L.A. Remakes Itself : Can public works help restore shared values to a city divided by fear and suspicion?

Kevin Starr, a professor of planning and development in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at USC, is the author of "The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression," to be published by Oxford University Press

What is it building, the city asks itself?

At this moment in history, no city in the world is building for the future on a scale to match the construction--public, private, or public-private--currently under way, scheduled or being planned for metropolitan Los Angeles. It can be argued, in fact, that few cities in the history of the human race have ever embarked upon a comparably ambitious program of public and private works. The building of the Acropolis in Athens, the redesign and reconstruction of Rome, the rebuilding of London after the Fire of 1666, the high-rises and subway systems of Manhattan as they emerged in the first three decades of the 20th Century--all these projects are in the league in which Los Angeles now finds itself.

The best of times--in terms of planning and construction, in terms of creating shared identities through public works--seems simultaneously to be the worst of times--in terms of the shared social values upon which such public works depend for their success. Los Angeles designs, finances and authorizes the greatest building program under way on the planet--a program gloriously evocative of a shared and prosperous future--while, simultaneously, it gropes through a maze of fear and suspicion in which no future seems possible.

The mind reels trying to keep track of Los Angeles as it builds for the 21st Century. The multibillion-dollar Red Line and Blue Line subway and light-rail systems have received extensive coverage. By the end of this decade, the convergence of Amtrak, Metro Rail and Metrolink in the Union Station will make it, once again, the Grand Central Station of Los Angeles.

Last month, the $220-million-plus Central Library renovation and expansion came on line. Across Fifth Street, the Bunker Hill Steps, designed by Lawrence Halprin, seeks to recreate the exuberant and sophisticated urbanism of the Spanish Steps of Rome. A few blocks up the hill, construction is under way on the $80-million, 2,400-seat Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by architects Frank Gehry and Michael Maltzen.

The just-opened addition to the Convention Center on Figueroa brought on line 805,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space. Designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the center looms like a vast cathedral of commercial and technological exchange.

The recently completed Century Freeway, meanwhile, brings to a climax more than a half century of freeway construction, beginning with the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1939. Thanks to this 17.3-mile stretch, the last freeway of its kind, Downtown, including the Convention Center, is now no more than 20 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport.

Representing the busiest port in the nation, directly responsible for as many as 750,000 jobs, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners and the Long Beach Port Authority recently completed a $100-million-plus terminal and yard renovation program. They are now planning to link the port with Downtown via existing Southern Pacific railheads on the Alameda Corridor, for which they are willing to pay $275 million just for the right-of-way. The linkage of LAX with the port via the Century Freeway, together with the linkage of the port with the existing freeway and railroad system via the Alameda Corridor--all this integrated into the existing system of freeways, regional rail heads and airports--depends upon, and further actualizes, a perception of metropolitan Los Angeles as being at the hub of a mega-billion Asia-Pacific and Latin American import-export economy.

The private sector, meanwhile, continues to push its advantage, despite (or is it because of?) the current restructuring of the Southern California economy. In Downtown, such forthcoming projects as Metropolis, designed by Michael Graves, and Central City West, with its master plan by Johnson Fain and Pereira, will create new commercial centers in dialogue with two decades of construction on Bunker Hill.

Planning is under way to facilitate and harmonize all this new construction via a strategic plan for the Downtown, sponsored by the Community Redevelopment Agency and other governmental agencies. The plan envisions central Los Angeles re-emerging in the next 50 years as a patchwork quilt of pedestrian zones, plazas, mini-parks and other forms of accessible open space co-existing within a larger framework of freeway, boulevard, light rail and subway transportation.

The $18-million-plus renovation of Pershing Square, now nearing completion, epitomizes the effort to recover public space in Los Angeles. Set aside by the City Council 1866 for public use, designated a public park in 1872, Pershing Square, like the original Spanish Plaza, embodies the notion that there is such a place as Los Angeles--that it is a public, hence communally shared, entity and that, in some special way, the self-awareness and identity of the city is connected to this place. The Pershing Square Property Owners Assn. and the CRA are in the final phases of the $15-million project that is keyed to one grand idea: Los Angeles as a shared city, a place in which peoples of every background can be together in harmony.

There will be an amphitheater for public performances, benches aplenty for sitting in the sunshine, an outdoor deli cafe run by the Biltmore Hotel, a campanile and an aqueduct. Water from the aqueduct will splash into a great pool paved with the black stones of the Tijuana River, and the pool will have a tidal action resembling that of the Pacific. All the old statues have been brought back, and 48 of the original palm trees replanted into a palm court.

Any one of these projects is open to a dissenting interpretation, and they have all been made and continue to be made. No one will ride the subway system or light rail, it is claimed. No one will schedule conventions in downtown Los Angeles. The port is paying the Southern Pacific too much for the railway right-of-way to the Alameda Corridor. Why build a park and open-space system in a city that so prizes privacy?

On an even deeper level of dissent, the question is being asked: Are these projects, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, coming at the expense of education, health care, social programs, local governmental services, including police and fire, and efforts to meet the housing crisis? Do they not contribute even further to inequities in our culture based on race and class? Can the minority poor, for example, be expected to afford tickets to the Walt Disney Concert Hall?

These are tough questions. Some of them are ideologically motivated. Others are animated by that reductionist cynicism that so frequently passes itself off these days as heady analysis. Such challenges, however, cannot be sidestepped.

Things cost money, after all, and at any one point, there is only so much money to go around. Tax revenues spent on public works can logically be assumed, especially in a time of recession and economic restructuring, to be tax monies not spent for other purposes. When it comes to taxes, Los Angeles, like the rest of the country, will soon find itself playing a zero sum game.

On the other hand, a counter-challenge might also be made. Is Los Angeles worthy of the public-works program it has decided to enact? By their nature, such projects are based on a vision of a thriving society that prizes social cooperation and a shared public life. Will Los Angeles have the courage to grasp the deepest implications of the projects it has initiated? Or will it prefer to squabble with itself for the tactical gain of this or that constituency and forget the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?

With self-destructive shortsightedness, will Los Angeles turn aside from what it first glimpsed, if only through a glass darkly, when it began to build: the Enduring Pueblo, the City on the Plain? Even now, amidst the turmoil and confusion of the present, that city, glimpsed from afar--just in its social arrangements, heroic in its public works--is struggling to actualize itself.

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