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Evaluating the Los Angeles Downtown Strategic Plan

(or, How to Approach Downtown Revival Responsibly in the Nineties)

 
 

John Moody

11.301 Introduction to Urban Design and Development
Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Professor: Dennis Frenchman
Fall 2014

 

ABSTRACT

     The Los Angeles Downtown Strategic Plan (DSP) of 1994[1] was crafted to guide future direction in the city’s revival of its dead downtown. Past efforts to resuscitate Downtown, which had declined over the 20th Century as the result of competing regional interests and the automobile takeover of Southern California, were consistently too single-purposed and short-sighted. Once the city was able to reconcile with the interests of all Downtown stakeholders, it realized that the keys to sustainable growth were in adaptive reuse, coordinated public/private action, catalytic projects to stimulate further growth, small-grain development, and New Urbanist ideals. Such were the hallmarks of the DSP. Since some of the plan’s proposals were not followed, and many were followed almost too well, some uneven consequences have undermined its progress—yet it has succeeded on multiple levels. Because of the plan’s success in increasing quality of life for Downtowners, making the metropolis more efficient, allowing for future flexibility, embracing its local character and heritage, and making the region more sustainable, it was a good plan—especially for its time.

 

Fig. 1[2]

 

INTRODUCTION

     The first place I stayed in Los Angeles was on the couch of an illegal loft in the arts district of Downtown. Think five 20-something men living in an open floor plan, with five plywood partitions covered with space blankets to qualify as bedrooms. Despite the squatter-like quality of their place, this derelict factory building was being occupied. People were using it. It was close to multiple freeways, the city’s railway station, several cafes, and day by day, the neighborhood was becoming more mixed-use. This was happening all over a downtown that had, until very recently, been abandoned in favor of outward sprawl. Yet Downtown’s current revitalization was most certainly not random; it owes much of its success to one of the largest plans ever conceived for an urban area, the Los Angeles Downtown Strategic Plan (DSP).

     The DSP, adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in 1994, laid much of the groundwork to set the transformation of Downtown in motion. Nearly everything about the plan was innovative yet simultaneously pragmatic for the time. Its success rests predominantly on its emphasis on adaptive reuse, its usefulness as a tool to unify citywide planning efforts, its call for placing major cultural and civic uses in Downtown, its partiality to small-grain and incremental development, and its embodiment of New Urbanist ideals. While its vision for 2020 may still seem a long way off, the Downtown of 2015 is one that resembles this vision more than ever.

     The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the DSP. First, I will give the reader a firm footing in the historical contexts under which the document was created. Next, I will attempt to summarize the plan’s multitude of strategies and frame them within its operative citymaking models. Finally, I will evaluate the plan based on several criteria and discuss whether the plan has led to a better Downtown, and a better Los Angeles.

 

BACKGROUND

     The DSP was hardly City Hall’s first attempt re-center the sprawling metropolis. Downtown’s declining importance was signaled as early as the 1925, when Angelenos began adopting the automobile en masse. This spurred a massive outflow of population, business, and power to the Westside.[3] The “Old Guard” Downtown Establishment would attempt in vain over the next forty years to re-center commerce around their investments. In 1948, with the freeway takeover of Los Angeles on the horizon, the Chamber of Commerce’s Traffic and Transit Committee sought to protect CBD property values by embedding rapid rail into a radial, downtown-centered freeway grid. However, they were too late. A narrow majority of Westside suburban developers, realtors and commercial interests condemned the plan as too ‘socialistic’ and killed it.[4] By the 1950s, Downtown’s share of the city’s retail trade had sunk to 17%. But in 1953 the Los Angeles Times, forever a Downtown commercial magnate, abetted the election of a mayor sympathetic to Downtown interests. In 1955, the Paulson administration created the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to spearhead the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal project, which the City Council approved in 1959. In the 1960s the project removed 12,000 low-income residents in order to raze and level 25 blocks of the Bunker Hill residential neighborhood adjacent to the old CBD.[5]

     In 1972 the Community Redevelopment Agency published the “Silver Book Plan,” officially the “Central City Los Angeles 1972-1990, Preliminary General Development Plan,” to guide development of a new CBD on Bunker Hill. Soon thereafter Los Angeles elected Tom Bradley to the mayoral seat. Instead of carrying out campaign pledges to his former constituencies to promote community development in South Central and East Los Angeles, Bradley won over both Downtown and Westside power elites by making Downtown redevelopment the focus of his administration.[6] Sadly, the Silver Book Plan was followed in “a bastardized way”[7] to create a modernist, 24-block superstructure characterized by inward-oriented skyscraper complexes, broad roads and sterile public spaces. Development combined modernist architect Le Corbusier’s ideas of an Efficient City, where automobile access reigns supreme, with the ideas of a Secure City, meant to keep out those who do not belong to the pro-global capital future of LA—namely the impoverished Latinos and Blacks that were moving into the old Downtown. Quite literally, it created what Mike Davis refers to as a “spatial apartheid” between Downtown’s historic core and its new financial center up on the hill.[8]

     Not surprisingly, this project failed to revive Downtown and left most of it as dead as a doornail. To understand its built form on the eve of the DSP (1993-94), it will help to separate its defining characteristics into simple categories: real estate and housing, homelessness, open space, employment and industry, retail, tourism, transportation, and planning culture.

