Mission Impossible


How an ambitious food hall for immigrant entrepreneurs became a Kafkaesque nightmare fourteen years in the making.

Thai Community Development Center Executive Director Chancee Martorell, second from right, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thai Town Marketplace. After years of delays, it’s set to open by the end of 2020. (Photo by Curtis McElhinney, courtesy of Thai CDC)

Chanchanit Martorell has been on the front lines of nearly every major crisis in Los Angeles over the last three decades. Her nonprofit, the Thai Community Development Center, grew out of the relief and redevelopment services she provided in the aftermath of two events that reshaped the city: the 1992 Uprising and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

In 1995, she helped rescue more than 70 garment workers who had been trafficked from Thailand and forced to work up to 22 hours a day in an El Monte sweatshop patrolled by armed guards. The raid became known as a landmark human trafficking case, leading to sweeping federal reforms including new protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States against their will.

Rotchana Sussman, now a chef and restaurant owner, was one of them. “We were threatened by the owner of the compound to never open the door to anyone you don’t know, there might be consequences. So we didn’t open the door. We were terrified,” she recalled. “I heard one voice, speaking Thai, and that was Chancee.”

But of all the suffering and unrest Martorell — better known as Chancee — has responded to throughout her career, nothing could have prepared her for the years of agony that came with undertaking a city-funded development project of her own design. “It’s just the most complicated and torturous and painfully excruciating process and I would not want anyone to have to go through that,” Martorell recalled. She remembered becoming so overcome with despair at one point during the finance negotiations that she says she warned her staff, “If you see on the news a story about an Asian woman below that bridge, that was me that jumped off.”

Martorell, who is warm and soft-spoken, was sitting on the couch at the Thai CDC’s office, which is nestled in the basement of an affordable housing complex the nonprofit owns and operates in central Hollywood. It was March 2019 and she’d hoped to unveil the Thai Town Marketplace, a food hall intended to kickstart low-income chefs and first-time entrepreneurs, that summer. It had become her great white whale, the elusive culmination of decades of work advocating for immigrants in Los Angeles. “Once it’s open, I can finally retire from the Thai CDC,” she said.

A month later, the Thai CDC convened a meeting for vendors who had signed up to participate in the market. To some participants, the update came as a surprise. “When [Thai CDC] told us they were having a meeting for it, I was like, ‘Oh is this happening?’” Genrich Criste said one afternoon at Fairfax Trading Post, where his family operated the food stall GC Crepes. “To be honest, I gave up on it a long time ago.”

“It’s just the most complicated and torturous and painfully excruciating process and I would not want anyone to have to go through that”

Chancee Martorell

Martorell had hoped to debut the Thai Town Marketplace at Songkran, the popular Thai New Year festival her organization holds every April on Hollywood Boulevard. But when it rolled around that year, the Tyvek-wrapped construction site was still a long way from resembling anything like a food hall. The 52-year-old nonprofit director, who has the patience of a preschool teacher and the perseverance of an activist who has successfully lobbied City Hall, was exhausted but unfazed.

Speaking in Thai and then repeating herself in English — her speech is often peppered with the academic jargon of political science and urban planning — Martorell encouraged vendors to set up booths on the street instead, pitching it as a marketing opportunity all the same. “With this marketplace, I’ve had 1,000 contingency plans. Either way, we will have a preview,” Martorell, who wears her silver-streaked dark hair parted to one side, told the group. “We are not going to miss out on this opportunity of attracting 400,000 people and publicizing the Thai Town Marketplace. Whether by hook or by crook, we are going to have something.” Then she paused as though contemplating the uphill battle both behind and undoubtedly still ahead of her, and said with a laugh, “I deserve to be committed to an insane asylum.”

More than a year after the Songkran Thai New Year festival — which was canceled this year due to Covid-19 — the Thai Town Marketplace has yet to open. The ambitious dining hall was intended to offer disadvantaged business owners the experience, funding, and education to branch out and start their own brick-and-mortar restaurants. Instead, it has become a logistical and legal logjam, leaving its participants in a perpetual state of limbo and Martorell herself at one point suicidal.

