Analysis: Making City More Livable
By MARK LACTER
“Burbs to L.A.: Goodbye!” blared a front-page headline in the Los Angeles Times the other week, with an accompanying story about how L.A.’s economic core is essentially dying because of declining job creation and fewer opportunities for the poor. Meanwhile, the Times reported, economic growth in Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties has been buttressing the region. “If the economy were a game show,” the story began, “Southern California’s counties might turn to Los Angeles and say: ‘You are the weakest link.'”
Three days later, however, The New York Times ran a front-page story that outlined how Los Angeles was transforming itself through new retail and residential developments in previously passed-over locations. L.A., The New York Times concluded, had become more of a functional high-density city and less of the stereotypical sprawl that everyone wants to abandon.
Both stories had legitimate points to make. Yes, L.A. is a big, urban mess with lots of problems, while the suburbs are still sitting pretty. But the hometown Times failed to pick up on the subtle and potentially profound changes in how the city is being developed these days changes that have made Los Angeles surprisingly livable and desirable.
The most obvious example is last week’s opening of The Grove, the attractive open-air center of shops, movie theaters and restaurants that’s likely to become a retail centerpiece for anyone living in or around the Fairfax area. Within the next year, that will include the residents of more than 1,000 apartments under construction just up the block on 3rd Street.
But Angelenos are reclaiming portions of their city in other less noticeable ways.
Look at the weekend crowds going to the Home Depot’s massive Expo design store in Westwood (on the site of the former Macy’s/Bullocks complex). Look at the 4,000 downtown lofts that are either under construction or in development. Look at the slow-but-steady cleanup efforts in Hollywood as well as plans for a 120,000-square-foot shopping center at the corner of Vermont and Manchester avenues, an area that 10 years ago had little hope of attracting interest by developers or national chains.
Little of this has been orchestrated. For all the rhetoric about how the city is controlled by the downtown bureaucracy, Los Angeles is, in many ways, a very decentralized place, where much of the development-related decision-making gets done on a community level. The lobbying efforts of a homeowners group or a business improvement district can greatly influence that district’s city council member who, in turn, has broad discretion on whether a project lives or dies.
It almost always centers on an area’s needs and a developer’s opportunities. As of the 2000 Census, there were 3.3 million housing units in all of Los Angeles County, and the value of those units keeps going up. February’s median price was a record $237,000, up 15 percent from a year earlier and 40 percent from five years ago. The February prices were fueled by the best sales period since the last housing boom in 1989.
Going beyond dollars and cents
Doubters will note that those escalating numbers reflect low interest rates (already creeping up) and limited supply. But when buying a house, there’s always more involved than numbers. This is the place, after all, where kids are raised and life gets played out. It’s your home.
Such comfort has little to do with museums and concert halls. It’s about basic needs and services. It means being within a few minutes of a supermarket, dry cleaner, bank and drug store. It also means being able to catch a quick movie or going over to the neighborhood restaurant for a plate of pasta.
These always have been important considerations, but with freeways and surface streets at near gridlock conditions most any time of the day, they become critical.
My own neighborhood is a good example of how necessity has galvanized community. Every day at about 3 p.m., the intersection of Westwood and Santa Monica Boulevards becomes so congested that drivers can routinely expect to tack on an extra 10 minutes to their trip. In that tangle, you can forget about driving to the store for a quart of milk.
But what about walking to the store for a quart of milk? Our house is within a five-minute walk of a supermarket, a drug store, a bakery, two dry cleaners, four banks, a bookstore, a bagel shop, and a half dozen or more restaurants.
My neighborhood, in short, works surprisingly like Manhattan, where feet are often preferable to tires. It’s that way for other communities around town, such as Brentwood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Los Feliz, Koreatown, and now, it appears, Fairfax. Consider how much faster downtown residential development would have happened with just a single supermarket to serve that community.
There is nothing orderly about this kind of growth. Unlike the stamped-out tracts in Santa Clarita or beyond, L.A. will always have its gritty undercurrents: crime, congestion, bad schools, etc. But along with that comes the vitality of a major city, especially one as ethnically diverse as Los Angeles. The trick is in traversing all the bad stuff in search of a comfortable, if somewhat frenetic, way of living life.