activity into the area," Pfeiffer said.

It's a point echoed by Holter, who expects his plan to be a boon for the entire neighborhood.

"If I could build a critical mass in this area based on location, then dealerships will come," he said.

An Auto Row Redux

If Darryl Holter, CEO of the Shammas Group, is successful with his "Downtown Auto Center" concept, it won't be the first time a portion of Figueroa Street south of Downtown serves as an auto sales hub. In fact, Holter's father-in-law helped turn Figueroa into a kind of auto mecca starting a half-century ago.

Nick Shammas, who died in July 2003 at 87, was a pioneering auto dealer in Los Angeles. He owned a string of showrooms along Figueroa Street south of Downtown, starting with the Felix Auto Center he founded in 1955. The center became famous after Shammas erected a Felix the Cat sign to usher motorists off the freeway.

Through Shammas Automotive Group, he would go on to create six dealerships: Felix Cadillac, Felix Chevrolet, Nissan of Downtown LA, Porsche of Downtown LA, Audi of Downtown LA and Volkswagen of Downtown LA.

In the 1970s, as car dealers moved out of Downtown - and opened in places like Glendale's Brand Boulevard and Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley - Shammas bought their old buildings. "Along the way, he amassed a lot of properties," Holter said.

- Chris Coates - Los Angeles Downtown News