Now, four years after breaking ground and 14 years after it was conceived, the Thai Town Marketplace is finally nearing completion. But with a global pandemic eviscerating the restaurant industry, the timing couldn’t be worse. How did a charitable public project become a Kafkaesque nightmare for one of the city’s most visionary activists?

Chancee Martorell, far left, meeting with a group of vendors for the Thai Town Marketplace (Photo by Curtis McElhinney, courtesy of Thai CDC)

To fully appreciate the Byzantine saga of the Thai Town Marketplace, you’d have to go back to 2006, just a few years after the designation of Thai Town and the opening of the Metro Red Line station there. The Thai CDC had been offering small business workshops, but to many of the low-income entrepreneurs it served, applying for loans and accessing credit was still a massive long shot. That’s when Martorell came up with an idea: If the Thai CDC took care of all the costly overhead associated with starting a business — property leasing, permitting and licensing, operational costs — then entrepreneurs only needed to worry about creating and selling their own products after paying a subsidized rent.

Martorell sensed that food would be the ideal format for the experiment, but the UCLA-trained urban planner wasn’t going to rely on her hunch alone. After all, this was a full year before Jonathan Gold transformed Jitlada into a celebrity hot spot with his LA Weekly review, and several years before Grand Central Market began courting small-batch bakeries and farm-to-table butchers. So Martorell commissioned her staff to conduct research, just as she’d done in the aftermath of the L.A. Uprising (the resulting surveys laid the groundwork for her successful campaign for City Council to designate a portion of East Hollywood as Thai Town in 1999). The research showed that Martorell’s instincts were right: public food markets all around the country were economic drivers, especially for immigrants.

In 2007, a federal grant lavished the Thai CDC with nearly half a million dollars for pre-development. That was the easy part. Collaborating with the city turned out to be far more arduous. The following year, the non-profit scouted what it thought was the perfect location: a former Out of the Closet thrift shop on the ground floor of an affordable housing complex just above the Metro Red Line at Hollywood and Western. Thai CDC conducted a feasibility study, bid the project out to architects, and applied for a change-of-use permit. But the property may as well have been a booby trap, laced with corrosive, borderline-comical setbacks at every turn.

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For starters, it was owned by Metro, the county transit agency, and leased to a private developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, which required a sublease agreement so complicated that it took three years to negotiate. “This one was probably more unique than most because it involved land that was outside of our original ground lease area, so we had to circle back with Metro and deal with all their requirements,” says Dan Falcon, the managing director of West Coast operations for McCormack Baron Salazar. “If we had control originally it wouldn’t have been as big of an issue because we would have been able to deal with Thai CDC directly instead of having to involve Metro.” (Metro spokesperson Brian Haas confirmed via email that “this was a unique and complicated situation and it requires a little bit of history.”)

The deal finally closed in 2016, but the Thai CDC wasn’t happy with the terms of the sublease — five years with an option for another five — which left little time for it to fully enact its big economic experiment. The short span of the lease also discouraged investors from financing the increasingly costly project, which at that point had been ten years in the making. “I searched for all kinds of financing. They’re like, ‘No collateral, you don’t own a thing. A lease agreement for five years with an option for another five? No way,’” Martorell recalled of the responses she got from investors. “So I went to all the banks. I went to everyone and got declined left and right.”

Meanwhile, the Thai CDC had begun recruiting food vendors by posting fliers around town and placing newspaper ads targeting L.A.’s Latinx, Armenian, Black, Filipino, and Thai communities. Applicants had to be low-income, not already have an existing brick-and-mortar restaurant, and agree to enroll in the Thai CDC’s free entrepreneurship training program, which required the development of a business plan. After a taste test, 18 applicants were narrowed down to a dozen. In 2016, they put down a deposit and signed three-year leases for stalls at the Thai Town Marketplace. By the time the contracts expired, the thinking went, the vendors would have enough experience and capital to open their own restaurants, freeing up space for the next crop of entrepreneurs. (Of course, those leases are still being amended, as the opening date remains in flux.)

