For the last quarter-century, Carol Schatz of the Central City Association has been the voice of downtown L.A. business. When she joined CCA in 1990 as legislative advocate, downtown was a gritty place that emptied out at night, leaving only the homeless and occasional concertgoers. She took over as chief executive in 1995 and has since made CCA the preeminent force pushing for change to revitalize the area.
As Schatz, 67, is about to be honored this week for her 25 years at CCA, the Business Journal asked her about the transformation of downtown and the challenges that lie ahead.
Question: For those who don’t recall, what was downtown Los Angeles like in 1990?
Answer: It was dark, dreary and dead. And not just at night after all the workers went home. It was pretty dead during the day, too. The office vacancy rate was 30 percent. What retail had been on Seventh Street was killed off by Metro building the subway. So I would walk down the street, looking at the see-through office buildings and seeing absolutely no life on the street and say to myself, “Carol Schatz, you are out of your mind. This is never coming back.”
What was your favorite downtown restaurant back when you started at CCA?
When I started here, there were no real restaurants, except for one fancy restaurant inside the Biltmore Hotel and some coffee shops at some of the other hotels. Otherwise, there were only little sandwich shops scattered around. So we didn’t eat out at night and I didn’t really have a favorite restaurant downtown.
What about now?
Now, my favorite restaurant is Drago. But that’s out of more than 500 restaurants all throughout downtown.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in downtown Los Angeles in the last 25 years?
The return of housing to downtown and the change that this has created on the streets. Now, the streets are alive all the time. I take great satisfaction in seeing somebody walking their dog or pushing a baby carriage.
What were the biggest factors that made the transformation of downtown Los Angeles possible?
First off, the adaptive-reuse city ordinance that we helped craft. That made it much easier for developers to convert old office buildings into housing and kicked off the boom in housing downtown. Then, the building of the Staples Center. That gave people a reason to come downtown and was the first really big draw. Finally, the advent of property-based business improvement districts; that has made a tremendous difference.
What do you see as the biggest challenge ahead for downtown?
The biggest challenge continues to be the issue of homelessness. Los Angeles has the biggest homeless population in the country and downtown is ground zero for it in the city and the entire region. So far, it has not impacted the development of housing, but unless we deal with it, it very well could.
Another problem has been getting the hotel space necessary to bring the megaconventions to town. Are you satisfied with the progress that city leaders have made on this front?
We’re seeing a lot more hotel development now; with AEG announcing their plans to build another big hotel next to the Staples Center and near the Convention Center. We’re also seeing a great number of new boutique hotels under construction. So we’ve made tremendous progress. All this being said, the increase in the hotel minimum wage has killed off a few hotel deals that would have gone forward. Those investments are now going just outside the city limits.
What about the collapse of AEG’s football stadium effort downtown?
As much as we would have liked to have seen it, I don’t believe the collapse of that effort will slow down any of the investment in downtown. Indeed, it hasn’t so far. It simply would have been icing on the cake.
What has been your proudest achievement in the past 25 years?
I have to say bringing downtown back. Giving the second-largest city in the United States a real downtown, a real city center, I’m very proud of that. We couldn’t be considered a great city if we continued to define ourselves by the beach, a sign and two theme parks.
The biggest disappointment?
I guess it’s the homeless issue. I’m disappointed that adequate resources have not been set aside to deal with it. The progress has been frustratingly slow. But now, there’s more discussion about the need, so I’m hopeful that will change.
After 25 years at CCA, do you plan to take some time off?
I’m not planning any extended vacations, if that’s what you mean. These positions are ones where you have to stay engaged. I’m a workaholic. That’s who I am.