REAL ESTATE AND HOUSING:

     Despite emerging as the second-most important financial center in the Pacific Rim, second only to Tokyo,[9] and containing the largest concentration of government buildings outside of Washington, D.C.,[10] Downtown on the eve of the DSP was either overbuilt or falling apart. The Bunker Hill skyscraper complex had been built beyond the capacity of local capital, resulting in massive buy-outs by foreign investors throughout the 70s and 80s. What resulted was a downtown that was largely a tributary to foreign markets[11]. It had been effectively blacklisted by local real estate and most of its buildings were owned by absentee landlords. Three hundred buildings over twelve stories, including many that were architecturally significant, were dilapidated and unoccupied.[12] The city had hoped to rescue these through boutique office renovations, but one developer by the name of Ira Yellin suggested loft apartment conversions. While he had stumbled upon a very potent idea, it took him nine years to convert his building above Grand Central Market into lofts and he had trouble finding tenants,[13] due to “long, overly restrictive and costly regulatory processes, the lack of complete historic designation protection, and the absence of a powerful, well-organized constituency advocating the revitalization of Downtown.”[14]

     Downtown still contained a shockingly low residential base and was surrounded on all sides by poor inner city communities. Most of the residents within Downtown were poor, lived in substandard units or illegal artist lofts,[15] and had little access to neighborhood amenities such as schools, open space or retail services.[16] Two successful housing infill projects in Bunker Hill and South Park were increasing the housing supply, including provisions for affordable housing, but these isolated islands mostly catered to middle and higher income tenants.[17]

HOMELESSNESS:

     Skid Row, a more than 50 block area that engulfed much of Downtown’s historic core, was home to a substantial portion of the nation’s homeless. The sheer size of Skid Row’s population was a simple matter of access: it contained the largest concentration of social services and single room occupancy (SRO) hotel units in the region.[18] However, it was still lacking in various services, such as treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, and the Crack Epidemic of the early 90s had made the area into one of most dangerous places in the city.

OPEN SPACE:

     Despite containing the largest volume of pedestrian activity in the city,[19] Downtown contained the smallest amount of public space of any major urban center in the country. Silver Book development saw the building of many private plazas, but the Downtown of the early 90s was severely lacking in large recreational areas, small neighborhood parks, and pedestrian-friendly streets. Furthermore, its existing spaces were either sterile or neglected. “Excessive privatization, over-deference to the automobile and the lack of commitment to maintain safety and cleanliness standards [had] eroded public confidence in the proper maintenance and use of public open space.”[20] Pershing Square, centrally located between the new financial center and the historic core, had recently undergone an abstract, populist re-design. But this too was misguided, as the square’s absence of soft ground, its elevated entrances, its modernist walls—even its “bumproof” seating—more often functioned to deter people than invite them in.

EMPLOYMENT AND INDUSTRY:

     Downtown offered one of the widest ranges of employment opportunities in the region and contained a bustling industrial sector. However, workers in all sectors were facing wage deterioration and barriers to occupational mobility and employment-related support services.[21] Additionally, workers in Downtown’s prosperous manufacturing, wholesale and distribution industries were starting to abandon their often uninviting work environments—and crumbling buildings—for jobs in safer and cleaner areas.[22]

RETAIL:

     In the 90s, Downtown’s disconnected department stores, lively ethnic markets and discount specialty stores were in decline “due to limited patronage by office workers and a very small resident population.” In turn, this was making it increasingly difficult to attract or retain employees, residents and tourists.[23]

TOURISM:

     By the early 90s Downtown was attracting throngs of people with its various, if disconnected, cultural offerings, but people were rarely staying for long. The Music Center on Bunker Hill, which had opened in 1964 as another one of the Downtown elite’s efforts to combat the Westside cultural shift,[24] was now attracting 4.6 million patrons each year.[25] In 1984 Maguire Thomas Partners and the CRA had successfully renovated the Central Library, resulting in nearly 1 million visitors a year. 1986’s Museum of Contemporary Art was now attracting 325,000 people, and the recently completed expansion to the Convention Center was also bolstering tourist activity. At the northern periphery of Downtown, Dodger Stadium was pulling in roughly 2.5 million, and the Coliseum and Sports Arena to the south were seeing roughly 3 million visitors a year.[26] And in the historic core, the Million Dollar Theater was the Southern California hub of Mexican-origin cinema and live performances, but it was struggling along with the ethnic markets and retail. As Downtown lacked significant connections between these venues, nor substantial marketing to advertise them, nor substantial hotels, nor the perception of public safety, it provided scant reasons for its throngs of visitors to linger beyond their cultural engagements.[27]

