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Downtown and the Suburbs: an Enriching Symbiosis

A vibrant core can coexist with distinct communities

September 13, 1997

Perhaps it is a measure of the strength of Southern California's economic recovery that we are lapsing back into a tired if good-natured debate over whether Los Angeles really needs a downtown.

Not too many years ago, when the recession idled jackhammers across Southern California and jobs vaporized, any development was good development. But now, in better economic times, managing regional growth is tricky. The paradigm that seems to have guided development here in recent decades--that projects in suburban communities make sense while pouring concrete downtown amounts to throwing good money after bad--is simplistic and self-defeating.

Big architectural dreams and some tangible first steps may reflect the emergence of a new urban development model here. The old dichotomy--which held that we can have either a proper downtown like other major cities or a series of suburban communities--may be yielding to an intriguing new model: A downtown and culturally diverse local communities can coexist. Indeed, both may be key to this region's long-term prosperity.

Los Angeles once had a proper downtown. Before the line of stucco tract houses marched to Calabasas in the west and Moreno Valley in the east, downtown was a busy center where local power brokers cut big deals, the flagship department stores reigned and the region's cultural life was centered. That hub remains, or parts of it anyway. Downtown Los Angeles has an impressive clutch of modern skyscrapers, government buildings, lunchtime crowds of suited professionals and a pod of magnificent old buildings--the Bradbury Building and the Oviatt Building, to name just two that have been gracefully renovated.

But few would contend that downtown is the region's heart anymore or a focus of cultural life. Instead, dozens of smaller, far-flung communities have stolen downtown's monopoly on culture, architectural excitement and commerce. Want a lively street scene? Head for Pasadena's Old Town or Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. Economic clout? Burbank. A friendly beachfront community? Try Manhattan Beach. A small-town feel within the metropolis? Culver City or Glendale may be the place.

Yet as these communities have flowered, they face new challenges; for example, how to preserve their unique character and sustain their economic base without being overwhelmed by their own popularity. Leaders in several communities are searching for new approaches to manage commercial development. In Westwood, Los Angeles Councilman Mike Feuer sees open space, a library and live theater as key elements in attracting a diverse but stable population. In Hermosa Beach, some residents hope to cut public rowdiness by restricting alcohol sales and where dancing may be done.

These are vastly different challenges than those facing developers downtown. At the center the task is to lure motorists off the freeways after work and into concert halls, plazas, restaurants and museums. The off-again, on-again Walt Disney Concert Hall, the proposed sports arena for the Kings and Lakers, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels now in the works could help do that. But backers of these projects have taken considerable heat of late for promoting a vision of downtown as more than a wasteland of bureaucrats and the homeless. Well, it is, can be and should be more, much more. The Los Angeles Basin needs a sense of center, a meeting ground, a place that symbolizes this entire, diverse region.

Those unique and ambitious projects planned downtown can begin that process without jeopardizing the many local communities that have prospered in recent years. Downtown development is no longer an either-or choice. It's a natural. caption: Downtown Los Angeles--a natural for progressive development.

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