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Whose downtown is it?

The latest remake of L.A.'s city center is unfolding on historically contested ground.

April 22, 2007|D.J. Waldie | D.J. WALDIE, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles."

The politics of development haven't changed either. They are still steered by elected officials needing developers' campaign contributions and developers needing the entitlements that elected officials and their appointees OK. Which explains why the fight earlier this month between the City Council and the mayor about the sale of $200 million in Convention Center "air rights" was agreeably settled by giving both the council and the mayor a say in how 9 million square feet of new downtown construction would be parceled out.

Between tomorrow's shiny new downtown and the one we have are long stretches of sidewalk patrolled by the homeless. They occupy real estate that will be even more valuable when enough of them are gone, and downtown's growth machine is taking a two-pronged approach. The Police Department's "Safer City" program, underway in the Central Division since September, has tallied more than 6,000 arrests and reportedly cut the nighttime population of those sleeping on the streets to fewer than 800.

That decline, however, seems to have been paralleled by an increase in the number of homeless in West Hollywood and Santa Monica. City and county officials would like some of them to become permanently suburban (in an ironic replay of the resettlement of downtown's working-class population in the 1950s). Under a long-delayed plan, the county would spend $100 million to open shelters and 24-hour service centers in five working-class neighborhoods far from skid row. So far, Pomona and the Whittier-Long Beach corridor are possible locations.

Boosters see a new downtown as essential to an urbanizing metropolis, while critics dismiss the current revitalization as backward looking. These views mirror our historic conflicts about the center of the city and limit our ability to remake downtown as a place for all of us.

The Gas Co. building where my father worked has been remade as 251 loft-style apartments (53 of them set aside, under a city ordinance, for tenants who cannot pay the market rate). The sales pitch includes "on-site concierge and management services, 24-hour courtesy patrol, multicamera monitoring and keycard controlled access entrances." The units in the sales brochure look rather nice.

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