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After Sitting Vacant for a Decade, Downtown’s Broadway Trade Center Could Become LA’s Newest Tech Hub
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 metavere-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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Silicon Valley-based Plug and Play is coming to downtown L.A.
The organization, known for its accelerator programs and status as a VC firm, held an event announcing the news on Tuesday at 1010 Wilshire Blvd, where its newest cohort will be based.
Plug and Play aims to match local startups up with corporations that can help them develop. It has already invested in several L.A.-based startups, including browser extension coupon service Honey and real estate marketing startup Zentap.
The organization plans to devote 100 units in the building to startups involved in the program as well as to invest in more L.A.-based companies. Ten startups that are accepted to the program will receive six months free rent.
"We want to bring startups here, we want to bring corporates here, and we want to make everybody work together and we want to see relationships flourish," Plug and Play Senior Associate Tanya Ma said in an interview before the event. "That's kind of the ultimate goal of this project."
A consortium of civic and business groups that includes the Downtown Center Business Improvement District (DCBID), the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance for SoCal Innovation say they'll aid the project through things like research, technical assistance and connecting local startups with Plug and Play.
The partnership has been a long time coming, said the DCBID's Executive Director Nick Griffin.
"[This project is] almost like formalizing what was already happening," he said. "There's already a great deal of innovation and collaboration and cross pollination going on in the downtown ecosystem."
Downtown L.A. has the resources to be one of the region's largest startup ecosystems, according to a report by the Alliance for SoCal Innovation, but very little recognition. Upon making this realization in 2018, the Alliance began working with other organizations such as the DCBID on a plan to create housing, office spaces and leisure activities in the same areas, often in the same buildings.
Their work, according to Alliance's Director of Ecosystem Development Eric Eide, helped lure Plug and Play downtown, in part because the company's holding company already owns a series of live-work developments throughout Southern California, including the one at 1010 Wilshire.
"And here we are, connecting the dots," said Eide. "This smaller group really has a lot of the firepower to make this a reality."
Plug and Play has launched similar projects in cities like Topeka, Kansas and Munich, Germany.
The Los Angeles-based disposable camera app Dispo, whose co-founder stepped down after one of his crew members was accused of sexual assault, confirmed it closed a Series A.
The boost for an undisclosed amount is a comeback for the startup marred by the scandal. Alexis Ohanian's Seven Seven Six, Unshackled Ventures, Endeavor, 35 Ventures and F9 Strategies led the round.
Absent from the round is Spark Capital, which said in March that it would "sever all ties" with the startup following an investigation from Business Insider about a woman who said she was sexually assaulted by a former content creator in Dobrik's vlog crew.
Dobrik also cut ties with the company in March and issued a YouTube apology for his behavior.
After the report, Seven Seven Six tweeted that it would "donate any profits from our investment in Dispo to an organization working with survivors of sexual assault," but added that it would continue to support the company. The firm did not immediately respond for comment.
Among the company's new backers are celebrities Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Cara Delevigne and Sofia Vergara — plus photographers Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who "will hold us to a higher standard of photographic excellence," Dispo's CEO David Liss said in a blog post announcing the raise.
The app works like a plastic disposable camera, releasing a user's photos 24 hours after taking them. An updated version, which launched in February, introduced social functions like "Rolls" for users to scroll through each other's pictures.
Like the founders of new L.A. photo app Poparazzi, Dispo's team is pushing for a social media experience that feels less orchestrated and curated. In Tuesday's blog post, Liss pointed to big tech's reach on "body dysmorphia and mental health."
"Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world," he wrote. "How different a world would that be?"
"Our resolves are strengthened. With our product, team, and community we have a chance to build differently, creating a company on our terms and our values. Hope springs eternal, and Dispo is ready."
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