How does a city that never much seemed to care about having one downtown now find itself pondering blueprints for a second one?
The answer is as old as the West: The promise of cheaper land, new homes and jobs, less government regulation and a helping hand from politicians. These incentives are feeding the dreams of a new town just west of the Harbor Freeway--a stone's throw from that other downtown, where block after block of old buildings stand 40% to 60% vacant and a general seediness frustrates those who want to see the city's center come back to life.
Central City West, as the future town across the freeway is called, offers a vision of cosmopolitan life that has eluded downtown Los Angeles for the better part of this century. If plans are realized, the area will be transformed from a forgotten zone of stubbly vacant lots and dilapidated rent houses into a blend of tall buildings, leafy boulevards, corner parks and hillside neighborhoods where homes and offices are within walking distance of each other and rich and poor live in congenial proximity.
Design consultants for Central City West say the project will change the feeling of the Harbor Freeway from a beltway to a main street. "More like Madison Avenue," said Clif Allen, echoing the longing many civic leaders have for a big city that looks more like a big city.
There are critics of Central City West, and they see it as an extravagant pipe dream that would divert investment from the city's downtown and have the same deadening effect on it that suburban expansion brought during the 1920s and '30s. The critics also argue that building the new addition to the city will cost close to $1 billion in public improvements and place an unsupportable burden on sewers and streets--more than doubling the volume of cars on nearby freeways and choking off the downtown.
"Potentially, the city could have a catastrophe on its hands--a collision of growth and interests with no guiding vision," said City Councilman Mike Woo, who is working with the city Planning Department on a master plan for the downtown and its environs. Another member of the council, Marvin Braude, has sued the city, charging his colleagues of wrongfully approving the first of several mega-developments planned for Central City West.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who wants to see Central City West move ahead, held a meeting recently to try to allay the fears of some civic leaders over what could happen to the downtown as a consequence of the westward leap.
"Sometimes, it feels like we're trying to prevent World War III from breaking out around here," said City Planning Director Kenneth Topping, who attended the meeting and who has been asked by the City Council to come up with the "guiding vision" for the downtown that Woo and others say is lacking.
The downtown quarrel is not just a parochial spat over a place where many Los Angeles residents rarely venture. Three of the people most often discussed as potential mayoral candidates in 1992--City Council members Gloria Molina, Richard Alatorre and Woo--are immersed in downtown politics and draw much of their strength from adjacent constituencies.
"It offers a good opportunity to show leadership on growth, clearly one of the most important issues the city faces," Woo said of the political implications of his downtown planning efforts.
Getting people to agree on a rational plan for the heart of the city is a tall order. Not only does the downtown cut across several council districts, but land-use decisions require the consent of half a dozen or more government agencies that have a habit of suing each other. Moreover, Woo said, there is the view of some council members that downtown redevelopment, having gobbled up more than $1 billion in property tax revenue during the last decade, has hogged the public trough long enough.
Central City West may need $500 million for transportation improvements alone. The street grid today is a rabbit warren with no north-south thoroughfares. Plans call for creating several new road segments, constructing a Metro Rail station and building a north-south bus route, possibly underground, that would extend the proposed Harbor Freeway transit way several miles north from 23rd Street to the Glendale Freeway. In addition, planners are calling for several more ramps to serve both east and west sides of the Harbor Freeway through the downtown and for a pedestrian carrier, maybe even a gondola, to ferry people back and forth across the freeway.