With downtown's long-sought renaissance finally beginning to take shape, the Business Journal surveyed some of the major players orchestrating that revival, to get their take on what's happening, why it's working now and where they think it will all end up.

The survey participants are:

Ted Tanner, senior vice president of real estate for Anschutz Entertainment Group, which built Staples Center and is proposing to develop a $1 billion retail/entertainment/hotel project on sites surrounding the sports arena.

Tom Gilmore, a developer who has specialized in converting old office buildings in downtown's Bank District into residential lofts.

Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which is dedicated to preserving and restoring historic buildings downtown.

Wade Killefer, an architect with the Santa Monica firm Killefer, Flammang, Purtill Architects. He has worked with Gilmore and others developing loft apartments in old office buildings.

Question:

After years of talk about the potential for a 24-hour urban core, is there reason to believe the momentum building today will be enough to get it over the hump?

Tanner:

I think there is enough momentum to get downtown over the hump. A growing critical mass of housing, cultural and religious institutions and community services has been coupled with a different perception of downtown as more than a job center. Staples Center has been an important catalyst in altering that perception. It has created a demand for restaurants and retail activities after hours and on weekends. Other unique projects like the Los Angeles Center Studios and the Southern California Institute of Architecture relocation to downtown bring added investment. The Disney Concert Hall, the new Cathedral, the recently opened Colburn School of Music are all bringing new life and vitality to downtown.

Gilmore:

Yes. Not only yes, but I'm virtually certain about it. The difference between now and any other time is, finally, residential has become a part of the mix.

Dishman:

Downtown's skeptics always say with disbelief that they've heard the promise of revitalization before, but we believe it really is different this time. Creating a 24-hour downtown by definition means creating new residents. In the past, downtown has seen highly touted, individual residential projects, but each one was built as an island unto itself. Today, that's no longer the case. We've calculated that there are 1,300 housing units either completed or in the works within just blocks of each other in downtown's historic structures. That's finally enough to create a critical mass of residents in downtown's historic core. In addition, the creation of several business improvement districts has changed both the perception and reality of downtown's cleanliness and safety, making downtown a safer and more attractive place to work and live.

Q:

If there's a physical heart of the effort to remake downtown a street, a neighborhood, a building where would it be?

Gilmore:

I think there are actually three places, but if I had to pick one, it's the historic district. The others are Grand Avenue and Staples Center. I see the rest of the development of downtown spiraling off those three centers.

Tanner:

Historically, City Hall has been the fulcrum for downtown. Efforts to redo a Civic Center Plaza with connections along Grand Avenue will create a sense of place and pedestrian-oriented streetscape and provide improved physical connections between downtown, the Civic Center and the financial core. While an admittedly biased point of view, I believe that Staples Center and the L.A. Convention Center area, with its abundant supply of parking and outstanding access, create an extraordinary opportunity for a new urban neighborhood with high-density housing, restaurants and retail entertainment uses.

Dishman:

We believe that downtown does have a heart a historic and meaningful heart and that's Los Angeles' Broadway. Broadway was historically the Third Street Promenade and Old Pasadena rolled into one. It was where our entire city came together whether to shop at the city's flagship department stores, to be entertained in magnificent movie palaces, or to celebrate sports championships or war victories with ticker tape parades. Broadway has a dozen surviving historic theaters, each more beautiful and grandiose than the last. While Broadway remains an active, Latino-oriented pedestrian shopping district by day, the street's vacant upper stories are ripe for reuse.

Killefer:

There are at least 10 neighborhoods downtown and each will have its own heart. It will take a while to see what cafes, restaurants, coffee shops become special for each neighborhood.

Q:

What are some of the barriers that have prevented vitality in downtown in the past? Why are those barriers no longer in the way?

Gilmore:

For one thing, public policy was not very strong. Fundamentally, I think it was a flawed philosophy because residential wasn't involved. The fundamentals of urbanism have altered over the last 20 years. Urban sprawl has outlived its useful life. L.A. is the last bastion of suburbanism.

