Downtown Plan Looks to Suburbs for Assistance : Redevelopment: Entire Southland would benefit if L.A.'s urban core is improved, report says. But the dream may be hard to fulfill, advocates concede.
Downtown Los Angeles, which used to call the shots in this sprawling town, is about to begin an unusual campaign of selling its hopes for the future to the surrounding, and somewhat skeptical, region.
The pitch for improving Downtown’s economy and quality of life comes in a strategic plan that calls for an additional 100,000 residents in the area, bolstered security, a night life of entertainment and dining, and vigorous efforts to increase industrial and white-collar jobs. It envisions thriving markets, more parks, a nicer pedestrian environment and fewer homeless people on the streets.
The plan repeatedly asserts that all of Southern California will benefit from such a vibrant and economically revived Downtown Los Angeles. “Downtown, the center of a powerful region, must be made healthy,” the introduction declares.
But even as its authors prepare for the document’s formal unveiling Tuesday, they acknowledge that the lingering recession, political resentment and suburban-oriented social trends may make their dreams difficult to realize.
“There may have been a time when a plan like this might have just focused on Downtown and sailed through and been implemented and all the rest,” said Robert Harris, the USC architecture professor who co-chaired the 60-member citizen task force that wrote the report. In a Los Angeles battered by the 1992 riots and defense industry cutbacks, he added, “it is not the perspective of Downtown or nothing. We need to take advantage of the economic possibilities of all the districts of the city. There aren’t any throwaways. And in that perspective, you wouldn’t overlook Downtown.”
The guidelines for Downtown development for the next 25 years do not carry the force of law and do not include funding mandates. Still, the plan must be approved by the Community Redevelopment Agency’s board and by the Los Angeles City Council--both of which have changed dramatically since then-Mayor Tom Bradley commissioned the study in 1989 as the office market began to show the vacancies that plague Downtown.
And, of course, Bradley’s Democratic Administration has been replaced by that of Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, whose personal ties to Downtown may be tempered by his political dependence on support in the San Fernando Valley and Westside, informed observers say. Mayoral aides report, however, that Riordan generally favors the plan.
Planning experts say the 138-page document must overcome suspicions that Downtown wants to continue huge redevelopment subsidies at the expense of other neighborhoods. “That’s the key political question in all this. It’s going to be a hard sell,” said one of the plan’s authors, who is working on its presentation Tuesday to the CRA board. The CRA paid the plan’s $3 million in consultant fees and other costs.
The report cautiously avoids figures on the costs of its goals, although it advocates lifting the current limits on taxes that the CRA can collect and spend. Raising that cap will not be allowed unless more aid is guaranteed to the East Valley and to South-Central neighborhoods that have economic woes as compelling as Downtown’s, according to CRA board member Bobbi Fiedler, a former congresswoman from the Valley.
“Some people do feel that (Downtown) is the be-all and end-all of the city. Of course, it isn’t,” Fiedler said.
To gain regional support, the plan points out that about 95% of Downtown’s 353,8000 employees live outside of the district and that Downtown jobs represent more than 21% of total employment in the city. “The economic role of Downtown is critical to the well-being of the region, but this economic engine has an irregular and inconsistent rhythm. It is urgent that the opportunities for Downtown to be an even more powerful economic engine be realized,” the report states.
At its most basic, the report strongly warns that crime, dirt and homelessness are scaring away investments and tourists. It encourages property owners to rely more on private security forces to patrol sidewalks. It seeks more help from the county and surrounding neighborhoods in providing jobs and affordable rentals to prevent homeless populations from increasing.
“Public and private interventions have transformed parts of Downtown into clean, safe and delightful places to live, work and play. But the growing magnitude of social and economic problems besetting the city has left other portions of Downtown dirty, dangerous and unpleasant,” the plan emphasizes.
Rae Franklin James, deputy mayor for housing and planning, said the Riordan Administration wants safety issues emphasized further. The plan does not prioritize goals enough, she said, although that may be because it was written by a large panel seeking compromises among competing interests. Overall, James praised the study for having “a lot of substance” and a philosophy seeking to “make people say that they’re proud to be in Downtown L.A.”
Midway through its four years, the study expanded from just the corporate and government centers on the west side of Downtown to include the easterly neighborhoods housing the toy, produce, garment, fish and flower industries, as well as the Skid Row social service agencies. Major goals by 2020 are the addition of 10,000 industrial jobs, and 100,000 other new jobs in Downtown offices, stores, hotels and services. The plan’s boundaries are the Hollywood, Harbor and Santa Monica freeways and Alameda Street.
