Mega-projects could reshape L.A. growth

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles is having a city-building moment.

Two massive projects -- the L.A. Live entertainment complex next to Staples Center and the Grand Avenue development on Bunker Hill -- are underway. A third giant project, a major expansion of Universal City, was unveiled last week. All adhere to a much-ballyhooed planning strategy embraced by Los Angeles power brokers.

The projects, at a combined cost of about $7.5 billion, follow what has become the big planning trend in Los Angeles and elsewhere: mixing dense housing, retail and office space in village configurations near mass transit. The idea is to foster “smart growth” -- in which residents leave their cars behind, walk to shops, and take buses and rail to work.

For Los Angeles, “this is the beginning. This will be the place where a model gets created,” said Gail Goldberg, the city’s planning director. “This is very different from past development in L.A. We have in the past seen sort of a limitless amount of land. And I think that there were opportunities for sprawl that don’t exist anymore.”


Goldberg and other planners suggest that the current projects demonstrate that Los Angeles has learned from the drawbacks of past mega-developments.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, for example, city planners created a second downtown in Century City -- but they did so far from any freeways or mass transit, a legacy that Westside commuters deal with daily.

But critics are more skeptical, saying that “smart growth” is only a euphemism for more sprawl.

They worry that the sheer size of the projects -- Grand Avenue’s six skyscrapers, Universal City’s 2,900 homes, and L.A. Live’s huge shopping and entertainment venues -- will overwhelm any small improvements made by increasing the number of people who use mass transit.

That point was underscored in the environmental impact report for the Grand Avenue project, which found that the development could significantly worsen traffic in downtown -- despite the fact that it would be built along the Red Line subway.

“The landowner is always going to want to put as much as possible onto their properties, and push off onto the public sector the costs for doing it,” said Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura and a longtime L.A. urban thinker, speaking of large-scale projects in general. “The public ends up having to foot the bill.”

Los Angeles has long favored mega-developments, from the Century City and Warner Center office developments in the 1970s to Playa Vista, a mixed-use housing, retail and office community started in the 1990s on the Westside.

But as some of those developments age, their shortcomings have become apparent. In Century City, there is now a push to build residential towers alongside the office space, in the hopes of improving the balance.

Though the three projects have some central tenets in common, they approach the idea of city-building in very different ways.

L.A. Live, the “sports-entertainment” hub, focuses on being a destination for Angelenos and tourists alike. The project, which already is rising near Staples Center, includes plans for a convention center and hotel, a 7,100-seat theater, broadcast facilities, 14-screen movie theater, and nearly a dozen restaurants and clubs. Luxury condominiums are also part of the mix, with completion of the first phase expected next fall.

Grand Avenue is being touted as the much-needed heart for the city’s center. The three-phase project ultimately would include eight condo and office towers, shopping arcades, a 16-acre park and a boutique hotel. The first phase, which would be anchored by two towers designed by Frank Gehry, has received several key official approvals and is expected to start construction next year.

The Universal plan would create an instant neighborhood on the site of the studio’s current back lot, with homes and apartment units and a north-south street to serve residents. In addition, the studio’s master plan calls for restaurants, stores and a hotel nearby on NBC-Universal property. The plan goes before officials next year.

Despite their differences, all are attempts to create “hubs” that combine denser housing than Los Angeles is used to with shopping and offices near major rail lines.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has hailed this type of development, saying that it provides needed housing in the urban core while giving residents an opportunity to use mass transit instead of cars.

Smaller, transit-oriented, mixed-use projects have popped up in recent years, particularly around the Red and Gold lines. The Times visited one transit village development in Hollywood after it was built in 2004 and found that although residents liked living near a rail line, all the parking spaces in the complex were taken and many residents still used their cars.

Land-use experts say the sheer size of L.A. Live, Grand Avenue and Universal City mean that those projects ultimately will test whether smart growth can work in Los Angeles.

UCLA planning professor Richard Weinstein said single projects alone would not fundamentally alter Angelenos’ shopping and commuting habits. But he said worsening traffic has begun to affect where people decide to live.

The recent boom in upscale condos and lofts in downtown Los Angeles has been driven partly by the desire of people to cut their commutes and live close to work.

The question is whether the people who move into the three new developments are willing to alter their lifestyles accordingly.

“It has much to do with changing people’s perceptions of how they want to travel,” Weinstein said.

Urban planner Doug Suisman said that in Los Angeles, the challenge for mega-projects and other mixed-use projects near transit corridors is how to create density in a way that works for L.A.

“We are learning here how to do mixed use,” Suisman said. “And even if people have lots of experience in other parts of the world, it has to be applied locally.”

The stakes for Los Angeles are high.

Con Howe, the city’s former longtime planning director, believes that Los Angeles may never have another opportunity to shape its urban fabric as it has now with the three mega-developments.

The influence of those projects will extend far beyond their borders, because mega-developments often influence the kind of growth in surrounding neighborhoods, he said.

“There are some major projects that because of their scale or their impact become a generative force, or a regenerative force,” said Howe, who heads the Urban Land Institute’s Center for Balanced Development in the West.

L.A. Live already has sparked a significant number of residential projects in the South Park neighborhood around it, with developers trusting that the center will be such a draw that people will want to live nearby.

L.A. Live offers “a vibrancy that you can’t get in other parts of the city,” said Greg Vilkin of Forest City, a developer who recently built the upscale rental Met Lofts there. It will be “like living two blocks off of Times Square.”