Tanner:

The barriers include a lack of housing and resident amenities that give a negative perception of downtown in terms of traffic congestion and parking. While the regional freeway system remains congested during peak hours, viable alternatives such as arterial streets and a comprehensive rail and bus transit system are making urban infill sites and downtown more accessible and desirable. Additionally, code modifications allowing flexibility in the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of historical buildings is creating incentives that need to be augmented to attract additional investment.

Dishman:

First, it is important to note that there are still barriers to revitalization. There is clearly a need for larger financial institutions to invest in the area and for redevelopment dollars to become available again downtown to subsidize catalytic projects. That said, some of the traditional barriers have fallen away. The trendiness of loft living in popular culture and other cities has significantly increased the body of people who want an urban lifestyle in Los Angeles. The early success of the Grand Central Market project and the recent popularity of the Old Bank District and Spring Street Lofts projects demonstrate there is a ready appetite for living units in a more gritty atmosphere. More people are also placing a higher priority on low commute time versus the single-family living in outlying suburbs. Since the conservancy believes that historic buildings contribute to the vitality of downtown, changes making it easier to convert existing structures to housing have removed another barrier to reinvestment. The City's Adaptive Use Ordinance, shepherded by the Central City Association, significantly eased the permitting process for converting existing buildings to housing. The Mayor's Business Team has also made great strides in working through building code challenges with the Department of Building and Safety and the Fire Department.

Killefer:

City regulation pushed the costs up to an unsustainable level. The adaptive reuse ordinance provided great relief.

Q:

What role should city government play in revitalization efforts, and do you believe the political will is there to take on that role?

Tanner:

Through leadership, streamlined permit processing and flexible code interpretations, millions of square feet of underutilized space in downtown can be reclaimed for housing, new businesses and a variety of other uses. Government should continue to support balanced housing programs to provide a strong private market in downtown, as well as continued support for affordable housing. The public housing (that is part of the redevelopment effort) should continue to assist successful community-based nonprofit housing development corporations with additional seed monies, tax credits and site control. There is also a need for public support in the financing of a convention hotel. Staples Center was located adjacent to the Los Angeles Convention Center to facilitate the creation of a headquarters hotel that would enable the convention center to achieve its economic mission by attracting out-of-town, overnight guests to attend large national conventions. There is a misconception that this hotel would take away from the other downtown hotels. We believe just the opposite.

Gilmore:

They need to play an extremely active role incentivizing good development. They hold the key to really energize it. I think we're actually well-positioned. In general, the (local government officials) as a group seems to be coming to realize that L.A.'s overall strength and downtown's strength are related.

Dishman:

With the right leadership from the new mayor and City Council, Los Angeles can follow the leads of San Diego, Denver, Dallas, Portland and other cities that have created vibrant downtowns in recent years. Broadway and the historic core can be for the next mayor of Los Angeles what New York's 42nd Street has been to Mayor Giuliani a defining urban revitalization success story, with tremendous economic value for the entire city. He can bring forward major entertainment companies to facilitate the renovation of key historic movie palaces to house a mix of live theatrical productions, music, and nightclubs. And the mayor can bring together Los Angeles financial institutions into a consortium that will create an investment and lending pool for housing and catalytic projects downtown.

Killefer:

The Planning and Building and Safety departments need to continue to find ways to help development teams get projects built.

Q:

Is there a role for the L.A. River in the remaking of downtown? How much money and effort should be spent and to what degree should the city reclaim that lost resource?

Tanner:

I think there is a role for the L.A. River. There is now a positive climate to piece together a funding program to acquire strategic sites along the river and to create much-needed open space near the urban core.

Gilmore:

Yes, but it goes beyond downtown. It's clearly in the Chinatown area that that will have an impact. At the moment it's almost impossible to imagine how it will work because it's such an eyesore right now. All the difficulties that come with the development I'm doing? It's a piece of cake compared to the problems with the river. It's a resource, but one of the great crippled resources of L.A.

Killefer:

Current development efforts ignore the potential of the river, as it is not adjacent. A second wave of development will occur as the river is reclaimed.

Q:

Even as downtown emerges with high-priced loft apartments and luxury condos, the homeless remain. Can the homeless co-exist with affluent young professionals?

