Downtown Los Angeles will soon be flanked by two massive developments — the Grand Avenue project, centered around Disney Hall on the north, and the L.A. Live project, centered around Staples Center on the south. Each promises to create a "heart" for downtown — but with different ways of beating.
Billionaire Eli Broad, who co-chairs the Grand Avenue Committee, envisions the Champs-Elysees, while mogul Tim Leiweke, who backs L.A. Live, sees a version of Times Square. FOR THE RECORD: L.A. Live —An article in Thursday's California section about the groundbreaking for the downtown L.A. Live project referred to Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris as the chairwoman of USC's urban planning department. She holds that position with UCLA. Also, the article said three former mayors were in attendance when a plan for downtown's Grand Avenue was unveiled earlier this year. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former mayors James K. Hahn and Richard Riordan were present. When Grand Avenue was unveiled earlier this year, it had the feel of a coronation. Three former mayors and other prominent city leaders spoke of how the $1.8-billion project, with upscale shopping and high-rise condos, as well as a 16-acre public park, would give downtown its center.
Anschutz Entertainment Group will break ground Thursday on L.A. Live, a $1.7-billion tourist-oriented "sports-entertainment" hub featuring a 55-story convention center and hotel, 7,100-seat theater, broadcast facilities, 14-screen movie theater and nearly a dozen restaurants and clubs.
L.A. Live, however, has become a lightning rod for criticism.
Downtown hotel operators say that the proposed Hilton Hotel might hurt business by flooding downtown with too many beds. And some of the new loft and condo dwellers cringe at L.A. Live's resemblance to Universal CityWalk — saying downtown doesn't need a "Disney-style" tourist draw.
The two developments raise larger questions about downtown's future: Should the area be a dense urban mix of housing, social services and the businesses to support them? Or should it serve as a tourist destination, catering to out-of-town guests with hotels and other venues?
"They're trying to capitalize on two different markets," said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of USC's urban planning department. "But they don't want to lower the bar too much."
Downtown boosters say there is room for both, with Grand Avenue serving downtown's upscale urban dwellers, and L.A. Live the thousands of students who live in the area, as well as visitors to Staples and the struggling Convention Center.
The project, they said, would solidify two distinct vibes for north and south downtown.
Grand Avenue would rise near the loft district, in the midst some of the city's leading arts and cultural institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Music Center. L.A. Live is rising in the shadow of the Lakers and Kings — in an area that hosted the X Games this summer and will soon be home to several new residential developments.
Pictures of the plan provided by AEG show a venue alive with light, people and advertisements. In addition to the project's main performance space, already named the Nokia Theatre Los Angeles, L.A. Live will include a Club Nokia, which could hold 2,200 people, and a 120,000-square-foot broadcast studio, which developers expect would serve as West Coast headquarters for a national television network.
AEG Executive Vice President Ted Tanner said he envisioned a pedestrian-friendly space. All of the restaurants on the site — which will include Gladstone's, Chaya Brasserie and P.F. Chang's — are being required to have outdoor dining.
But backers are also hoping to create a vibrant nightlife for the area. They say they have persuaded the Conga Room to relocate to L.A. Live from the Miracle Mile, and have signed on the founders of the clubs Prey and Shelter to develop a small club on the site.
In addition, a 30,000-square-foot-space — which is being called a "museum experience" — is planned to showcase the history of the Grammys. Leiweke said the museum would draw 1 million visitors a year to L.A. Live.
In addition, he said the site would be used for awards shows, live broadcasts, expositions and fan fests.
"Ultimately, we believe downtown Los Angeles can become a point of destination for the region," Leiweke said. "More importantly, L.A. can be the event capital of the world."
Still, some downtown residents complained that the project was not unique and reminded them of other big-scale complexes in the region, including the Grove and the Block at Orange.
Russell Brown, the head of the Residents Assn. of Downtown Los Angeles, called L.A. Live "Universal CityWalk, with all the tourist stuff."
"It's not a neighborhood hangout type of thing," he said. "In conjunction with Staples and the Convention Center, I could see where it would be very attractive for people outside of downtown . I would probably take friends over there. But living in the historic core, I don't think I would be going there for dinner."
Others critics, most notably the owner of the downtown Westin Bonaventure Hotel, have complained about the approximately $82 million in public aid, including market loans, tax rebates and subsidies, that the Convention Center hotel is to receive.
Some of the money being lent to the developers originates from a Community Redevelopment Agency fund earmarked for Bunker Hill. That raises questions for attorney Chris Sutton, who represents Peter Zen, the owner of the Bonaventure.
"One, is it legal, and two, is it good public policy to move money like that?" Sutton asked "There's going to be a debate whether or not you are simply robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles, a downtown booster organization, argued that those subsidies are necessary. "No convention center hotel has been built [recently] in the U.S. without some kind of assistance from the municipality involved," she said.
Leiweke was more direct. He said his firm was honoring a long-standing promise to public officials to develop a hotel near the Convention Center — and that Zen's criticisms stem more from jealousy than civic concern.
"At the end of the day," Leiweke said, "it's all about [Zen's] own personal greed. Put a billion dollars up, Peter, and then come talk to me about ethics and moral values."
By adding a large-scale hotel to the downtown mix, Leiweke said, the city will be able to compete with other downtowns that have long been draws for large-scale events.
He also dismisses criticism about the mall-like feel of the project.
"I hear people saying we are trying to recreate CityWalk or the Grove. It couldn't be further from the truth. There will be no Gap. There will be no Discovery Zones. None of that. We avoided that on purpose, because we don't think this is a place you come to shop.
"This is a place you come to enjoy. It's about taste, it's about sound, it's about sight," he said. "And that is not, in my opinion, the Grove or CityWalk. Maybe at one point, in CityWalk's history, they used to be that. But that's not what they bring in today."
Downtown Los Angeles, after decades of decline, is in the midst of a major upswing driven primarily by an influx of residents into high-rise condos and century-old buildings converted into lofts. The number of residents downtown has grown in the last few years from 18,000 to 24,000, and most of the new lofts have long waiting lists that suggest the demand for housing remains strong.
But residents have complained that downtown still lacks the basic services — such as supermarkets and service shops — they need. They also complain about a lack of open park space.
The Grand Avenue project, backers say, would address both concerns. The $1.8-billion retail and residential complex would include a shopping center, bookstore, multiplex movie theater and gourmet supermarket. The project also calls for a terraced park connecting Bunker Hill to the Civic Center.
Brown, the president of the residents association, said that he saw distinct differences between L.A. Live and Grand Avenue.
"If the two projects were more similar, they would be competition," Brown said. "But being at the opposite ends of the spectrum," he said, "they actually complement each other."
Estela Lopez, a downtown resident who is also the executive director of the Central City East Assn., which represents business interests in the toy and industrial districts of downtown, said she welcomed L.A. Live.
"Those of us who live downtown want to have more amenities. I look at L.A. Live not just for conventioneers," she said. "I see it as yummy. We are going to have more restaurants, more after-hours places."