Prach Prasertwit, left, will debut Poké Please, a Thai-Hawaiian fusion concept featuring ingredients from his mother’s hometown in rural northern Thailand, at the Thai Town Marketplace (Photo by Curtis McElhinney, courtesy of Thai CDC)

The Thai CDC broke ground in 2016, but construction costs had already ballooned to over $4 million, more than double what the feasibility study had estimated in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession. Desperate to raise additional funds, Martorell turned to her City Councilmember, Mitch O’Farrell. He connected her with the city’s Economic & Workforce Development Department, which located three different pots of money amounting to some $2 million. The Los Angeles Development Fund, a separate city-affiliated agency, pledged to come up with the remaining $2 million through federal tax credits aimed at incentivizing investment in low-income communities.

With the city’s backing, the Thai CDC was finally able to secure an equity investor. But even that turned out to be exasperating: Financial negotiations between multiple sets of lawyers, including from the city’s Economic & Workforce Development Department, dragged on for months. “It usually takes two years to close such a complicated deal,” Martorell said of the financing process. “I took it on myself; it was grueling, agonizing, and suicidal.”

Ultimately, the Thai CDC leveraged its newfound funding to secure a 50-year lease, a far cry from the initial five-year lease it was offered. (Technically, it’s a sub-sub-lease, because the Thai CDC was required to form a new nonprofit for the Thai Town Marketplace in order to harness the federal tax credits, which means the nonprofit is actually subleasing the property to itself.) But the victory came at the cost of Martorell’s mental and physical health. By the time the deal finally closed, on January 3, 2018, she was just getting released from the emergency room. She’d checked in on New Year’s Eve with a case of bronchitis that had turned into pneumonia.

Construction began anew that month, with completion set for fall 2018. But that timeline hardly accounted for the bureaucratic nightmares that soon followed. The reasons for the delays are in dispute: To the Thai CDC, the various city agencies controlling its money pot have failed to distribute the funds in a timely manner — or sometimes at all — creating work stoppages that have halted construction for long stretches of time. To the city agencies, the Thai CDC has failed to properly fill out the maze of paperwork required before it can disburse the funds. “We all have oversight behind us. The federal government is like, ‘Did you do this the way you’re supposed to?’” says Sandra Rahimi, a manager at L.A. Development Fund. “We can’t just say, ‘Oh I like Chancee, I’ll just do this.’”

The project, it seems, has suffered from a toxic mix of bureaucracy and bad luck — the latter of which is something all parties can agree on. Rahimi points to a litany of other factors that have caused dire delays, from construction near an adjacent childcare center that required a sign-off from the state of California, to parking issues, to literal rainfall — that rare Southern California weather phenomenon known to wreak havoc anytime it drops from the sky. “It’s not typical,” says Rahimi, who insists that in her decade-plus working on nearly two dozen projects at L.A. Development Fund, the Thai Town Marketplace has been by far the most delayed. “I would say this is a worst-case example of a project where everything that can go wrong, [does] go wrong.”

Then, this spring, just when Martorell thought the Thai Town Marketplace was almost ready to open, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Electrical and plumbing work has been delayed as construction workers stagger their shifts to socially distance. (This is, of course, after an obscure city ordinance required them to wait a full year from the time the street was paved, in April 2019, before they could drill into it to locate the water, gas, and sewer lines.) “We’ve dealt with all these unforeseen circumstances and external factors that caused a delay, but now with Covid, goodness gracious,” Martorell said on a phone call in May. “Our vendors are really scared. This is not the way for them to open and it’s not going to do as well [as] if it had been normal circumstances where people can actually come.”

Meanwhile, some vendors have taken their businesses into their own hands. Sussman, who met Martorell that fateful day in El Monte, opened White Springs Café, a vegan Thai takeout restaurant in Arcadia, in May. “I won’t let anything stop me,” she said of the cafe’s opening, adding that she always finds “a desperate situation to be the best opportunity.” And Gina Criste, who ran GC Crepes out of the Fairfax Trading Post and Calabasas farmers market before the coronavirus hit, is working on plans to partner with an existing Echo Park restaurant this summer. “If we don’t keep innovating or adapting or making changes then we’re not gonna be successful, we’re not gonna be in this business for the long haul,” Criste said on a phone call recently. “We just have to be open.”