TRANSPORTATION:

     In the 1990s Downtown was the terminus of growing regional transit and long had been the place where many of the region’s major freeways converge. Thus it was a shame that half of downtown-proximate freeway traffic was through traffic, and vast areas of Downtown remained underserved by transit access. Fortunately, there was a rising hope in a recent investment: a $180-billion, 30-year program to expand transit had begun with the opening of two Downtown-centric subway lines in 1994, along with Metrolink, the region’s new commuter rail.[28]

PLANNING CLIMATE:

     Competing municipal interests across the region meant that since the Silver Book, comprehensive organization on a regional scale had been near impossible. According to John Molloy, director of the CRA in the mid-90s, planners had been successful acting at the community level but there was never cohesive planning for the region. Furthermore, each department seemed to exist within its own little world: Transportation would not talk to the Parks department,[29] and the CRA would not talk to City Planning (the planning agency responsible for zoning).[30] Part of the problem was that the funding structure of the CRA, supported by nearly every pro-globalization industry and politician in town, was a closed loop. In Downtown, this meant that “fiscal windfalls from the appreciation of publicly-subsidized real-estate were ploughed right back into further redevelopment.” Citywide, there was “no mechanism to redistribute any share of additional city revenues to purposes other than infrastructure or Downtown renewal.”[31] Yet the CRA was soon about to reach a tax increment cap of $750m (in 1975 dollars, imposed on it by a County lawsuit over fears that it would bankrupt the city) that it could collect from Downtown real estate.[32][33] In other words, it was soon about to lose its checking account for Downtown development. Thus, it needed to get along, and City Hall needed a new plan.

 

THE PLAN

     The CRA-spearheaded, 137-page DSP was unanimously endorsed by the City Council in August 1994. While considerably physical and design-oriented, it is important to note that it was a strategic plan, not an illustrative master plan. Rather than quick fixes, its primary method was instead to “understand what already existed and build from existing strengths rather than to begin with top down impositions of bold ideas.”[34] The scope of the 5 square mile-plan was enormous—covering everything from pedestrian-friendly streetscape improvements and open space networks, to catalytic building projects and integrated transportation networks—yet the grain of development was kept small to involve wider involvement amongst all stakeholders. To its principal urban design consultants it represented the “first time in more than fifty years that single-purpose planning was displaced by the simultaneous consideration of all the technical aspects and all the particular economic and social interests relevant to the reconstruction of Downtown.”[35] [36]

     The DSP is enormous, so I ask the reader’s patience while I outline its various elements. The document begins by describing its overarching purpose: to create a thriving city center and re-establish its dominant economic and cultural role within the region. In other words, it was meant to resuscitate a dead downtown.[37] It then outlines principals to guide development, including enhancing the existing qualities of its three distinct districts (see Fig. 2):

 

Fig. 2[39]

 
The City where the mix of activities is related to government, culture and entertainment, finance and business, housing, sports, and tourism. The other is The Markets, including a large and extremely vital array of manufacturing and wholesale businesses, an extensive social services network, and clusters of housing. Between these two is the historic core, Center City, related to both of its neighbors, and requiring significant attention in order to once again become a healthy district itself and an effective linkage.[38]

Principles also stress continuity and change, weaving a whole out of parts by strengthening linkages between existing yet severed enclaves of thriving activity, taking catalytic actions to jump-start further economic growth beyond their own economic and quality-of-life benefits, and establishing Downtown-wide physical frameworks to raise the quality-of-life in the ground-level experience of Downtown.

 

POLICY FRAMEWORKS

     After listing general principals, the DSP proposes foundational policy frameworks that require immediate implementation in order to pave the way for further action: safe and clean streets to attract investment, competitive business advantages to stimulate economic expansion and genuine public/private partnerships, and economic growth centered in creating a tight mixture of workplaces and neighborhoods to foster a healthy job market and efficient mixed use economies.

 

Fig. 3[40]

 

 

STRATEGIES & CATALYTIC PROJECTS

     Next, the DSP combines these catalytic policies with physical frameworks to propose an extremely thorough set of Downtown-wide strategies, strategies fit for each individual neighborhood, and catalytic projects at specific sites (see Fig. 3 & 4). While designed to be mutually supporting, strategies are frequently split into thematic groups to specifically address economy (“employment development, industrial base, office market, retail base, and tourism”), equity (“changes in governance, regulations, and approval processes,” “responsibility initiatives, safety, cleanliness, homelessness, and social services”), accessibility (reduce congestion and provide a full range of transportation choices), or community (public open space networks, residential neighborhoods, conservation of significant historic structures, restoration of a sustainable environment, enhancement of arts and culture, and education opportunities).[41]

Fig 4: Example of one of the DSP’s economically oriented Catalytic Projects, including its purpose, description, benefits, and a graphical perspective sketch.[42] Some projects instead included sketches of multi-block cross-sections.

