Downtown? L.A. Doesn’t Need One

Joel Kotkin, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The City: A Global History," released this year by Modern Library.

The $1.8-billion proposal to redevelop Grand Avenue represents the latest in a series of ill-conceived schemes to revive downtown Los Angeles, and former Mayor Richard Riordan was absolutely right when he recently called it “a bunch of baloney” whose main effect will be “rich guys getting richer.”

The project, like so many before it, is based on the conventional wisdom that a great city must have a great downtown. According to Eli Broad (Grand Avenue’s well-meaning patron saint) and other boosters, a “great downtown” apparently means lots of big buildings -- preferably designed by trendy, expensive architects such as Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne -- meant to house appropriately trendy and expensive people and businesses. Without this, they apparently believe, L.A. is just another overgrown cow town.

This seems a bit rich, given the past, oh, 70 years, during which time Los Angeles -- without a “heart” or a booming “center” or any sort of mini-Manhattan in its midst -- has developed into one of the world’s great cities. Even without an elite promenade in its historic core, Los Angeles has become the world’s dominant entertainment capital, North America’s largest port and industrial center, and a powerful rival to New York in the fashion business.

Los Angeles has been able to do all this without a powerful downtown because, frankly, this is how most cities grew in the late 20th century. Over the last 40 years, the most dynamic cities in terms of population and job growth -- Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Dallas -- have all emerged with only a small percentage of their jobs and an even tinier slice of their population living in or around their urban core.

In contrast, most of the cities that fit the traditional downtown model have grown far less robustly. San Francisco and Chicago have actually lost jobs and population since 2000; the five boroughs of New York have fewer jobs today than in 1969. L.A. has added well over 1 million jobs since the mid-1970s.


Downtowns are not a long-standing feature of urban history nor are they necessary for a healthy, economically robust city. The word “downtown” appeared in Webster’s for the first time only after the turn of the 20th century. It developed, as historian Robert Fogelson points out, because train travel made it both possible and desirable to concentrate functions in one place, while simultaneous advances in construction allowed for the creation of ever-taller buildings. But the heyday of the urban downtown came in the first half of the last century and has been in relative decline since, as cars have taken over from trains, and as suburban development boomed in the 1950s.

Los Angeles is the ultimate role model for the modern city. Early 20th century planners consciously chose not to build a highly concentrated dense urban core. Instead, they generally advocated developing the city and its economy over the vast basin in ways that allowed middle- and working-class people to live in low-rise, single-family homes surrounded by trees and blessed with backyards.

Over the years, planners, civic boosters and nostalgic big-city expatriates have whined and complained about this development model. Yet, for all the billions expended on the taxpayer-financed convention center, ultra-expensive subway systems, subsidized high-rises and toney arts monuments in an effort to re-create New York in L.A., the city has retained its essentially decentralized structure.

Today, only 7% of Los Angeles residents work downtown, compared with nearly 50% in New York. Despite the speculative real estate boom downtown, virtually no new jobs have been created there since 2000, even as employment jumped in the less trendy Inland Empire and the Antelope, San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

Office buildings downtown still have vacancy rates nearing 20% -- among the highest in the region. This makes the proposal to add 2 million square feet of office space as part of the Grand Avenue Project almost ludicrous. And more residential construction? Aren’t we already in the midst of a residential bubble almost certain to end in tears?

The Grand Avenue Project is not likely to bring about the long-awaited “rebirth” of downtown as the city’s sacred center. But as an unintended negative consequence, speculators will bid up the price of property in other downtown areas -- like the garment, jewelry, food, toy and flower districts -- that actually provide unique services to the public as well as jobs to tens of thousands of Angelenos.

The mayor-elect, like the official he is replacing, seems persuaded by the flawed logic behind the Grand Avenue scheme. But in the weeks ahead, he might want to question some of the hidden costs. He might want to consider whether public resources and private capital could be more effectively channeled into the far-flung neighborhoods of this city where most of us actually live and work. These are the places -- not this ersatz downtown, Eli Broad’s faux Champs-Elysees -- that constitute the collective heart of this city and epitomize Los Angeles’ unique brand of civic greatness.