In the second week of March, Martorell flew to San Francisco to attend a conference aimed at making Asian Pacific Islander communities more visible across the country. Advocates and nonprofit leaders discussed strategies for reviving regional Chinatowns and other culturally significant enclaves at a time when many of them are struggling to survive. Then, a day before the convention was scheduled to end, the World Health Organization announced that Covid-19 had become a pandemic. Everyone flew home to their respective cities and tried to figure out what this meant for them.

In hindsight, Martorell, naturally inclined toward dark humor, found the whole thing ironic. Here they were, talking about ways to make neighborhoods like Thai Town stronger economically, and now, small businesses were being forced to shutter indefinitely. Not only that, but Asian people had become targets of harassment and discrimination — scapegoats for a disease President Trump called the “Chinese virus.”

The Thai CDC has historically relied on tourism — which draws crowds to restaurants, spas, and street festivals — as a means of providing economic opportunities for its community. But the pandemic forced them to reimagine new ways for businesses to endure. To Martorell, their survival is an economic issue, but it’s also existential: If there are no Thai businesses left in Thai Town, is it even Thai Town at all?

“Our fear is that 30 or 40-year-old businesses may not be here anymore by the time we go back to some semblance of pre-pandemic life,” she said on a phone call recently. “If you don’t have Thai restaurants, [spas, markets, and other shops,] then what’s going to be there to attract the local tourism and tourism from abroad?” With a tinge of melancholy, she answered her own question with a worst case scenario. “It may have to be more of a historic Thai Town rather than a living, breathing Thai Town — so we could celebrate the culture that continues, the heritage, where there was once this Thai Town.”

But lately, Martorell, who is so busy that she only sleeps two or three hours a night, has been consumed by more immediate concerns. She and her staff worked around the clock to set up a phone and email service where Angelenos can get help with everything from filing for unemployment to applying for small business loans to fending off eviction and deportation. They’ve also been distributing $100,000 in aid to undocumented immigrants; the goal is to give $1,000 to 100 people through a grant from the California Immigrant Resilience Fund. There’s also another $35,000 grant from the California Community Foundation that they’ll parcel out to needy Angelenos. They’ve additionally partnered with a new nonprofit, Asian Americans for Housing, to purchase meals from struggling Thai restaurants and deliver them to low-income seniors.

But there’s only so much nonprofits and other organizations can do without government intervention. Martorell worries that if the city doesn’t act quickly to rescue small business owners, “There’s gonna be nothing left for people to come to and to enjoy.” She warned of a bleak future where Thai restaurants and Korean barbecue joints — the latter of which rely on diners gathering indoors around charcoal grills — are replaced by Walmarts and Targets. “It will basically mean we’re all gonna have to start over from scratch, but where are we gonna get the capital?” she said. “Folks will still be recovering from all the losses, and I don’t know if they can come back if they can’t fully recover.”

For now, Martorell is doing what she does best: Collecting data and harnessing public funds for her community. After the 1992 Uprising and the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, she and her team canvassed door-to-door, passing out surveys to assess the needs of people who weren’t otherwise being acknowledged by the city. On foot, they surveyed homes and businesses that had been red-tagged after the earthquake and held town halls to devise strategies for reinvesting in neglected parts of the city.

This time, social distancing means that the Thai CDC’s process is slightly different, and much more challenging. They’ve relied on Facebook, Zoom, and a messaging app called Line, which launched in the aftermath of a catastrophic Japanese earthquake, to spread the word about their services. “It’s really frustrating that the need is out there and you can’t go out there to do anything,” Martorell said. “You’re just hoping people will come to you.”

She hasn’t forgotten about the Thai Town Marketplace. It still keeps her up at night, all these years later. Accounting for the most recent set of delays, she’s hopeful that construction and inspections will wrap up in time for an official opening by the end of this year. That is, of course, unless another unforeseen disaster strikes. If and when it does, Martorell will be ready.

Correction: A previous version of this story, also appearing in print, misattributed a quote about karaoke bars to Martorell; there are in fact no karaoke bars in Thai Town, as Thai CDC opposes them.

This article appears in Vol. 2, Issue 2 of The LAndClick here to pre-order your copy.