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A Nickname That's Run Its Course

An Editor's Note

October 01, 2006|Rick Wartzman

Los Angeles has collected many sobriquets over the years: Double Dubuque, the Big Orange and, yes, La-La Land. But the hardest to shake, in concept if not in name, has been Forty Suburbs in Search of a City.

We are, everyone will tell you, the capital of sprawl.

Lately, however, I've started to doubt whether this is true anymore. All over the area, strides are being taken to make L.A. if not exactly a more vertical city then certainly a less horizontal one.

Among them is the "adaptive reuse" of abandoned or obsolete industrial and commercial structures--the focus of Barbara Thornburg's wonderful piece in this week's Home Issue ("Recycle, Reuse, Re-create," page 21).

Beyond that, a giant assortment of urban in-fill projects is springing up--developments that aim to increase the density and dynamism of existing communities (often with a mix of retail, residential, office and green space). Think Playa Vista or Rick Caruso's Americana at Brand in Glendale, which recently broke ground.

In fact, so much is happening so fast, it's easy to lose sight that something larger is going on. "In 1980, there was not a functioning downtown in the region anywhere," says Stefanos Polyzoides, a Pasadena architect. Now, he says, nearly all of L.A. County's 88 municipalities, as well as many of Orange County's, have been or are being revived.

"Just go to Claremont or Pomona or Fullerton," Polyzoides says. "These are beautiful places now. And you can have a real life there--24 hours a day."

Inherent in this comment is that Los Angeles will never be a classic big city with a single dominant hub. Rather, it will remain sprinkled with mini-hubs across a broad expanse. What's changing is that each of these mini-hubs is becoming more vibrant, more teeming, more fun. Add it up, and "in 25 or 50 years you'll have a much more compact" megalopolis, says Michael Dear, a professor of geography at USC.

Much of what's occurring is being driven by demand. "People want a downtown, a place to hang out, wherever that downtown is," says Caruso.

L.A.'s metamorphosis isn't without its challenges. Dealing with a dearth of affordable housing and unsnarling traffic remain serious issues. There's also a question of character; Caruso, for one, has taken plenty of hits for creating an ersatz Main Street at the Grove. (Although I understand where the critics are coming from, I'll step up and say it: I can't resist swaying to "That's Amore" at the dancing fountain.)

Still, the bigger trend is inexorable: Before long, we may be known as Forty Cities in Search of a Suburb.

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