Can Downtown L.A. Survive Its Own Heady Prosperity?

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Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times' City-County Bureau

Downtown Los Angeles is not a lovable place. In the last decade downtown has become very rich, with tall buildings forming canyons along Figueroa and Flower streets. But the area has the warmth of a huge corporation, the kind that is always shutting down plants in small towns or covering up some industrial disaster.

The visual chilliness of the downtown landscape, with its shortage of street-level shops and cafes, is just one sign the area is becoming a victim of its own success.

A more frustrating sign is the increasing gridlock. Before Christmas, the traffic was so bad that Mayor Tom Bradley could not get to the topping-off ceremony for the Citicorp building, a new high-rise across from the Los Angeles Hilton that will bring more traffic downtown.


Another troubling, and sometimes dangerous, illustration that all is not well in high-rise heaven is the large number of homeless men and women, many of them mentally ill, who panhandle their way through the new canyons every day.

The nature of these problems dramatically illustrates downtown’s change of fortune: Except for the homeless, they are all signs of prosperous times, a striking reversal of discussions of a decade ago, when business leaders, city officials and urban planners were preoccupied with saving the place from decay. Decay has been replaced by new buildings and the questions to be answered are much more complicated.

Four events make the issue a relevant subject at the end of the new year’s first week:

--The closing of Tent City. This Christmas season refuge, on the abandoned old State Building site across from City Hall, housed about 300 in true Southern California style--concealing misery beneath blue and white tents resembling canvas pavilions at a Beverly Hills garden party. The shutting down of Tent City returned its inhabitants to downtown streets.

--The failure of the revitalization of Pershing Square. Downtown business leaders had raised money to have restaurants, shops, replanted gardens and security in the plaza across from the Biltmore during the Olympics. But, since the Games have become history, the scheme has failed and derelicts have reclaimed their traditional turf.

--The Metro Rail fiscal crisis. The Reagan Administration opposes allocating any more funding for the proposed project and unless Congress reverses that decision, the subway that downtown leaders hoped would alleviate their traffic problems will not be built.

--The opening of the campaign for mayor of Los Angeles. Next week, Councilman John Ferraro is scheduled to announce his candidacy and start his challenge of Bradley, who is running for a fourth term.


Whatever their differences, Ferraro and Bradley are downtowners, believing in continued growth of the central business district and comfortable with the corporate chiefs who dominate the place. Those chiefs, and their corporations, have donated to the political campaigns of both men. In the mayoral campaign, the corporate bosses--most of whom are conservatives who usually stick with the favorite--are expected to put their money on Bradley. But if Ferraro moves up in the polls in the weeks before the April primary, he, too, may receive downtown money. To get it, he will have to offer solutions to downtown problems.

Ferraro opposes the downtown solution to traffic, Metro Rail, the subway designed to run from Union Station, underneath the central of the city, ending in the San Fernando Valley. The underground railway, with stops through downtown, was touted as the best way of bringing huge numbers of commuting office workers into an area that, by the turn of the century, may have many more tall buildings than today. Bradley has been Metro Rail’s foremost advocate.

But now, with Metro Rail’s future cloudy, the two men may have to propose other ways of relieving downtown traffic.

One is to build parking lots on the periphery, with some sort of public transit to bring auto commuters the rest of the way to work. But without a subway or an elevated rail system--like the proposed People Mover, a previously abandoned elevated railway--the public transit would have to use city streets already crowded with cars, trucks and buses. Moreover, the only place for peripheral parking lots would be in areas now occupied by low-cost housing. Destroying such housing for parking lots would deprive thousands of homes, and would no doubt create more homeless.

Other possible solutions are more one-way streets--opposed by merchants--or wider streets, with bus lanes.

Another downtown problem the candidates may be forced to address is the entire subject of housing and the homeless. Solving it is beyond the capability of a single official or layer of government. State-financed care for the mentally ill must be increased. There must be more low-cost housing in the general central-city area where there are many low-skilled jobs. There may be no solution. But the growing number of homeless downtown can’t be ignored by the candidates, especially when powerful business interests complain.


Finally, there is the way downtown looks and feels--the aesthetic question. Opportunities remain to preserve open space in the area at the old State Building site, Pershing Square and in the remodeling of the Central Library.

The library would be rejuvenated by a deal put together by developer Robert F. Maguire III and the Bradley Administration’s Community Redevelopment Agency. With the city clearing the way, Maguire would build three office buildings, including a 70-story tower that would be the tallest downtown. The developer and investors would pay most of the $110.4 million needed to restore the library. As part of the development, the library would again have a landscaped open space on its west side.

There would be privately operated enterprises on the plaza, probably including restaurants. The Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, however, has demanded that the area be restored to its original Bertram G. Goodhue design, an “open, uninterrupted landscaped place.”

Development of shops and restaurants is also being proposed for Pershing Square, to help finance redevelopment and to bring more people into it. Should privately owned restaurants occupy public land in the middle of the city?

The aesthetic question is important to downtown. Ignoring it in the past has made the area a cold place.

One portion of downtown shows what can be done. A meal and a beer is available at a cafe by the sidewalk while huge numbers of shoppers walk by. There is live theater--not subsidized by the government. Movie houses abound, as do shops and news stands. The area is Broadway, between 2nd Street and Olympic Boulevard, the Latino shopping district, packed during the day, full of life, looking much like it did many years ago.


Broadway fits the needs of the customers. That is why it works. Nobody really believes that homes can be found for all the homeless, or that traffic congestion--part of city life since Babylon--can be eliminated. But certainly the next wave of development, Library Plaza, Pershing Square and other projects, should provide amenities that will give the new central city some of the life and warmth of old Broadway.