Reviving the Centre: A Letter from Downtown Los Angeles
Developers rediscover Los Angeles' downtown core, and like what they see.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles I did something bizarre: I took the metro. It was a relatively painless journey that dumped me out in downtown’s Jewelry District, but the act was unusual enough to elicit raised eyebrows from locals and confusion among receptionists who repeatedly offered to validate my parking.
As I strolled car-free through the downtown streets, relishing the wide expanses of sidewalk and admiring the elaborate Beaux Arts facades, crumbling warehouses and burnt-out bulbs of vintage theaters, I was reminded of Berlin in the years that followed the end of the Cold War. There is a certain air of anticipation and excitement that accompanies the early stages of an urban renaissance. Today in downtown, every void in the urban fabric seems ripe with possibility.
At the intersection of 11th Street and Broadway, a trio of historic buildings is currently being revived after sitting idle for decades. One block east, a 93-year-old light industrial building is undergoing a transformation into creative offices. Around the corner, a trendy Ace Hotel is now open in the historic United Artists building and it has its own theater and a stylish rooftop lounge. In the nearby Art District, warehouses are being repurposed as microbreweries and ‘barcades’, as well as retail and events spaces.
The comparison to Berlin is of course a little incongruous. Downtown LA’s decline was not the result of an Iron Curtain, but rather a steely aversion to inner-city life that consumed the United States for the second half of the last century. The exodus from downtown began in the 1950s and over time, the once thriving city core was reduced to a cluster of abandoned buildings, a resident population of just 10,000 people, and a homelessness crisis that lingers to this day.
But things are changing. Since the early 2000s, a number of government incentives have propelled development downtown. Historic buildings are being revived and shiny new towers are being designed for the 24/7 lifestyle found in urban centers like London and New York.
At least that’s the idea. “We’re still so far behind other cities,” says Karin Liljegren, principal and founder at the design firm Omgivning, which specialises in the conversion of historic downtown buildings. For the past decade, she has worked exclusively on the restoration and adaptive re-use in downtown LA, and although it has transformed significantly in that time, she says there is still “a ton” to do.
Currently, her firm is working on the overhaul of Broadway Trade Center, one of the city’s largest renovations to date. Broadway was formerly the leading theater and nightlife district of Los Angeles and now, Liljegren says, the city wants to revive the commercial and entertainments center, anchoring it in the 1.1 million-square-foot Beaux Arts-style edifice first built in 1908. Plans for Broadway Trade include a two-story food hall that aims to be on par with Chelsea Market in New York or Harrods in London, 200,000 square feet of retail space and 400,000 square feet of creative offices. A rendering of the roof shows open-air restaurants and bars, an urban farm, a hotel and swimming pool as well as outside decks organized around ‘light wells’ that will be carved into the building to add illumination.
Perhaps in reaction to prevailing suburban-style living, Liljegren has noted an increasing number of projects with facilities like communal decks and other amenities that aim to create a micro-neighborhood. “Large projects are creating their own communities,” she says, “and all branded to a certain vibe.” Young professionals and empty nesters are looking for a more seamless lifestyle with more interaction and less time worrying about traffic and parking, and property developers are tapping into this demand. The Ritz Carlton LA Live was the first luxury condominium to enter the downtown market back in 2010. Now, a number of projects are going up in downtown’s South Park area, including several from Chinese developers eager to showcase their expertise in high-density urbanism. Greenland USA (the American subsidiary of Greenland Group) and Oceanwide Holdings both have large-scale projects underway downtown.
The larger of the two, Oceanwide Plaza, is located across from the Staples Center and will span nearly 1.5 million square feet including a Park Hyatt Hotel, two residential towers and a sprawling two-acre amenity deck with gardens and tennis courts. From street view, a meandering LED ribbon will conceal the parking garage. And above, the project will also incorporate seven floors of open-air retail, restaurant and entertainment space. “We hope to re-shape not only the skyline in downtown, but also everyone’s lifestyle,” says Stephanie Chang, director of marketing and public relations at Oceanwide Plaza.
Certainly, the project is helping to re-shape local concepts of urban living. “The scale of the development Chinese companies are bringing here is fascinating,” says Mike Akerly. vice president and regional manager at Polaris Pacific, a high-density real estate sales and marketing firm. “The United States isn’t typically used to seeing 2,000-unit projects pop up, even in a major urban area.”
Los Angeles in particular isn’t used to density or height and various local groups have been vocal in their opposition to newer, taller buildings. But despite some push back, Akerly says the political will and public support is in place to support a new type of urban expansion. The biggest hurdle as he sees it, is the city’s outdated zoning codes that make building approvals laborious. But given LA’s housing shortage (to keep up with current demand, the city needs to build 30,000 units a year; last year it added 26,000) he expects more condo developers will get into the game.
And this brings us back to the metro. As density increases, connectivity needs to improve. A recent Metro LA Report reveals a snaking labyrinth of metro lines, streetcars and road improvements to be built over the next 40 years. In addition, an annual budget of US$17 million is slated to go toward projects like bike hubs, bike lanes and street improvements to encourage that other unusual LA activity: walking. “Over the past few decades, development has gone out this way” – Akerly stretches his hands wide across the table – “and the only way for it to become sustainable is for it to come back.”
This story appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Peak