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DTLA Is In Its Feelings About The Trouble With Its City Councilman

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Artist Jonathan Jerald remembers moving into downtown Los Angeles in 1995, before the renaissance.

"It looked like a wasteland," he said. "Crack vials in the gutter, and you'd have to park your car in a gated lot or your battery would be stolen at night. I mean, it was tough."

Those streets rapidly changed around him as the decades wore on. A record-setting building boom took over the skyline. Fancy bars and restaurants moved in. Hip ice cream shops from Brooklyn and Portland became his neighbors.

Jerald loves what his neighborhood has become, and he thanks his local councilman, José Huizar.

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"Yes, I would say he was a champion," he said.

Huizar took office in 2005 and he presided over a downtown boom where the population rapidly multiplied. That revitalization attracted new residents to the area, and travel writers proclaimed that "the long-blighted center has become an accessible, pedestrian-friendly destination."

But Huizar has faced several political setbacks in the past month. It started with FBI agents raiding his home and offices. Then he was stripped indefinitely of some important committees that oversee planning and development. His wife ended her campaign to take his seat just two months after announcing her bid. And his office canceled next month's Night on Broadway, a street fest he hosted.

Then there's the lawsuit recently filed against him by a former staffer and an L.A. Times investigation into how Huizar directed companies with business before City Hall to donate to a school where his wife worked as a fundraiser.

These series of events has left a dark cloud over his political future, and some people in downtown L.A. have been wringing their hands.

"Everybody is scratching their heads and wondering, and let's be clear, whispering about him," says Jon Regardie, editor of the local newspaper LA Downtown News.

Huizar is still in office. He doesn't term out until 2020. Meanwhile the FBI hasn't elaborated on why it's conducting a probe, saying only that investigators were looking for evidence based on allegations of criminal activity. The councilman has not been charged with any crime.

But some of his constituents worry about what might happen to the area's economic renaissance if Huizar is forced to leave early.

"I'm concerned about a black hole in the middle of City Hall where downtown has to go for its stewardship," says Patti Berman, president of the Downtown LA Neighborhood Council.

While she doesn't think Huizar deserves all of the credit for downtown's rise, she personally thinks he's too important to lose.

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"No matter how important downtown is to the rest of the city, we need someone who is focusing on us," she says.

There are those who'd actually be happy if he left, including preservationist and tour guide Richard Schave, who said what Huizar's done downtown "is more a list of trespasses than accomplishments."

Schave said he and his business partner, Kim Cooper, found it hard to work with Huizar and fought to reclaim downtown's historic sites, like Angels Flight and Pershing Square. They think he's made downtown into a playground for rich developers.

"This is a city that is supposed to have history, and things are just getting razed because it's expedient for development," Cooper said. "That's not right."

Nor are they happy with Huizar's policies they say has forced out mom-and-pop shops throughout downtown in favor of hip chain stores and restaurants.

"He has really taken a number of important buildings off the map, literally, and downtown's not the better for it," Cooper said..

They think if Huizar left, they would work better with his replacement, whoever that might be. But the councilman is still in office -- for now.

A spokesperson for L.A. City Council president Herb Wesson said the whole council will make sure to listen to the concerns of DTLA residents, no matter what.

And in a statement to KPCC/LAist, José Huizar said: "Our office's commitment to serve the council district has not changed -- including Downtown Los Angeles whose growth and success my office has helped lead."

Although people like Jonathan Jerald thinks there are too many people invested in the neighborhood's revitalization now -- and its fate goes beyond what happens to one man.

"The downtown renaissance is going to roll on no matter what," he said. "You couldn't stop that with a small nuclear weapon."

Editor's note: A version of this story also appeared on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.

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