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Speaking Out

Tourism Might Be the Key to Reviving Downtown L.A.

February 02, 1992|C. B. LEINBERGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Christopher B. Leinberger is managing partner of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., a Los Angeles-based real estate advisory firm. He has written numerous articles about urban affairs and Los Angeles. and

More than any recent event, the closing of the Los Angeles Theater Center reveals downtown Los Angeles' "split personality."

During the workday, downtown is Southern California's pre-eminent business location, with over 300,00 jobs. Late last year, for example, Unocal announced plans to keep its new headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

In a similar vote of confidence for downtown, Southern California Gas Co. has recently moved into its new headquarters on Fifth Street just east of the Central Library. All of this office activity, while obviously more than the market can absorb today, has certainly led to an impressive skyline, as "L.A . Law" shows the country every Thursday evening.

After 6 p.m. and on weekends, however, downtown assumes another identity. The sidewalks, shops and restaurants are virtually deserted, except along Broadway. Most tourists and Southern Californians, it seems, will go almost anywhere except downtown Los Angeles for shopping, a restaurant meal or an evening of live theater.

Of course, disappointing attendance at the Los Angeles Theater Company is due, in part, to the run-down Spring Street location. But all of downtown suffers from an image problem.

What can be done to make downtown a more desirable local after 6 p.m. and on weekends? Make downtown a "must" destination for tourists.

Don't laugh. A mixture of tourism and business is the secret of success for historically strong downtowns such as San Francisco, Boston and New York, but also recently revived downtowns in San Diego and Baltimore. The two different functions complement each other and keep downtowns busy during the day and long into the evening, six or seven days a week.

Downtown Los Angeles already abounds in genuine tourist destinations of all kinds, all within walking distance of one another. Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Olvera Street. Cultural attractions on Bunker Hill like the Music Center, MOCA and the soon to be built Walt Disney Concert Hall. Historic landmarks like Union Station, the Bradbury Building and the soon-to-reopen Central Library. A loft district with offbeat museums, galleries, clubs and restaurants. The Flower Market. The diamond district. Metrorail. The Blue Line, which is a hit with "joy riders" as well as commuters, soon to be joined by commuter rail service into Union Station. The nation's largest single collection of 1920s "movie palaces" and a bustling retail district along Broadway.

Few Los Angeles residents take advantage of these attractions, but they have not been lost on some outsiders. For example, the "Travel" and "Real Estate" sections of the New York Times have recently run major stories about the appeal of downtown Los Angeles.

To make out-of-towners as well as Southern Californians feel more comfortable in downtown Los Angeles, the city must enhance public safety and cleanliness, and it must create "linkages" between the various destinations, such as the Bunker Hill Steps at the First Interstate World Center building, which now connect Bunker Hill and the Financial District.

The proposed Hope Street Promenade, which will narrow the roadway and create 18-to-23-foot sidewalks between the Central Library and the California Medical Center at Venice Boulevard, is a step in the right direction. An expansion of the DASH mini-bus system would be another worthwhile action.

Taking a cue from the Blue Line's popularity, the city might consider other transportation linkages that double as tourist attractions. The long-delayed reconstruction of Angel's Flight between Broadway and Bunker Hill should become an immediate priority.

The city should consider building a trolley line along Grand Avenue, which runs north to south through the full length of downtown. Such a line should start at the Convention Center, run north through the central business district and Bunker Hill, stop near Chinatown and end at Union Station and its Metrorail station.

Another trolley line might run along Seventh Street, boosting its role as a pedestrian-oriented shopping district and providing linkages between Broadway, the Figueroa Street corridor and soon-to-be-developed Center City West.

Trolleys are particularly attractive to tourists due to their romance, plus the simple fact that strangers to a city can see the upcoming route before they get on board. From a practical standpoint, trolleys could carry downtown workers from peripheral parking garages to their office buildings, thereby assuring greater patronage for the system.

In marketing downtown Los Angeles, don't expect most Southern Californians to lead the rediscovery of its many attractions. Their negative attitudes about downtown are too deeply ingrained to be easily or quickly changed. Locals of many cities feel that way about their downtowns.

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