     The DSP also describes its physical frameworks under three different functions: transportation (regional accessibility, an internal street circulator, information systems, parking, goods movement, street hierarchy and pedestrian linkages), open space (grand civic spaces linked by “avenidas,” neighborhood parks distributed at quarter-mile increments, a street hierarchy from boulevards to mid-block pedestrian “paseos,” metropolitan parks, repairing of the existing public realm, and sustainable development), and built form (mixed-use zoning, FAR and TFAR adjustments to better suit transit-oriented development, and form-based zoning to foster architectural diversity and protect the distinctive street-level character of each district).

 

IMPLEMENTATION & NARRATIVE VISION

     Drawing near a close, the DSP offers frameworks for implementation, stressing the importance of collective action and an expanded role for the private sector. The document concludes with a narrative vision for Downtown in 2020, assuming that the DSP is implemented. Its final paragraph imagines:

Downtown LA Tomorrow is a mélange of faces, ages, places and activities. It is a place which contains the excitement of new ideas, thriving neighborhood activities and small businesses within a physical structure which is immediately understandable to a first-time visitor. People feel safe walking around during the day and night, and early morning runners claim the sunrise along the Los Angeles River is one-of-a-kind. Downtown is a good place to be.[43]

 

CITYMAKING MODELS: TRADITIONAL CITY & CITY AS A WORK OF ART

     The DSP’s strategies and vision combined two historically significant models of citymaking. The first is the Traditional City, now practically implemented as Neotraditionalism or New Urbanism. Embedding mixed use, pedestrian-friendly streets, community facilities, transit-oriented development, and a network of parks both small and large within Downtown’s 19th Century grid system reminds us of the way that cities developed before the emergence of the automobile. While ‘traditional cities’ developed as a simple confluence of culture, geography, and form to represent social values in a very direct way, the DSP proposed using policies and design guidelines (what it calls ‘physical frameworks’) to return to those values. It paralleled a backlash in Western planning culture against the single-purpose modernist schemes that so severely scarred Downtown Los Angeles during the city’s Silver Book phase. In fact, the DSP’s lead consultants, Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides, made up two of the six founding members of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). According to its website, the CNU “has emerged as the leading voice for the creation of sustainable, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that provide for better health and economic outcomes.”[44] The DSP was in fact “a crucible” for the drafting of its charter in 1999.[45]

     Another citymaking model that played a vital role in the DSP was the City as a Work of Art. Much as Pope Sixtus V believed that planting Egyptian obelisks and fountains in strategic places would help to organize movement and drive up real estate values in the crumbling Rome of the 16th Century, the DSP Advisory Committee believed that catalytic interventions at strategic locations, such as renovating and expanding the California Mart in the center of the fashion district, would similarly instill civic pride and stimulate investment in Downtown Los Angeles. The DSP also proposed creating four pedestrian-oriented “avenidas” to connect its four proposed civic open spaces, much like Pope Sixtus’ streets alignments in Rome or Haussman’s in Paris. At a very elemental level, the DSP employed a similar approach to L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C. in 1790, to Burnham’s Chicago Plan in 1909, and to many other plans in history that used artistic interventions to create ‘sense of place’ and sensible movement to achieve order and civility in the city.

 

EVALUATION

     It took over a decade to practically implement the plan due to economic difficulties[46] and Bradley’s mayoral replacement, Richard Riordan, who shelved the plan during his term.[47] But once people started looking at the success of similar plans for nearby Pasadena and Santa Monica, the plan picked up steam.[48] In short, the DSP has largely worked. Yet it is not my goal to determine whether the plan worked, but whether or not it was a good plan.

     To evaluate the plan, I have created several criteria by fusing the CNU Charter’s principals for the neighborhood/district,[49] urban design principals that make a ‘great city’ from the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol[50] (which reflect the approach of Melbourne, Australia in resuscitating its CBD to become voted one of the most ‘livable’ Western cities on earth),[51] and my own values. Criteria are ranked in terms of their importance to me, but the reader may assume their own order.

1. HAS IT INCREASED QUALITY OF LIFE FOR DOWNTOWNERS?

     Overall, the DSP has led to an increase in the quality of life for the majority of downtown locals—primarily because there are more of them: from 18,000 in 1999[52] to 52,400 in 2013.[53] As the DSP predicted, a greater residential population has stimulated the growth of truly walkable, truly mixed use neighborhoods in Downtown. This would not have been possible without a policy mechanism to grandfather historic buildings for quick conversion into housing, especially in the historic core along Broadway. The DSP laid the groundwork for such a mechanism, passed in 1999 as the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO).[54] For the first time, developers interested in “Manhattanizing” Downtown could now acquire these condemned buildings, bypass citywide housing codes and convert the buildings into lofts and apartments.

