Downtown Los Angeles Gets a $10 Billion Remake
Monday, January 2, 2006
LOS ANGELES -- They say Los Angeles is 100 suburbs looking for a city. With any luck, they are finding one.
A development boom worth $10 billion is remaking the face of downtown Los Angeles, leading boosters to predict a renaissance in what used to be the desolate center of the capital of sprawl. From concert halls to condos, developers have built or are planning hundreds of projects that they say will end the sense of Los Angeles as a rudderless megalopolis with a rotten core.
"They used to say, 'There's no there there,' " said Margie Busch, a 30-something financial analyst who moved to a downtown loft recently with her girlfriend, Suzie Jones, a waitress and aspiring actress. "But we're here and we're happening. L.A. is changing. It's becoming a city."
According to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, developers are planning to more than triple the number of residential units from 8,000 to 27,000 in the next four years. Despite worries about a real estate slowdown, condo waiting lists continue to grow, even though prices have doubled in two years. In October, a building with 191 condos sold out in seven hours. Other projects were fully booked 18 months before they were built.
"When I started here five years ago, they said downtown would never work," said Hal Bastian, the vice president of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. "Now they are saying it's too hot."
To be sure, downtown Los Angeles faces enormous problems as it seeks to transform itself from a gritty urban landscape into the Manhattan of the West Coast.
The area has 6,000 homeless people, the most concentrated population of the destitute in the western United States. More pets than children live downtown, and no schools serve the area. Because much of downtown was rebuilt at the height of the automobile age, at some intersections its impossible to walk across the street.
At night, the area is desolate and its nightlife is more like a dusk life. The kitchen at the swankiest restaurant, Pinot, closes at 9. It is impossible to hail a cab because the police department refuses to allow random stops, but even if it did, most Los Angeles cabbies would not take short fares. Local redevelopment boards have hired their own security services and trash collection services because city services are stretched too thin. And the only way the city could persuade a supermarket chain to open a store downtown was to give it a $7 million subsidy; even so, it will not open until late 2007.
A cast of characters is leading the charge to remake downtown. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa shined shoes in the 1950s at Seventh Street and Broadway, once the busiest intersection in the West and the center of what was the largest public transportation system in America until the suburban boom led to downtown's bust. "I remember the heyday of downtown LA," Villaraigosa said in an interview. "We had more theaters on Broadway than anywhere in the world. Then it went downhill. Now what you're seeing is a renaissance."
The mayor said that in the past 16 years only two high-rises over 10 stories were built in Los Angeles. Now the city Planning Department has 46 proposals for construction over the next four years.
Another perhaps more ironic booster is the billionaire Eli Broad. In another life, Broad co-founded Kaufman & Broad, now KB Home, one of the biggest independent builders of single-family houses in America, and was known as the King of Sprawl. Now Broad, 72, founder of the insurance and investment giant SunAmerica, now part of AIG, is putting his money and muscle behind remaking downtown.
Some have suggested Broad's interest in downtown is a form of penance, something the solemn mogul denies. "Every major city needs a vital core," he said in an interview. "Here you've got 13 million people, you need a cultural and civic center."
Broad has been the prime mover behind the $1.2 billion Grand Avenue project, which he has called alternately the Champs-Elysees of Los Angeles and L.A.'s Fifth Avenue. Plans call for 2,600 condos and apartments, a nine-acre recreational and cultural promenade, 400,000 square feet of retail space, a 275-room hotel and a 50-story tower designed by architect Frank Gehry.
On the other side of downtown, meanwhile, work has already started on the $1.5 billion L.A. Live sports and entertainment mega-project by the Anschutz Entertainment Group. It will include a 55-story hotel on top of a mall housing a 12-screen movie house, several theaters, nightclubs and shops.
Downtown Los Angeles is slowly amassing cultural weight. The Staples Center opened in 1999 and currently is home to four professional teams. In 2002, work was completed on the $190 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which towers over U.S. 101, downtown's main north-south artery. A year later Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, its shimmering walls billowing like the sails of a clipper ship. Add to that the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the $300 million renovation of the granite-and-terra-cotta city hall.
California historian Kevin Starr said he was unsure all the development would combine to create a center where they was once none. "I think L.A. is still uncertain as to its urbanism, unlike New Yorkers who are fundamentally certain about theirs," he said. "Over and over again we debate this issue: Are we or are we not a big-time city?"
Even some participants in the downtown boom wonder if Los Angeles can remake itself into a more traditional city.
"Angelenos are different than the rest of Americans," said Dan Rosenfeld, a partner at a downtown real estate development firm. "We are a collection of individuals, not a community." He noted that Los Angeles has some of the best private gardens in the United States but the worst parks, some of the most stunning private architecture but disappointing public buildings, the greatest private art collections but middling museums.
"L.A. is impossible to plan," Rosenfeld said. "Its civic character is a bundle of energy and not a place."