Gilmore:

Yeah, and I think they have to for a lot of reasons. The relationship between us and the homeless service providers around us are symbiotic. We hire the formerly homeless. We work hand-in-glove with the homeless service providers. We get to do what we think is right for a change. Why not reinvent the way development in cities occurs?

Tanner:

There must be a balanced approach to housing downtown. The CRA has done a good job providing publicly assisted housing and attracting market-rate housing developers. I think more of both is better. Now we must concentrate on a strong base of market-rate housing with convenient services such as a grocery market, pharmacy, dry cleaners, coffee shops, bookstores and delis. The recent CRA announcement to support an urban infill project of residential, commercial and retail uses including a large grocery market will be huge for downtown and South Park. With regard to the homeless and other disadvantaged individuals, we can only do out part in supporting social service providers and programs aimed at providing housing, health care and other essential services.

Dishman:

It is true that downtown will still have a homeless population, but market-rate housing can coexist with well-managed services for the homeless. A good example of this mix can be found in downtown San Diego, where attractive single-room-occupancy hotels for very-low-income residents and the formerly homeless sit in the very midst of thousands of units of upscale housing. And because most of downtown's new housing is going into formerly vacant commercial structures, downtown's residential renaissance should not result in gentrification or displacement of residents.

Q:

Is it important to maintain historic architecture, even if it is in the way physically or financially?

Tanner:

In most instances it is important to maintain our architectural landmarks. Invariably they provide a sense of place and history with unique spaces, details, materials and finishes not found in contemporary architecture. Most buildings can be adaptively reused and integrated into a larger development program. Modified codes, historic preservation tax credits and other financing incentives are vital tools to reclaim these resources.

Gilmore:

It is a rare case where historic buildings are going to be in the way of rational development. We use historic buildings as a set piece to highlight our development. If you can't be creative, don't be a developer. Figure it out or go build a strip mall somewhere.

Dishman:

Obviously, we at the Los Angeles Conservancy reject the premise that our great historic architecture should be thought of as merely in the way. Indeed, the great urban centers of the world, from London to Paris, New York to New Orleans, are worth visiting and appreciating because they put their history front and center and treat historic preservation as a key tool for economic development and tourism. Los Angeles has the same opportunity to treat our historic buildings and historic neighborhoods as key assets. We're finding that downtown's new businesses and new residential tenants today actually prefer unique historic settings, giving buildings that may have seemed obsolete a decade ago tremendous economic value that may not have been apparent.

Q:

Who do you see as playing key roles in the downtown makeover and why are their roles key to downtown's future?

Tanner:

I think some of the new players, such as Tom Gilmore and Geoff Palmer and the old players like Stan Michota (of developer Forest City) and Steve Smith (of Los Angeles Center Studios) have shaped new visions to help redefine downtown. Certainly the new mayor will play a big role.

Gilmore:

Con Howe at the Department of Planning, Andrew Adelman at Building and Safety. He's a true trooper in this thing. The fire department. You can talk about redevelopment all day, but if you run headlong into the fire department and they make things 50 times more expensive, forget it. The new mayor. Ed Roski, Eli Broad, me, Ira Yellin, the Needleman family.

Dishman:

As already discussed, the new mayor, coupled with a new council member for the Ninth District, will play a key role in putting into place key city policies for revitalization. Assemblyman Gil Cedillo has already played such a leadership role, bringing state funding to the rehabilitation of St. Vibiana's Cathedral as a performing arts complex anchored by Cal State Los Angeles and carrying state legislation called "Downtown Rebound" to provide financing for conversion of older commercial buildings to housing. But at least as important will be the role of the private sector. Can we find another five or six visionary developers to see the economic opportunity in pursuing transformative projects downtown? And, with downtown's 24-hour life becoming reestablished, our city's entertainment companies and diverse arts organizations will be key players in creating an exciting urban entertainment district on Los Angeles' own Broadway.

Killefer:

The new mayor and his successors, the for-profit and non-profit development community, the L.A. Conservancy, the BIDs, the media, everyone.

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