 

Fig. 5: The Continental Building was one of Gilmore’s initial conversion projects.[55]

 

     What the City did not expect, however, was how potent this ordinance would be. With ARO in place, the City predicted that Downtown would see an increase of 500 housing units per year.[56] Yet between 1999 and 2014, Downtown added 20,000 units to its housing stock, accounting for one fifth of the total housing added to the entire city.[57] Much of the scale and pace of this growth can be attributed to wildcat developer Tom Gilmore, who was also a player in crafting both the DSP and ARO.[58] [59] [60] [61] It was thanks to his vision and federal loans from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that he was able to purchase four of Downtown’s crumbling Beaux Art high-rises from the CRA and turn them into market-rate lofts (see Fig. 5). Other developers, at first baffled by Gilmore’s faith in people wanting to live Downtown, soon entered bidding wars to start their own conversion projects.[62] An increase in the housing stock thus helped to cultivate neighborhood amenities, which in turn helped to stabilize the Downtown economy. Bob Harris, writing in 2004, describes this process:

As people move Downtown, everything begins to change. The stores stay open a little later. The streets become safer. The hangouts, respectable and otherwise, are more numerous and enjoyable providing a social life that should be expected in a downtown…Everyday life is better supported with markets and schools, even supermarkets and music schools, even architecture schools, and a barbershop. Several stores, not part of a global economy franchise chain, may actually stay in business.[63]

Indeed, quality of life has improved primarily because the private sector has come through on essentially everything that the DSP suggested it do. In terms of physical design, the public sector has only managed to expand pedestrian and bicycle right-of-way, but these have complemented the private sector’s efforts quite nicely. Downtown has seen a whopping 200 restaurants open up since 1999,[64] and the application process for restaurant sidewalk seating was recently shortened from a year to merely a few weeks.[65] With a more robust network of neighborhood parks—including a well-received redesign of Grand Park in the Civic Center—more frequent subway stops, and a dense mix of street front retail, Downtown is starting to feel like a seamless collection of neighborhoods as well as a vibrant city center.

     Yet just as soon as Gilmore’s conversion projects were underway, homeless advocates accused the developer of shrinking Skid Row. Today “Tent City” is more contained than its size in the 90s, but it is still the largest concentration of homeless in the country, with an estimated 5,000 chronically homeless on the streets (and many more that are temporarily homeless).[66] Part of their continued plight can be blamed on a paradox: as the historic core began to gentrify with ARO, homelessness became more of a visible problem that prompted people to act, yet the city increasingly dealt with it “as a criminal problem, one that could be attacked by endless police sweeps and night busts.”[67] Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa even removed public bathroom facilities in 2006, counter to the DSP’s recommendations for the area. The resulting increase in people using the sidewalk as a toilet inevitably gave the LAPD more cannon fodder to bully and arrest.

     Additionally, greater efforts to alleviate homelessness have too often fallen short of the level of coordination called for in the DSP. A state measure in 2011 to ease prison overcrowding further exacerbated the matter, as many of those released ended up on Skid Row.[68] Fortunately, Obama’s “Opening Doors” campaign has encouraged better cooperation amongst LA’s government agencies, nonprofit providers and other leaders by requiring that homelessness programs implement a Coordinated Entry System “for identifying and prioritizing clients who apply for housing and to more effectively reach those who don’t usually apply.”[69] Yet the reality is that this system has not made much progress, and “L.A. would need 130 new [SRO] apartment complexes, at a cost of $28 million apiece, to meet the goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2016. No investment of that scale—or anywhere close to it—is in the works.”[70] In short, the calamities facing Skid Row’s homeless show no signs of ending, and ARO has hardly helped in the matter.

     Downtown is now fantastically diverse, but it is no exception to the common story throughout Southern California, where “neighborhood diversity is too often an artifact of one group moving in, another moving out.”[71] Along with the homeless, rising rent prices are even pushing the artist population out of Downtown and threatening to evict manufacturing activity from Downtown’s market areas.[72] In other words, many of the raw, culture-creating enclaves, like the gritty arts district or the vibrant flea markets (such as Santee Alley, which almost feels like a mercado in one of the home countries of its vendors), may soon vanish from Downtown. Meanwhile, Whole Foods—which many point to as the telltale sign of gentrification—plans on opening Downtown’s second supermarket this year.

