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What to build at Mariachi Plaza? Ideas at planning workshop run the gamut

It's been more than a year since Metro dropped plans to build shops and office space at Boyle Heights' Mariachi Plaza. Now the agency is going back to the drawing board – this time, with suggestions from locals.

On Saturday, Metro officials and several consultants gathered residents, business owners and other Boyle Heights stakeholders at a local high school to toss around ideas.

What did they come up with? Everything from a grocery store and parking to a senior center, affordable housing, a skate park, space for street vendors, even a museum honoring the mariachis for whom the plaza is named.

But Metro officials say these suggestions are what they want to hear. Their last plan for 120,000 square feet of retail and medical office space fell apart after locals objected, saying they didn't have enough input.

"Before I think there was more of a policy directive, that we own this property, and we need to make a return on it," said Vivian Rescalvo, a project manager with Metro. "But I think there is more room to say, 'What would you like to see?' And from that, you can develop something that works for all interests."

So on Saturday, 100 people broke into groups, writing suggestions on sticky notes and voting on ideas from a list of possibilities. Boyle Heights resident Leonardo Vilchis suggested a mariachi museum, something he said would elevate the art of the musicians who have gathered at the plaza for decades as they wait for gigs.

"If you have a museum for them, then you bring them to what it really is - the artistic, the art level," said Vilchis, who also favored creating a comfortable shaded area for the musicians to conduct business with their clients.

Carlos Ortez, who owns a restaurant across from Mariachi Plaza, said he sees an opportunity to bring back services that were lost to the construction of Metro's Gold Line station there.

"Basically, (we want) to replenish what was there before," Ortez said. "Because it was useful for the community. It would be nice to bring, once again, a market...the proximity to a market in that area is literally eight or nine blocks - too far."

Parking was also a popular choice. Ortez thinks as many as a hundred parking spaces were lost to construction of the Gold Line station, which opened in 2009.

Many suggested affordable housing, although some disagreed, saying it doesn't work well in Boyle Heights because affordable-housing prices are based on a larger regional median income that's still too high for local residents.

By the end of the brainstorming session there were "thousands of suggestions, it seems like," said Brad Buter, an architect with Gwynne Pugh Urban Studios, one of the firms consulting with Metro on the project.

Metro's Rescalvo said the ideas would be collected, then presented again during a second community meeting on March 9 so residents and stakeholders can narrow down the options. Once a plan is agreed on, the agency will move ahead on a design and ultimately development, she said.