I'm talking about the once-desolate territory just north of interstate 10 and east of California 110, where the Los Angeles Convention Center is neighbored by Staples Center (opened 1999), the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre (opened 2007) and the rest of the L.A. Live "sports and entertainment district." Officially, the area is called South Park, and the entertainment company AEG has spent about $2.5 billion building the L.A. Live sports and entertainment complex here.
Besides the Staples and Nokia venues, AEG has peopled L.A. Live with more than a dozen restaurants, bars and nightclubs. In 2008 came the Grammy Museum. In October 2009 came the 14 movie screens of Regal Cinemas. Then in mid-February came a J.W. Marriott Hotel (878 rooms). And finally in early April came the last big piece of the puzzle—a Ritz-Carlton (123 rooms).
That's a lot of new glitter in a precinct previously known best for grit and a greasy spoon that's always open. (That would be the Original Pantry restaurant, serving diners in the wee hours since 1924.) Now, whether it's to see athletes in motion, performers on stage or your regional marketing director at a trade show, you're likely to land in this neighborhood before long.
So you're entitled to wonder: Is this end of downtown ready for a weekend sleepover? At what cost? And if you come, do you ditch the kids or bring them?
To take measure, I spent a couple of weekends on fun patrol with my wife, Mary Frances, and 5-year-old daughter, Grace. We ate around, slept in the two new hotels, bowled an afternoon away and pounded on an electronic drum set. I can report that even though this remains mostly grown-up territory, there is enough at L.A. Live to fuel a full family weekend.
But mind your timing.
That bowling alley is a non-starter for kids after dark. Lodging prices are sure to depend heavily on who is booked at Staples, Nokia and the convention center. And even if you have great gobs of money, I'm not sure why you'd book a room at this Ritz-Carlton.
But before we get back to that, let's start where my family did, at the J.W. Marriott, near 8th Street and Olympic Boulevard. (Don't confuse it with the older Marriott at 333 S. Figueroa St.) You can't miss the building: It's that 54-story fella that towers near the 110, its contours curvy, its skin sheathed in hues of blue, all under a big round hood ornament that turns out to be a heliport.
Looking more closely, you find that those 878 Marriott rooms are on floors four through 21. The Ritz-Carlton (Marriott's fancier corporate cousin) has a separate little lobby on the ground level and takes up the 22nd through 26th floors. The top half of the building is devoted to 224 Ritz-Carlton Residences condos. The price on those? Well, if you have to ask…
The Marriott's introductory rates, however, aren't as intimidating. Booking anonymously for a mid-March stay, we paid $170 for a standard room. (By mid-April, the low-end prices had crept up to $199.) And with a convention-center hotel like this, you always have to figure in some extra nickels and dimes. For Wi-Fi, $12.95 a night. For overnight parking, $38.
Yes, that's a lot. Still, I have to say, the valet who took control of our car was so polished and in control, he could have been a bank president.
"Maybe he was," said Mary Frances, thinking recessional thoughts.
Inside, the Marriott had a big, bright lobby, with shiny stone and concrete floors, red couches, orange pillows and ultra-mod white stringy chandeliers that hung as straight as spaghetti before boiling. It's Vegas meets Asia. Many a meeting will flourish and many a conventioneer will wish she'd left a trail of bread crumbs, in the hotel's more than 75,000 square feet of meeting space.
Our 15th-floor room, among the hotel's smallest, measured 375 square feet, with lots of orange and brown and a pair of groovy turquoise chairs under the window. The flat-screen TV: 42 inches. In the bathroom, one sink. When we realized we had forgotten a toothbrush, I called to see if a sundries shop was open, and the front desk parried expertly: No, that shop wasn't open,, but they'd send a free toothbrush and toothpaste right up. Well played, Marriott.
We slept well, and our 5-year-old especially enjoyed hopping back and forth between the hotel pool and the 12-person whirlpool. Be warned, however, that the pool and whirlpool are positioned on a big fourth-floor terrace that catches a near-blinding amount of reflected light on sunny days. While Grace frolicked, I began to feel like a bug under some kid's magnifying glass. Down on the ground floor, parts of the L.A. Market restaurant also gets showered with reflected light in the morning. Bring shades to breakfast.
As you wander Nokia Plaza, the open area in the middle of the L.A. Live campus, you sense the architects and developers straining to conjure a great civic commons, a gathering place that buzzes 24/7 while the ads roll endlessly on the big screens above. But we're not there yet. Too many parking lots and dead zones linger between L.A. Live and the other nodes of energy downtown. And as a crank from way back in the 20th century, I'm still wistful for the days when an entertainment district needed a bookshop and music store.
But you can only complain so much about a neighborhood that's within a few miles of Disney Hall, the Music Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, USC, the museums of Exposition Park, Olvera Street and Union Station; within 10 miles of Beverly Hills; within 14 miles of Santa Monica. He who is tired of Los Angeles, to paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson, is tired of making believe.
Here's what we did with the kid: