Central City West: Don’t Tell Us, Show Us

The long-awaited urban design and land use plan for Central City West is in the last throes of preparation, not unlike a concoction of raw meat being readied for a cage of hungry tigers.

What makes the plan so tasty for the tigers is the potential of the area, encompassing 355 acres from the Harbor Freeway west to Witmer Street and Glendale Boulevard, and from Olympic Boulevard north to the Hollywood Freeway.

Given the proximity to downtown, the rolling hills with views, and swaths of vacant and underdeveloped land, the area is variously viewed as a natural extension of an office-tower-dominated downtown, a thriving residential community serving the city’s need for more housing near jobs and a collection of choice sites for inner-city schools.

More generally, and idealistically, the area also contains the potential of an urbane village, serving downtown but also serving itself with an imaginative mix of uses. These would include sensitively scaled offices, shops, schools, and, in particular, a range of housing, from rehabilitated bungalows and affordable apartments to upscale condo complexes, set in a network of pedestrian friendly streets, plazas and parks.


This enlightened vision appears to be the thrust of the so-called specific plan now being prepared by the design firm of Meyer & Allen, aided by a bevy of consultants, including Barrio Planners. It places most of the offices on the eastern edge of the area and along the Wilshire Boulevard corridor, while taking advantage of the Crown and Temple-Beaudry hills for housing and parks. Scattered throughout would be stores and schools.

Although the planning effort is being paid for by a consortium of major property owners in the area so as to expedite required--and desired--design guidelines and zoning changes, it has been a relatively public process, thanks to the insistence of Councilwoman Gloria Molina and an emerging vocal resident population. Most of the estimated 17,000 people who live there are tenants, Latino and poor, including a wary few who have been displaced by redevelopment projects elsewhere.

Out of a series of neighborhood meetings has come a plea that no existing housing--however deteriorated--be demolished until replacement housing at reasonably comparable rents be constructed, and that generally, what is left of the neighborhoods there, after years of being nibbled away at by speculators, somehow be rehabilitated and made more attractive, and livable.

It all sounds good, but few persons who have watched the Central City West saga believe it will be developed according to the plan. Indeed, even if it is eventually adopted, given muscle through zoning and embraced by Mayor Tom Bradley, in the end it will just be prey for the tigers, the meat consumed and the bones spit out.


Dampening hopes that the redevelopment of Central City West will be different from other efforts, such as California Plaza, is the presence of a gaggle of lobbyists representing some major investors with political clout, a school board insensitive to the community, some shortsighted absentee landlords and a sprinkling of well-meaning but naive neighborhood organizers.

Like tigers, each out for himself, they promise to pull apart whatever plan is presented. Setting an unfortunate tone among the lobbyists has been former Councilman Arthur K. Snyder, who represents developer Ray Watt. Snyder is remembered for, among other things, trying as a councilman, to sink a community effort to save a Hollywood bungalow court. Most recently, he represented a developer who on New Year’s Day attempted through a misrepresentation of an address to demolish the historic McKinley Mansion.

Among other well-connected lobbyists and lawyers of note representing developers with holdings in the area are George Mihslten, former city Planning Commission c hairman Dan Garcia, and former Bradley aide Norman Emerson. Although they generally have been more reasonable than Snyder in recognizing the need for a balance of commercial and residential, their presence is viewed warily by the community.

Seemingly oblivious to the protracted planning process has been the school board.

Its building committee recently indicated that it was seeking to locate several schools in the area, including a junior high school, and might resort to the use of eminent domain to obtain the sites--regardless of whatever community plan is eventually adopted.

The waters were further muddied when developer Leonard Glickman embraced and embellished the school board proposal as a way to clear 50 acres and, along with the schools, to build several square block of apartment houses.

There is nothing like the phrase “eminent domain” to send a shiver of fear through residents and property owners alike, and a shiver of frustration through the planners and officials trying to work with them.

And then there are the well-meaning community organizations, who according to their leaflets, want “affordable housing, quality schools, more parks, less traffic and a stronger voice in decisions,” and do not want “more skyscraper office buildings in our back yards.”


That sounds nice. However, it doesn’t recognize the harsh reality in this lingering age of Reaganism (meaning no public funds for such needs) that the only way projects such as affordable housing and parks are going to be financed is to tie their construction in some way to the approval of the more lucrative office development. The concept is known as linkage, and has produced needed housing in Boston and San Francisco.

But given the history of promises unkept in Los Angeles, communities do not want to be told what may happen if they allow a particular office development to move forward. Instead, they want to be shown, and not just pretty renderings.

With this in mind, and given the many vacant parcels in Central City West, the consortium of property owners wanting a reasonable plan to move forward would be wise to consider undertaking--before anything else--a demonstration project incorporating the promises that have been made.

The demonstration project could be a well-scaled, sensitively designed complex with a variety of housing types and subsidies that could serve as a relocation resource for the inevitable demolition of some of the more decrepit buildings nearby.

Included also as a demonstration of innovative programming and design could be supportive commercial and community facilities, such as a so-called vest-pocket school whose playground can double as a park, its library open to all after hours and a host of other mixes and matches that have been successfully tried elsewhere.

Los Angeles begs for such a planning and design demonstration, and Central City West would be as good a place as any to begin. It is time to tame the tigers.