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A Future City Councilman Watched Downtown Grow Up

SURROUNDINGS / LOS ANGELES

July 22, 2004|From a Times staff writer

Tom LaBonge was 20 when he first stepped onto the elevator at Los Angeles City Hall and ascended 27 floors to the observation room.

At the time, the 28-story building still towered over most of downtown Los Angeles. The skyscraper boom that would transform the skyline was just beginning in 1974.

"I will always remember being impressed about seeing downtown from above," LaBonge, now a Los Angeles councilman, recalls of taking in the view for the first time.

"You could see some 13-story buildings on old Spring Street. There were just a few high-rises -- the Arco Towers and Union Bank building. No Bonaventure. No Wells Fargo.... It was all vacant lots."

LaBonge has been up to the observation room scores of times in the last 30 years, watching downtown Los Angeles grow up from City Hall.

On clear days, the view stretches through the old banking district along Spring Street, across the palm-tree-dotted streets of South Los Angeles all the way to the harbor, with the Vincent Thomas Bridge pushing up at the horizon. At twilight, LaBonge said, the flickering lights offer a history lesson, showing the shifting grid of streets that flow out of downtown, changing shape as the city pushes out.

LaBonge is quick to offer visitors tours of City Hall, tours that often lead to the observation room. He usually starts by pointing to the southeast.

"Thirty-five miles from here is the happiest place on Earth: Disneyland," he said. "That offers people a perspective."

The downtown building boom of the late 1970s through the early 1990s dramatically altered the skyline, giving Los Angeles a 73-story building -- the Library Tower (now called US Bank Tower) -- that is the tallest on the West Coast.

With all this construction, the view of City Hall -- and from its observation room -- has changed.

Looking from Hollywood and the Westside, all the new towers have dwarfed City Hall, in some cases blocking it from view.

But from the Eastside, LaBonge said, City Hall is still an imposing presence, standing in front of the wall of more modern skyscrapers welcoming drivers on the San Bernardino and Pomona freeways into downtown.

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