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Speaking Out

L.A. Heart's Failure: Where Are the People?

July 29, 1990|CHARLES LOCKWOOD | Lockwood is the author of seven books on American architecture and cities, as well as many magazine articles on the subjects. and

New office towers are rising on Figueroa Street, opposite the Public Library and on Bunker Hill. The first new downtown luxury hotel in decades recently opened on Grand Avenue. Apartment buildings stand on Bunker Hill and in South Park. The Metro Rail subway is under construction and the Long Beach light rail line is operating.

At last, the renaissance of downtown Los Angeles is complete. Or is it? Like it or not, the answer is no. Where are all the people?

At lunch time, many sidewalks are eerily uncrowded for an office district with 300,000 workers. On weekends, only Broadway is busy.

The Flower-Figueroa Corridor, 7th Street and Pershing Square are virtually deserted except for panhandling derelicts and disappointed tourists who expected to find the excitement of mid-town Manhattan or downtown San Francisco in the middle of the nation's second largest city.

Why do Angelenos avoid downtown? Because the public and private sectors, which launched the construction boom of the 1970s and 1980s, overlooked several people-pleasing ingredients that are essential to any successful downtown.

What people-oriented actions will complete the renaissance of downtown Los Angeles?

First, and foremost, downtown must become more "pedestrian friendly"--in other words, safer, cleaner and more inviting.

Otherwise, many office workers will not leave their high-rise cocoons at lunch. And Southern Californians will avoid downtown Los Angeles in the evenings and on weekends, and instead will drive to Melrose Avenue, Westwood or Venice for shopping, entertainment and strolling.

To make downtown more pedestrian-friendly will require reduction in crime, drugs and homelessness. That will take time, and cost more money than Angelenos have been willing to spend so far.

But other quicker and less expensive measures can make downtown streets more inviting:

Put a few more cops on the beat, widen sidewalks instead of streets, plant more trees along the curbs, install street lighting designed for pedestrians not just motorists, invite food vendors and flower kiosks to otherwise-empty plazas in front of office buildings, encourage the opening of more restaurants and theaters that attract people at night and on weekends, and transform Pershing Square from an open-air flophouse into a usable park for all Angelenos.

Don't say that we lack the money for these actions. A city government and business community that spent billions of dollars to rebuild downtown Los Angeles over the past decade can afford to protect its investment by following these recommendations.

The second people-pleasing ingredient now missing in downtown Los Angeles is an exciting and varied shopping district. No activity attracts more people or gives a downtown more vitality than shopping. Just look at the streets around Union Square in downtown San Francisco.

At present, downtown Los Angeles boasts Broadway, the busiest downtown shopping district west of Chicago and north of Mexico City. But Broadway's appeal is limited, because it stocks low-priced merchandise.

The rest of the downtown retail district falls short of its potential, despite the presence of the Broadway, Bullock's, May Co. and Robinson's. Only 8% of downtown office workers go shopping during lunch time, compared to 33% in Boston or Cleveland.

To strengthen downtown shopping, the city must create a retail plan for downtown Los Angeles, besides making the streets safer, cleaner and more inviting. Almost every American city has plans to encourage the development and continued success of its downtown retail district. Why doesn't Los Angeles have them?

Any retail plan must include the revival of 7th Street, once downtown Los Angeles' counterpart to Manhattan's Fifth Avenue with its department stores, which now suffer from empty storefronts and office vacancies.

Besides its four department stores, 7th Street has the right scale, the right length, the right pedestrian character for a successful retail corridor. And it has a concerned retail and business community that recently formed the Seventh Street Associates to gain improvements from the city and other government agencies.

Third, downtown Los Angeles needs more residents whose presence will attract more shops, restaurants and entertainment, thereby, creating a vibrant nighttime and weekend community.

To achieve this goal, the city must rethink its current policies about downtown housing.

So far, most new downtown housing has been high-cost high-rise units, which have met with limited success because affluent Angelenos aren't ready to trade Brentwood for Bunker Hill.

Instead, the city should encourage the construction of moderately priced rental housing on the edges of downtown. These apartments should be targeted toward young professionals who have not accumulated the down payment for a house, have no children and enjoy downtown's ethnic diversity and sense of urbanity.

Given the opportunity, plenty of young professionals are eager to be downtown pioneers.

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