Downtown Los Angeles: is it sustainable

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Photo above: Downtown poking through the typical haze.

The renaissance of Los Angeles is downtown. There may be other neighborhoods that have more significant change, but we will always reference our inner core as a sign of progress.

Grand Park straddles three blocks
Grand Park straddles three blocks

It is the center of our city. Our local and various other government agencies reside there. The financial industry is headquartered on Bunker Hill. We have our great historic core that spreads out from Broadway and South Park is sprouting aplenty around LA Live.

All of this change is exciting and news seems to flow on a daily basis. The pace is frantic enough that you have to question whether all this development is happening too fast.

I look back to the last Bush administration when Downtown was on a similar trajectory. Every block held promise and upscale housing was going to lead the way. That is, until the recession hit.

Some of these developments were completed, but the majority were put into a holding pattern until we stopped hearing about them altogether. Anyone remember the Gehry Grand Avenue project?

In my mind, the economic downturn was a blessing in disguise. Things were advancing so quickly that it was haphazard at best. Instead of being guided by a cohesive master plan, the idea was if you build it they would come.

Planning could not keep up with the pace of expansion so the lull from the financial collapse allowed everyone to take a breath. If Downtown was going to work, it needed to create a new set of rules.

Grand Central Market: If only you were open late!
Grand Central Market: If only you were open late!

While Downtown has been established for over a hundred years, it has been more recently defined by the Bunker Hill scale of redevelopment from the 1950’s. That plan promoted skyscrapers and superblocks. Streets catered toward the car and the freeway played a much bigger role.

It produced an unfriendly scale that still exists today. Bridges and balconies tried moving people above the sidewalks. At the same time, there was very little interaction at street level. Ultimately, this scheme backfired as people found reason to move away now that commuting was almost encouraged.

As we soon found, our road network has its limits. It’s affordable to buy a four-bedroom house out in Lancaster, but when you reach the two-hour mark in traffic, you start to rethink things. With the rising price cost of gas making this trip cost prohibitive, Downtown started looking like a viable option again.

There's been a "shift" to questionable design.
There’s been a “shift” to questionable design.

In the early 2000’s, developers were trying to be ahead of the trend even if they didn’t have the money to build anything. Now for the second time this century, we’re taking another stab at making Downtown livable for the masses. While I somewhat want to buy in, I’m definitely not offering my first born.

Thankfully, there are certainly more positives this go around. The passage of Measure R to accelerate rail and bus service across Los Angeles County will make Downtown more accessible across the region. Grand Park has become a more usable space since it’s redesign and expansion two years ago. Even the new general manager of the Department of Transportation understands the concept of livable streets.

Still, I have cause for concern. Seeing the large amount of upscale housing raises my eyebrow higher than Spock. In many of the newer complexes in South Park, you’ll be lucky to find a place that starts at half a mil. That’s a studio mind you, along with $500 a month homeowner’s dues. That may not kill you, but compared what else you can get in LA, your dollar can go further.

Pershing Square: Set for a redesign in 2017.
Pershing Square: Set for a redesign in 2017.

Some may pay the premium because they prefer the city lifestyle. If you’re the Patrick Bateman type, then Downtown may be for you and your American Psycho friends. We’ve seen the birth of many higher end restaurants, but you can only saturate the market so much. This area is void of brick and mortars; places with the grit and character that doesn’t cater towards the corporate dollar.

My wife and I had our staycation Downtown earlier this spring. We loved it, but  knew for a few reasons that it wasn’t a place to live yet. The lack of open space is one of my primary concerns.  Park space is limited and even adults need room to play and run around. Westlake and Hollenbeck Parks are the two nearest options, but downtown needs something both larger and closer.

Another issue is crime. There is no other place in Los Angeles where there’s a higher dichotomy of wealth as Skid Row sits dead center. As the evening nears, you’ll find more people taking to the sidewalks as refuge. Homelessness is a problem we’ve always neglected and needs to be properly addressed without passing the buck.

If you’re an aspiring parent, downtown presents many challenges. Your school options are limited and the lack of open space becomes a greater need with children. When we stopped at the Central Library at the hour after most schools let out, we were surprised by the absence of kids. It’s important for a child’s development to grow up around others in their age group and downtown has a void in that category.

Los Angeles Central Library: Central and Big!
Los Angeles Central Library: Central and Big!

The prospects for people choosing to be long-term tenants is the looming question mark. When the next economic fluctuation hits, will it have a similar impact from the previous recession? Some sections, like the Arts District, are more poised to handle a downturn, but if the highly affluent flee can the momentum be regained? There are many other neighborhoods on the upswing that once discovered might make Downtown an afterthought.

Growth can be a good thing, but in this case it seems more manufactured than organic. Wandering through LA Live, you get the sense that someone created an algorithm that calculates best how to exhume your dollars. Los Angeles is too diverse to embrace a Downtown that is too generic. It is important to embrace our uniqueness because we will tire fast. That is, unless we get a second Hooters.

(All photos by Zachary Rynew)