The industrial--some say populist--emphasis contrasts with a previous master plan that led to the leveling of Bunker Hill’s aging housing and their replacement with isolated office skyscrapers. The new strategy rejects the massive tear-downs of the 1970s and concentrates instead on smaller projects to strengthen and link what already exists. It would take advantage of the emerging mass transit systems and recent or upcoming investments like the Central Library, Convention Center, Disney concert hall, renovated Pershing Square and state government’s move into historic buildings.
The study divides Downtown into 10 neighborhoods, from the Civic Center on the north to South Markets. Wider and improved sidewalks, mid-block pathways and better transit are urged, as are more common spaces, such as a proposed new park in the produce market area. Although each district needs help, “linkages must be formed to create greater access and more powerful economic interaction,” the report says.
According to Stefanos Polyzoides, an architect who was one of the plan’s lead consultants, the successes of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and Old Town in Pasadena prove that Southern Californians are hungry to escape the isolating, automobile culture. The region should be able to support several pedestrian-oriented areas--including Downtown--that combine retailing, tourism, housing and jobs, he said.
Offering alternatives to sprawl is important for an efficient, competitive economy, Polyzoides added. He concedes that the change will not be easy but offers the plan as a starting point: “It took 50 years for the patterns of sprawl to take hold. That’s not going to go away in five.”
The report proposes 16 “catalytic projects,” including a retail produce market near the wholesale centers; expanding the fashion industry’s California Mart, which businesses are threatening to leave; a new hotel next to the convention center; new uses for the 7th Street block abandoned by the Robinson’s department store; restoration of at least one aging movie palace on Broadway; creating secure truck staging areas in warehouse areas; linking Union Station and the convention center with electric trolleys; converting a Broadway building into lofts for artists; building more parks and amenities on Skid Row, and adding 550 townhouses to the South Park neighborhood and other housing near St. Vibiana’s Cathedral.
In hopes of giving “vitality to Downtown on a 24-hour basis,” an additional 18,000 housing units are recommended for within the freeway ring and another 24,000 in the periphery. That would add about 100,000 residents to the Downtown area, which has a population of 26,000 in the core and another 50,000 on its edges. The plan recognizes that many outdoors-oriented Angelenos resist the high-rise apartments in Downtown and suggests that townhouse-style development might be more appealing.
The authors debated about listing price tags for all those ambitions but finally decided against it, said Donald McIntyre, committee member and president of the Central City Assn. Although some said the lack of costs would be irresponsible, others said that it would be unfair to estimate costs without listing the large revenues those investments could generate, he said. Besides, he added, many costs would be borne by the private sector.
To critics, the poison pill inside the plan is the recommendation to lift the $750-million cap on taxation the CRA can receive from Downtown redevelopment. That limit may be reached by next year, and lifting it will be a complicated process requiring approval by the city, county and Los Angeles Unified School District.
Planners say they recognize the current fiscal limits by suggesting that public agencies coordinate their efforts in Downtown better. There is mention of the city settling many Downtown responsibilities on a single municipal panel, something that has revived old suspicions about a Downtown Establishment--albeit one that now includes manufacturers and homeless shelters.
Urban affairs writer Mike Davis, author of the anti-Establishment “City of Quartz,” conceded that the report contains some good ideas, like “the real recognition of the workaday world of blue-collar workers in Downtown and a more egalitarian approach to public space.” But he contended that the study fundamentally seeks to protect investments of major property owners, as did the 1972 plan.
“I think you’ll see this strategic plan is the product of an era that’s really over,” Davis said. In addition, he said, it is captive to a dream of a gentrified Downtown that is at odds with a livelier and grittier reality.
Members angrily deny any notion that the plan’s advisory panel was a tool of real estate interests--not with social service activists, small-business owners and academics voicing strong positions on the board. And they argue that much of the plan is more likely to be embraced by Latino and Asian immigrants, who have strong traditions of enjoying downtowns, than by any supposed upper-class gentry from the suburbs.
Harris, the co-chairman, said living and working Downtown will never achieve overwhelming popularity. But suburbanites fearing increased density should realize, he said, that increases in Downtown jobs and housing could ease pressures in their own neighborhoods.
With about 9 million people in Los Angeles County, the goal of 100,000 more Downtown residents over 25 years is modest, Harris said--and achievable if jobs, amenities and a sense of community continue to develop. “I’m not so put off by people who are looking for someplace else, who don’t like Downtown because we don’t need everybody,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be unanimous.”