2. HAS IT INCREASED QUALITY OF LIFE FOR ALL ANGELENOS?

     While the DSP has improved life for many downtowners, it is important to consider that it may have decreased quality of life for the vast numbers of Angelenos who live in districts external to Downtown. Looked at through a political geography lens, the DSP was just another Bradley-esque renewal program that funneled the city’s resources into pro-globalization Downtown interests—with the aim of boosting municipal revenue—rather than into services for the areas where far greater numbers of underserved people actually live, like South Central or East Los Angeles. This approach borrows from an assumption, widely held by American planning officials ever since World War II, that the health of a city is reflected in the health of its CBD.[73] But this is most certainly not the reality in Los Angeles, even today. While things are better in Downtown, and overall pollution and crime in the city are below their levels in the 90s, vast swaths of the city still echo conditions in the Third World. Just to name a few examples: Los Angeles sits at the ninth-highest level of urban income disparity in the country, with top 5% households (which are now increasingly moving into Downtown) earning 12.3 times higher than a bottom 20% household.[74] Forty percent of the city’s streets are in such poor condition that the city has given up on repairing them, because the repairs would cost billions.[75] And L.A. Unified School District’s high school graduation rate is still a shameful 67%.[76]

     Given the lackluster state of public fiscal resources, however, and the benefits from creating New Urbanist neighborhoods at the heart of the city, the DSP probably did the best it could for all Angelenos. In the early 90s the public sector was simply incapable of region-wide community improvement. Without the DSP, many uncoordinated, sporadic efforts to improve infrastructure and services throughout the region may have lessoned gaps in equality and access, but likely would have exacerbated uneven development and decentralization.

3. HAS IT ALLOWED LOS ANGELES TO FUNCTION MORE EFFICIENTLY AS A REGION?

     Without a doubt, the DSP paved the way for a more efficient Los Angeles. The process of creating the document itself represented a major leap forward in terms of achieving regional coordination between Los Angeles’ civic agencies, and its catalytic projects created a foundation for major regional investments that followed.

     Firstly, the DSP succeeded as a vehicle for bringing City Planning, the CRA, and other public agencies together in one plan. City Hall had never before been effective at collective action and finally, through the act of agreeing on policy approaches for Downtown without being overly prescriptive, it was capable of this. According to Con Howe, who directed City Planning from 1992 to 2005, “no one noticed [the unifying effect of the DSP], but the world would have noticed had all agencies gone separate ways.”[77] All of City Hall’s plans were subsequently updated to be consistent with the DSP, including the city’s General Plan, as well as community plans for each Downtown redevelopment district, like Bunker Hill, South Park and the Civic Center.

     Secondly, the DSP laid the groundwork for centralizing major regional investments, namely through its catalytic projects. It stipulated that major cultural uses should be Downtown, and by grounding its ideas in actual examples, the DSP crafted the rhetoric for projects that actually went through. Some successful projects mirrored those that were proposed, such as a civic square in Skid Row and multiple streetscape improvement projects in the Center City to help grow Downtown’s ground-floor retail capacity. Several surprise projects proved no less effective. Instead of the DSP’s proposal for a hotel adjacent to the Convention Center, Staples Center became the catalytic project for the convention center area. It was an out-of-the-blue proposal from AEG, the world’s largest owner of sports venues. After a long debate over whether to use public tax money to fund the arena, AEG agreed to wholly finance the project and built it in 1999 as the new home of several professional sports teams—including the Lakers, the Clippers, the Sparks and the Kings—and of other sporting events and major cultural events.[78] The “child” of Staples Center, LA Live, also became a premiere entertainment center for Los Angeles. Staples both met and exceeded the DSP’s expectations for a catalytic project, attracting thousands more to Downtown that would have no reason to be there otherwise, and stimulating the growth of nearby residential and commercial development. Other cultural projects that followed, including Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Concert Hall on Bunker Hill (which had been in the works as early as 1989) and the impressive Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels near the Civic Center, had similar effects on Downtown. But none had quite the catalytic power as Staples.


  Fig. 6.1: The DSP’s vision for the Convention Center   [79]       

Fig. 6.1: The DSP’s vision for the Convention Center [79] 

 

  Fig. 6.2: A  ctual development and Staples Center

Fig. 6.2: Actual development and Staples Center

4. DID IT ALLOW FOR FUTURE FLEXIBILITY?

     If ever there was a flexible plan, this was it. Part of the success of the DSP lay with the fact that it provided open-ended strategies rather than prescriptive plans. While it described several specific, vivid examples for projects and policies, its overall goal was to paint a picture of consistent approaches that could be applied to any project. In it only 3D rendering, the DSP stipulates, “actual locations and sequences of development will depend on thousands of decisions made by public and private interests.”[80] From top to bottom, it was making room for change. The fact that it was shelved during the Riordan years was merely a setback, not an impediment. By proposing such a thorough set of guidelines and incremental, small-grain projects that did not have to operate within a rigid sequence, it would have been impossible for the plan not to work on many levels. For example, nobody understood which would come first: residents or restaurants. Residents would only move Downtown if they knew there were restaurants, and restaurants would only open Downtown if they knew there were residents. In the end, it was another strategy proposed in the DSP, a catalytic project called Staples Center, which would bring many residents and restaurants to Downtown simultaneously.[81] In such a way, the DSP understood that the type of multidimensional, organic growth one finds in traditional city development was the only surefire way to propel sustainable growth.

