By JILL ROSENFELD
Even with the promise of Disney Concert Hall, the Staples Center and a revamped Figueroa Corridor, downtown L.A. remains typecast among many local businesses as a place to avoid.
Why the bad rap?
“Los Angeles has been moving steadily toward more decentralized form,” said Jim Moore, associate professor of urban planing and civil engineering at USC. “Folks who argue we need a downtown core, a 24-hour downtown, mean well, but they’re after a fairly quaint urban form that is going to elude them. And they’re not entirely sure they want it if you have to speak Spanish to be there.”
That “quaint urban form,” a metropolis filled with white-collar pedestrians, did exist at one time. Until World War II, Los Angeles was highly centralized, with some 50,000 people coming into downtown each day of the work week, according to State Librarian Kevin Starr. But with the demise of the city’s rail system, and the post-war rise of the suburb and freeway, that pattern changed radically.
According to research Moore conducted along with two other USC professors, employment has gradually dispersed across the region. Today, the downtown job base represents a diminishing percentage of overall employment in the region.
“This occurs through lots of independent decisions, each firm acting in its own interest,” said Moore. “As technology allows us to disperse, we’re left with an incentive to decentralize, to escape congestion and to gain access to labor. And the more qualified the labor pool, the more they tend to put a premium on their own experience, and the more responsive they are to the right incentives, such as a short commute.”
As recently as the 1980s, downtown had a significant banking and corporate headquarters presence. Many of those institutions have since dissolved, consolidated, or moved to other locations.
“The city engineered by (Mayor Tom) Bradley is falling apart, because it’s based on an economic structure that no longer exists,” said William Fulton, author of “The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles.”
“If you’re a big law firm, there’s no advantage to your being next door to an empty office building where your corporate clients used to be. Also, the economic structure of those firms has changed. There are more boutique firms, and they’re much less likely to be located in a centralized area,” he said.
Ray Kappe, founder of the Southern California Institute for Architecture, said that attempts to centralize downtown date as far back as he can remember. “There’s always been a question mark as to how much we can densify in the downtown area. It’s been a constant battle as long as I’ve been involved in planning and architecture,” said Kappe.
In the 1960s, a group of business executives put together the Silver Book, a blueprint for evolving Los Angeles into a grand central city. In the 1970s, the CRA hired Kappe’s firm to put together a proposal for a Disneyland-style monorail that would turn downtown into a pedestrian-oriented city. That plan was ultimately voted down by the City Council.
Now, on the cusp of the 21st century, boosters and stakeholders are still looking for a way to revitalize downtown.
The answer, said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Association, lies in turning downtown into a cultural theme park and large-scale retail mall. “As you are forced to reduce your dependence on offices because of downsizing, you look at themed retail, entertainment and sports.
“And we are going to be experiencing some of that with the Staples Center. In fact, that arena has already had significant impact on retail leasing in the Central Business District. And the cathedral (the $163 million Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels being developed on Bunker Hill by the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles) will open in September of the year 2000. These are institutions you can’t find in suburbs.”
John Kaliski, former principal architect for the CRA and now a partner at AIJK Architecture and City Design, said that in the future, people will use downtown differently than they have in the past. “Downtown L.A., like many other downtowns, is being developed more like a shopping mall or a theme park. I don’t think that’s a problem, I think it’s a reality, and we should work with that.”
Other examples of this evolution, Kaliski said, are Cleveland, Chicago, and Portland. “Every American city has been developed this way in the last 10 to 20 years,” he said. “Some people would take issue with whether this is desirable, but the reality is that this is a very familiar and time-tested success strategy. Los Angeles has every reason to be following this model. It’s almost standard at this point.”
But none of it will bring top firms back downtown, said David Birch, founder of Cognetics Inc., a Boston-based economics research firm. “That’s fluff. It doesn’t affect where I’m going to run my company. I have to run my company where my employees want to live. They want to live in Riverside or Moreno Valley, they don’t want to live in downtown Los Angeles.”
But Schatz said the gaps left by departing professional firms are being filled by telecommunications, entertainment, and other industries that formerly located in outlying areas. “We’re seeing companies look at downtown L.A. in a way they’ve never looked at it before, because it’s economical. There will be all kinds of new development and offshoots.”