After Sitting Vacant for a Decade, Downtown’s Broadway Trade Center Could Become LA’s Newest Tech Hub

Francesca Billington

Francesca Billington is a freelance reporter. Prior to that, she was a general assignment reporter for dot.LA and has also reported for KCRW, the Santa Monica Daily Press and local publications in New Jersey. She graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in anthropology.

After Sitting Vacant for a Decade, Downtown’s Broadway Trade Center Could Become LA’s Newest Tech Hub
Photo by Eric Zassenhaus

A new creator economy startup wants to build a “metaverse hub” in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, New York-based startup Emcee announced plans to buy the 1.1-million-square-foot Broadway Trade Center, a historic building in Downtown L.A. that once housed the city’s first department store but has been vacant for nearly a decade. Emcee says it wants to turn the building into the “Emcee Studio,” a tech hub and shopping center complementing its ecommerce and creator economy platform.

Emcee’s founder and chief executive, John Aghayan, told dot.LA that he expects to close the transaction by April. (The company did not disclose the purchase price.) Aghayan envisions the six-block-long building as a retail destination and co-working space that would accompany Emcee’s to-be-developed metaverse platform.

“We decided to buy real estate to bring under one roof tens of thousands of creators, innovators, private companies, startups and public companies,” Aghayan said.

Emcee’s plan is to lure a combination of software developers, entrepreneurs and designers to the Downtown space, which it says will house a hotel, member-exclusive rooftop pool, restaurant and one floor of co-working offices. The company wants the ground floor to operate like a futuristic shopping mall where in addition to physical storefronts, brands will maintain an augmented reality presence letting shoppers browse and buy online.

Built in 1907, the building once stood as Hamburger’s Department Store; it staffed about 1,200 employees and housed its own post office, public library and auditorium.Photo by Eric Zassenhaus

Emcee’s acquisition of the property is being financed by outside investors, none of whom the startup disclosed. Waterbridge Capital currently owns the property; the investment firm is helmed by Joel Schreiber, an early WeWork investor who backed Emcee’s $6 million seed round in December.

“This is the hottest location in Downtown L.A.,” Schreiber told dot.LA.

Once the deal goes through, Emcee plans on commencing work on the redevelopment—though the company declined to pinpoint a specific date when construction might begin.

Emcee was founded in 2021 as an ecommerce platform that relies on internet influencers to promote and market brands. Emcee’s influencers earn up to 30% commission for every purchase made on the platform. Users can also sell personal items through its marketplace, similar to the shopping platform Depop.

Emcee’s purchase of the Broadway Trade Center is just one in a string of metaverse-related expansions that the startup is plotting. Next year, it expects to roll out Emcee City, which it describes as a “fully functional immersive world, bridging IRL and digital landscapes to redefine social interaction, commerce and entertainment.”

The company also plans to introduce its own cryptocurrency, the $EMC token, by March. Consumers will be able to spend the currency on Emcee’s platform or, eventually, at physical stores located within the Emcee Studio building in Downtown L.A. Before opening the studio, Emcee will launch avatar functions and a 2D map for users to “start investing and buying virtual real estate,” Aghayan said.

If construction proceeds as anticipated, Aghayan’s company could successfully transform the expansive, historic property back into a retail destination. Built in 1907, the building once stood as Hamburger’s Department Store; it staffed about 1,200 employees and housed its own post office, public library and auditorium. The May Department Stores Company acquired Hamburger’s in 1923 and operated the building for more than half a century before moving out in 1986, at which point it was renamed the Broadway Trade Center.

In 2014, Waterbridge Capital and Continental Equities bought the property for $130 million with plans for a high-end redevelopment: a 200-room hotel, office space, luxury retail and a rooftop featuring bars and restaurants. Waterbridge oversaw basic construction and restorations to the building and hired L.A.-based Omgivning Architects to help design the new space.

But Waterbridge has yet to deliver on its initial plans. Schreiber, Waterbridge’s founder and CEO, said the firm has been “looking for the right tech enterprise to help us execute on this vision.”

“We had interest from very large tech companies—the largest tech companies in the world—to take the space,” Schreiber said, though he did not name which ones. “But this is not what the vision was—just to buy a building and put in a tech tenant.”

Aghayan is now hoping he can deliver on Schreiber’s vision.

“Santa Monica, Marina del Rey and Venice are attracting gaming, NFTs, crypto,” Aghayan said. “This is making Downtown the center to track all this talent and community.”

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