Downtown has gained people but lost jobs, report says

The population has jumped 20% in two years, although retail has been slow to follow.

February 21, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Downtown L.A. is beginning to look more like uptown -- and it's happening much more quickly than even its biggest boosters could have imagined.

A new study of downtown population and job trends, announced Tuesday, reported a more than 20% jump over the last two years in residents, to 28,878.

And with 7,500 units under construction, that number could rise to more than 40,000 by the end of 2008 -- rather than by 2015, the previous target for that population milestone.

The study, published by the Los Angeles Downtown Center Business Improvement District, underscores the boom in construction of luxury condos and rehabbed historic lofts around the city center.

But officials hope the number will help downtown boosters in their efforts to lure more retail -- which many of the new residents say is lacking.

Some businesses -- including grocery stores and bookstores -- have said they are waiting to see whether the downtown residential community continues to expand even as Southern California's overall real estate market cools.

"Hopefully, what it indicates is the ability to support more neighborhood amenities," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents downtown, "another grocery store, more things you would want in your immediate area."

The big test, Perry and others said, is whether they can lure the big-name retailers that have so far steered clear of downtown.

A Ralphs grocery store is scheduled to open there in June, but many of the residents surveyed said they wanted a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods store as well.

While the report painted a rosy picture of residential growth, job growth was another story.

The study found that the number of jobs downtown continues to lag -- a holdover from an era when government jobs downsized and corporate headquarters left the city center. Downtown payroll numbers for 2005, the last year available, show a total of 418,000 -- down from a high of 605,000 in 1995.

But Jack Kyser, chief economist and senior vice president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., which prepared a portion of the report, said the trend may be reversing, as the number of jobs in downtown began to climb in the first quarter of 2006.

"Employment in the private sector is growing again," said Kyser. "That's very, very important. That reflects workers in construction, that kind of activity."

Carol Schatz, president of the downtown Business Improvement District, said the report underscores the progress downtown has made -- but she acknowledged the area still has a way to go before it becomes the 24-hour hub that many of its backers desire.

"This is now a 9 a.m. to midnight downtown," Schatz said, alluding to the large number of bars and restaurants. "But hopefully, by the time I retire, it will be 24-hour. We'll add an hour a year."

Two massive developments might speed up the process.

Much of the new downtown housing is rising around Staples Center, which will soon be home to the sprawling L.A. Live sports and entertainment complex. Work is scheduled to begin later this year for Grand Avenue, a $2-billion Frank Gehry-designed condo and retail hub next to the Disney Hall.

Both Grand Avenue and L.A. Live are billed as bringing more nightlife downtown -- though it remains unclear whether it will encourage additional residential development elsewhere downtown.

The population and job numbers were produced by the L.A. Economic Development Corp. using private and public data.

The growth in the number of downtown residents -- more of whom are purchasing their units -- means they are gaining the political voice they've lacked.

Many residents have backed a recent Los Angeles Police Department initiative that brought 50 more police officers downtown to deal with the area's crime and drug problems, and that has so far helped reduce crime.

But the burgeoning housing market has heightened concerns that the revitalization could come at a cost for the city's low-income residents, many of whom have called downtown home for decades.

The loft boom in the old banking district has reached the corners of skid row, where some old residential hotels are being converted into market-rate housing.

The survey did not distinguish between market-rate units and those deemed affordable. And while it showed that the median income of households downtown was $99,600 -- up from $96,300 two years before -- only households with at least one income were examined, meaning it didn't count people living on public assistance.

Perry said that she and others would continue to make sure that downtown included mixed-income housing.

"That's not going to change," she said.

"It would be very stupid to focus the entire market on market-level housing.... You don't achieve a social equity purpose, either."


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