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Good signs downtown, but vision still lacking

The ghost town is gone.

When I leave my office in the early evening, the downtown Los Angeles of years past is but a memory. People who live in transformed, long-abandoned buildings and trendy new towers are on foot, heading here and there and nowhere in particular.

The new and much-celebrated Ralphs, whose disciples are no less reverential than those who flock to Harrod’s in London, has international wine tastings where no one drinks out of a brown paper sack. And I think it’s generally a good sign that there are now more dogs than humans urinating on downtown sidewalks.

I like much of what I see. And with all this commerce and more to come, the potential benefits to the rest of the city (from shared tax revenue) and to the whole region (from new attractions around Staples Center and on Grand Avenue) are huge.

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But there’s just as much potential for disaster. Pardon me for popping a few party balloons, but somebody has to.

In typical L.A. fashion, mega-developments and the redrawing of the skyline are underway with little in the way of long-term vision or planning. It’s the same old let’s-try-this-and-see-what-happens approach, with developers in the driver’s seat.

Although public officials and the media spun last week’s downtown zoning changes as a boon for desperately needed affordable housing, there is in fact no requirement that a single such unit be built -- there are merely incentives that developers may or may not choose to take advantage of.

As usual, the impact on traffic was not a consideration in any of this. Nor is anyone admitting that downtown will scare most people away until there’s a commitment to build, and scatter across the region, enough supportive housing to clean up skid row once and for all.

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And then there’s the greenery problem.

Why do dogs do their business on sidewalks? Because there’s nowhere else for them to go. Where are the pocket parks? Where are the benches for people to sit with a cup of coffee and a newspaper and watch the world go by?

Rather than do something about it, the geniuses at City Hall have just given developers the right to reduce the space between buildings and to squeeze up even closer to sidewalks.

“Everybody is talking about the need for more parks,” said Ian Barnard, a downtown resident and an English professor at Cal State Northridge.

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Actually, there’s the Fashion Institute park, but that’s small. And there’s Pershing Square, but that is possibly the worst excuse for a city park in the entire Western Hemisphere. It’s a sun-blasted wasteland and public embarrassment, and if it were up to me, I’d have the bulldozers out there tomorrow.

Meanwhile, a planned park at 1st and Spring was ditched for a new police administration building, and the civic mall redesign is a few years away and a little too far from much of the new downtown residential development.

How many people are going to hear the downtown buzz, make the move and then clear out a year later when they discover there’s so little outdoor space in the heart of a city with the kind of weather that makes a person want to be outside?

Robert Harris, a downtown resident and a professor of architectural landscape at USC, argues that sidewalks constitute the greatest expanse of open space in downtown Los Angeles. Rather than squeeze them, he’d like to see them dressed up with benches and public art.

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Beth Steckler of Livable Places would like to see little nooks and alcoves of downtown turned into miniature parks. To spur creativity, her public policy nonprofit is sponsoring a Sept. 21 campaign to convert areas as small as parking spaces into mini-parks (more information is at www.Parkingdayla.com).

It wouldn’t take much imagination to convert dozens of downtown alleys into al fresco hangouts, but according to downtown developer Tom Gilmore, there’s a reason only a few such places exist.

“The bureaucratic lead time to pedestrianize the alleys is a day shy of infinity,” Gilmore said, adding that the city could easily streamline the hurdles.

“The city can get caught up in big plans and forget how much can be accomplished with little things. Look at all the little tiny 5,000-square-foot parking lots. The city could be buying those up and building parks, because those are the ones that people love -- the small neighborhood park that’s built on a smaller scale.”

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Madeline Janis of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy says the city should offer developers a menu of community-enhancement options. If the downtown real estate market is so hot that builders want to bust density or height limits, they should be required to convert alleys, or add green space, or improve transit access, or offer a percentage of affordable housing units so people can walk to all the new jobs that might be created in the new downtown.

Imagine if all of those amenities were in place along with a new civic mall park.

Bill Witte, the Related Cos. chief who’s in charge of that project, told me he plans to lobby the state for enough additional funding, on top of the budgeted $50 million in local funds, so there’s a chance to build one of the great public spaces of the world.

I’ll believe it when I see it, but let’s say it happens. Let’s say you can take the Red Line in from the Valley -- or Metrolink from Claremont -- and have an early dinner on a downtown sidewalk paved with Spanish tiles.

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Then you take a shuttle -- I’d have them running on five-minute intervals -- to the new civic mall to watch a band from the Colburn School in the new outdoor amphitheater, or catch a movie under the stars, or watch opera in the park.

Maybe you go to a Lakers game or see a theatrical production in a rebuilt grand theater on Broadway, and then wander over to a re-imagined Pershing Square for a nightcap.

No, I’m not holding my breath.

But this is not farfetched, pie-in-the-sky stuff. With enough imagination, and a little leadership, it’s a city center that could exist.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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