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Darryl Holter Leads Revival of Legendary L.A. Auto Row
Ryan Beene | Automotive News | May 27, 2013


Category: Auto News

Darryl Holter Historian, songwriter, developer leads revival of legendary L.A. auto row.

On a mile-long stretch of Figueroa Street just south of downtown, a former history professor is rebuilding part of Los Angeles' automotive heritage.

Long before Los Angeles became a skein of freeways, Figueroa was the city's Automobile-Row. As far back as the mid - 1920s, the street was chockablock with dealerships for such brands as Dodge Bros., Buick, Flint Motors and Hupmobile.

Now nearly a century later, Holter, the onetime academic who heads L.A.'s Shammas Automotive Group, is putting the finishing touches on a $30 million overhaul of his Downtown L.A. Motors Mercedes-Benz store. The new building is the latest in a series of dealership projects that will total nearly $80 million and will have helped re-establish Figueroa as an auto row in the heart of Los Angeles.

Since the plan got under way in 2004, Darryl estimates the group's sales have grown from about 250 a month to a record of more than 1,700 new vehicles in March. The project also has yielded new or renovated facilities for Darryl Holter's Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi, Nissan and Chevrolet dealerships.

Next up: a new $20 million dealership one block away for the Toyota franchise recently awarded to the Shammas group. "That's the last parcel that we have that isn't fully utilized," Darryl Holter says. "In that sense, I'll feel that I've satisfied my goal.'

Yet at age 66, the CEO shows no signs of slowing down. He is chairman of the California New Car Dealers Association, where he's lobbying for legislation to help clarify state franchise laws and help dealers handle factory-set performance standards. He's also an adjunct professor and occasional lecturer at the University of Southern California and a singer-songwriter who has released three albums. In his latest project, Holter is writing the music for a collection of song lyrics written by Woody Guthrie in the late 1930s.

No matter what happens, he says, "it's not like I'm going to sit around and do nothing."

darrylholter revival

Shammas Automotive Group's projects on Figueroa Street include, from left, new homes for its Porsche and Audi stores and an overhaul of its Mercedes-Benz store, expected to be completed next year. Its dealership projects will total almost $80 million.

Darryl Holter, a former labor activist and academic with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came to California in the early 1990s, never intending to be in the car business.

He was working as a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, when his father-in-law, Nick Shammas, asked him to help the family business figure out how to revive its struggling dealerships. In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, which accelerated the area's decay, customers were avoiding the neighborhood, he says, and Shammas was considering shutting down.

""You can't close the dealerships,'" Holter recalls telling Shammas. Holter took a leave of absence from UCLA and joined the dealership group. By 1995, he had succeeded his father-in-law as CEO and begun evaluating the condition of the dealerships. He soon concluded that it would take more than cost controls and sales growth to turn them around.

The neighborhood was a wreck. Weekly security reports on the block turned up a litany of inner-city ills: drug deals, gang activity, littering, vandalism and theft. Conditions were so bad that General Motors wanted Shammas to relocate the Felix Chevrolet store, a fixture at the corner of Figueroa and Jefferson Boulevard since the late 1950s, Holter says.

"It became clear that while the dealerships were functioning, they weren't functioning as well as they could," Holter says. "It was also clear that the whole neighborhood was in such shape that unless you figured out a way to make it better, you weren't going to go anywhere anyway."

USC to Malibu?

Shammas Automotive Group wasn't the only neighborhood stakeholder feeling the pressure. Kitty-corner to Felix Chevrolet, USC was hearing from alumni who were put off by the neighborhood and reluctant to send their children to the university. ""I got a letter from General Motors saying we should close Felix Chevrolet because the neighborhood's so bad and that we should move to the suburbs," Holter recalls telling Steven Sample, president of USC, in a late1990s lunch meeting. "He says, 'Yeah, I've got trustees saying we should move USC to Malibu."

Instead, and with USC's support, Holter in 1998 rallied property holders and local officials in the area to form the Figueroa Corridor Partnership, a business improvement district that he led until last year. The partnership hired cleaning teams to keep the streets free of trash - and scrub more than an acre's worth of graffiti - and private security firms to patrol the neighborhood in cooperation with police, among other activities.

The resulting transformation has helped pave the way for more than 40 projects, including those under way, accounting for more than $1.5 billion in investment, according to the partnership's Web site.

"In a lot of ways, it was a forgotten area of the city," says David Galaviz, executive director of local government relations for USC. "There was no reason for anybody to come down here. Today, that's changed, and a lot of that is due to Darryl Holter's leadership."

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Darryl Holter Leads Revival of Legendary L.A. Auto Row

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