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The Dream of a Central City : The Gateway project seeks to re-energize Downtown Los Angeles as a commercial and transportation hub for the next century. But will the city rediscover its center?

June 11, 1995|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the state Librarian of California and a teacher at USC. His new book "The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression" will be released this fall by Oxford University Press.

To stand beneath the 87-foot-high half dome of the East Portal of the Union Station Gateway Intermodal Transit Center is to stand at ground zero of a compelling vision of metro-regional Los Angeles, to which has been com mitted, almost stealthily, nearly $140 million in public funds. When completed in September, Los Angeles will have a major public-work and civic space about which there has been little public discussion. Count on it, however: When the Gateway opens, it will be hailed as the most powerful possible enabler of the metro-Los Angeles future--or as a monument to delusion and doomed hopes, an egregious instance of multimillion-dollar folly.

Proponents of this undertaking--most notably Nick Patsaouras, chairman of the board of the Union Station Gateway Project, the nonprofit corporation spearheading and supervising construction, and Nelson C. Rising, chief executive officer of the Catellus Development Corp., partners with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the Gateway venture--see themselves as laying down the fundamental urban/regional public-transit structure for the next 100 years. By 2015, Patsaouras and Rising predict, some 250,000 passengers a work day will come and go through this gigantic complex--which brings together into one terminal: Amtrak; all regional and local bus lines; all light-rail systems, including the Blue Line and planned electric trolley lines; the mega-billion-dollar Red Line subway; all Metrolink commuter trains, and an intricate system of van pools and taxi and shuttle services.

Nearby, a 26-floor high-rise will serve as headquarters to some 1,700 MTA employees, gathered from 13 sites, at a savings, it is claimed, of $13 million a year. An urban center, meanwhile (17 pads for development are being prepared), will grow up around the Gateway complex, linked to Downtown by the landscaping of Alameda and ( mirabile dictu !) a pedestrian plaza across the Santa Ana freeway.

The fundamental assumption behind the Gateway project--the dream, obsession even, that is now rushing this complex to completion well ahead of public notice--is that, for the next 100 years, Downtown Los Angeles will remain the commercial, hence, transportation nexus of the region. Los Angeles, in short, will continue as the hub of the metropolitan Southland, the quintessential there of Southern California.

Critics, by contrast--and there have been surprisingly few, given the vastness of the venture--consider the entire Gateway project a retardaire monument to an era that has passed, or is passing. In the poly-sited future, they argue, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of urban nodes, scattered throughout the Southland, will serve as "Downtown": a dispersion made even more dramatic by telecommunications technology that will allow an increasingly larger portion of the population to work at home or at conveniently located communication centers, where they will have not a desk, but a hookup.

Thus, even before it is dedicated, the Union Station Gateway Project is emerging as a window on the future. Just exactly what future, however, will remain a matter of opinion. Should the conceivers and creators of the Gateway Project prove correct, Los Angeles will enter a new era re-energized as the transportation and development center of the region. Already, the Metropolitan Water District has committed to the construction of a 4,000-person administrative complex on one of the sites. There are plans for a sports arena to be constructed over the train sheds, on the model of Madison Square Garden.

There are also proposals to develop the "Alameda District"--the 50 acres encircling Union Station--and the 18 acres surrounding the adjacent Terminal Postal Annex into a landscaped complex that would combine Union Station, the annex (scheduled for redevelopment as a government center) and the historic Plaza District into one integrated, pedestrian-oriented downtown zone.

The MTA, meanwhile, is proposing an even bolder integration--known as Angeles Walk--of the El Pueblo-Union Station District, Chinatown, the Little Tokyo-Loft District, the Civic Center and the Bunker Hill historic core into an interconnected, five-district cluster of urban townships ( urban villages is too weak a term) energized and sustained by the economy centered on Union Station.

Downtown Los Angeles, according to the Angels Walk design, will not develop as a dense and continuous procession of high-rises along narrow streets, as in the case of Manhattan. It will emerge, rather, as a stitched fabric of metro-townships, each with its distinctive context and unifying historical prinicple: El Pueblo, where it all began in 1781, the enduring presence of the Chinese American and Japanese American communities, the Bunker Hill core, with its lingering associations to the fin de siecle , symbolized most dramatically in the Angels Flight funicular, scheduled for rehabilitation.

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