     In terms of post-2020 flexibility, the New Urbanist economies called for in the DSP are simply more resilient to changes in the market. The 24-hour retail economy and mixed-use buildings of Downtown now create mutually-supporting value in their own right, independent from the global market value that passes through the glass-encased offices of the financial center. The only rift in the DSP’s flexibility is that it did not provide enough protection—or it was not followed closely enough to provide protection—for Downtown’s homeless and lower income residents who are either being marginalized or being pushed away.

5. WAS IT APPROPRIATE TO ITS CHARACTER/HERITAGE?

     The DSP attempted to unify the great mix of its cultural traditions, and largely succeeded through its catalytic projects. But by relying on adaptive reuse the city has all too often sprung for the low-hanging fruit of its cultural past.

     First and foremost, the DSP’s impetus to centralize major cultural uses has allowed Downtown to become one of Los Angeles’ hotspots for the type of culture that has universal appeal and commercial backing, such as sports, music and museums.

     But on the street level, Downtown increasingly feels like an Experience City: a hip simulacrum of its Prohibition-era heyday. The likely cause of this was the power of ARO to restore the classic Beaux Art high-rises in the historic core, thus kick-starting a resurgence of what many consider to be Downtown’s gilded age. The city is also poised to install another one of the DSP’s catalytic projects, a “Broadway Circulator” line[82], which would round out its nostalgia for the 1920s by evoking L.A.’s old Pacific Electric streetcars. What many refuse to acknowledge, however, is that the life and diversity of the Roaring 20s was incredibly short-lived, as it was merely a feverish waypoint along a swift economic boom and massive influxes of blacks and Mexicans just before the whites got into their cars and moved away.[83] By choosing to focus on this ephemeral past, the city has made only half-hearted efforts to reflect the city’s far longer Spanish and Mexican traditions. The Grand Central Market catalytic project may be one such exception, but it too is going upscale. Other projects that reflect cultural diversity, such as the California Mart or the “avenidas” connecting four civic squares, perhaps never saw the light of day because of their emphasis on coordinated public action, which has so far underperformed compared to private action and adaptive reuse.

     How long can this Experience City last? In an era of ever-increasing income inequality, there seems to be nothing stopping the Disneyland effect from taking over. The sad irony of New Urbanism is that while it delivers economic stability, it also delivers cultural homogeneity. Lest the city widen its scope to reflect the less privileged corners of its history, perhaps by placing affordable housing and small business incentives front and center in its strategy, the only thing that may preserve real diversity is economic stagnation.

6. HAS IT MADE THE REGION MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE?

     Because the DSP provided impetus to create mixed-use neighborhoods and centralize major regional uses, it has slowed sprawl in the metro area—but it has not prevented it. The DSP has curtailed environmental degradation in that it has created a viable alternative to vehicular travel, which accounts for most of the air pollution in the area, as well as greenfield development, an all-to-common environmental offense in Southern California. Residents who choose to live Downtown can now work, eat, play or access services within walking distance of where they live—in buildings and infrastructure that already existed! Whether statistically significant or not, this has surely contributed to the 36 percent decline in ozone levels in the metro region since 2000.[84] Additionally, condensing its cultural and civic regional uses has allowed the city to cut back on its carbon output. For example, the state government was able to be more energy-efficient with its facilities. By locating a new state building in an old building within a five minute walk from its first building, the state avoided having to duplicate floor space or build another cafeteria for its workers.[85]

     Yet despite these efforts, regional suburban development has not slowed down. Between 2000 and 2010, the Census Bureau reports that 75% of population growth in the metro area was “more than 20 miles from City Hall.”[86] Additionally, the growth of population in areas within 2 miles of City Hall was not enough to compensate for the drain of population from areas within 2-5 miles.[87] Concurrent growth of competing job centers has also partly undermined the DSP’s impact on sustainability, and Downtown still only accounts for 2.4 percent of the metro region’s employment.[88]

     Without the DSP, however, the region would be worse off. Considering the overwhelming successes of the DSP in creating a vibrant city center, the environment is still in better shape than it would have been without the plan.

 

CONCLUSION: WAS THE DSP A GOOD PLAN?

     According to my criteria, the Los Angeles Downtown Strategic Plan was a great plan because it successfully laid the groundwork for a better city. The plan's benefits—an increase in quality of life for the majority of Downtowners, a more efficient metropolis, future flexibility, a good to fair job at embracing its local character, and a more sustainable region—undeniably outweigh its unintended costs. Downtown and the city may not be perfect, but post-DSP they are much better places to be. 

 

 Fig. 7[89]

 

 

NOTES

[1] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. Available for download at: http://archive.org/details/downtownstrategi00losa.

[2] Ibid. p. 105.

[3] Davis, City of Quartz. p. 126.

[4] Ibid. p. 122.

[5] Ibid. p. 123.

[6] Ibid. p. 128.

[7] Kaliski, interview.

[8] Davis, City of Quartz.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. 5.

[11] Davis, City of Quartz. p. xi.

[12] Polyzoides, interview.

[13] Leibowitz, “Reinventing Skid Row.” p. 2.

[14] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. 37.

[15] Spivack, interview.

[16] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. 37.

[17] Ibid. p. 6.

[18] Ibid. p. 33.

[19] Ibid. p. 33.

[20] Ibid. p. 36.

[21] Ibid. p. 28.

[22] Ibid. p. 5, 29.

[23] Ibid. p. 30.

[24] Davis, City of Quartz. p. 72.

[25] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. 5.

[26] Ibid. p. 5.

[27] Ibid. p. 30.

[28] Ibid. pp. 5, 33.

[29] Polyzoides, interview.

[30] Kaliski, interview.

[31] Davis, City of Quartz. p. vii.

[32] Molloy, interview.

[33] Spivack, interview.

[34] Harris, “Plans Come and Go, or Downtown Is Almost Okay.”

[35] Polyzoides and Moule, “Downtown in the Twentieth Century.”

[36] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. vii. The plan is the result of an extraordinary consensus between the CRA and a committee composed of representatives from the Central City Association (CCA) of business owners, “property owners, the preservation community, the development community, housing and homelessness advocates and social service providers, arts and cultural representatives and members of civic organizations,” with the help of experts in “architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, transportation, homelessness and social services, housing, preservation, finance and economic development.” The Advisory Committee started from a point of understanding “the interrelationships between important planning issues such as economic development, building and urban form, homelessness, historic building conversion, open space design, and transportation.” It then held a series of charrettes to open up the planning process to the community. Finally, the “Lead Consultant,” Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, compiled the plan.

[37] Polyzoides, interview.

[38] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. x.

[39] Ibid. p. 43.

[40] Ibid. p. 59.

[41] Ibid. p. xi.

[42] Ibid. p. 67.

[43] Ibid. p. 136.

[44] “CNU History | Congress for the New Urbanism.”

[45] Polyzoides, interview.

[46] Spivack, interview.

[47] Polyzoides, interview.

[48] Ibid.

[49] “Charter of the New Urbanism | Congress for the New Urbanism.”

[50] Ministry for the Environment, “New Zealand Urban Design Protocol.”

[51] Adams, interview.

[52] DiMassa, “Ordinance Brings New Life into Downtown L.A.’s Main Street.”

[53] Downtown Center Business Improvement District, Downtown LA Demographic Study 2013. p. 7.

[54] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. 23.

[55] “Continental Building.”

[56] Kaliski, interview.

[57] Phillips, “Since 1999, Downtown LA Has Built a Fifth of All Housing In Los Angeles.”

[58] Spivack, interview.

[59] Howe, interview.

[60] Kaliski, interview.

[61] Polyzoides, interview.

[62] Leibowitz, “Reinventing Skid Row.”

[63] Harris, “Plans Come and Go, or Downtown Is Almost Okay.”

[64] Orlov and Writer, “History of AEG.”

[65] Saillant, “Los Angeles to Expedite Sidewalk Dining Permits in Downtown Area.”

[66] Leibowitz, “Reinventing Skid Row.” p. 2

[67] Ibid. p. 3

[68] Evans, “A New Plan to Help Skid Row’s Homeless.”

[69] Leibowitz, “Reinventing Skid Row.” p. 3

[70] Ibid. p. 6

[71] Davis, City of Quartz. p. xv.

[72] Spivack, interview.

[73] Loukaitou-Sideris and Banerjee, Urban Design Downtown. p. 78.

[74] Hamilton, “Income Disparity Is Wide in L.A.”

[75] Lopez, “A Case Study in L.A.’s Crumbling Infrastructure.”

[76] Blume, “L.A. Unified Reports Big Rise in Its Graduation Rate.”

[77] Howe, interview.

[78] Orlov and Writer, “History of AEG.”

[79] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. 67.

[80] Ibid. p. 137.

[81] Orlov and Writer, “History of AEG.”

[82] Spivack, interview.

[83] Sitton, Metropolis in the Making. p. 2.

[84] Gorman, “Los Angeles Retains Notorious Rankings for Worst Smog, Traffic.”

[85] Spivack, interview.

[86] Cox, “The New Downtown Los Angeles | Newgeography.com.”

[87] Ibid.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Downtown Strategic Plan, Los Angeles. p. 133.

 

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