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Skid Row Braces as Downtown LA's Industrial District Makes Plans to Gentrify

From South Park to the Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles is seeing new development rise at a staggering pace. But while new skyscrapers and mixed-users pop up throughout the area, Los Angeles’s Industrial District, between San Pedro and Alameda, remains relatively unchanged—it sits just west of the red-hot Arts District. Is seeing none of the development rash that's spreading across its neighbor. The most growth the neighborhood has seen in recent years is in its homeless population—the area is home to LA’s Skid Row, which has struggled as the city’s homelessness epidemic has hit crisis levels.

Now the Central City East Association, a collective of Industrial District residents and business owners, is aiming to figure out what the future could hold for the neighborhood. According to the Downtown News, the CCEA has compiled the Central City East Planning Study, a full report on the obstacles and potential solutions for planning a (hopefully sensitive) redevelopment of the Industrial District.

While developers flock to build housing in Downtown LA neighborhoods booming nearby, the Industrial District finds itself zoned almost entirely for, as the name would suggest, light industrial uses. But here’s the rub: even though it’s zoned for industry, job growth in the Industrial District is lagging way behind the rest of Downtown (9 percent growth since 2002, compared to 17 percent in the rest of the area); the Industrial District makes up 10 percent of Downtown LA’s total geography, but only accounts for 1 to 2 percent of Downtown’s employment. So here we have a wide swath of town, directly adjacent to up-and-coming neighborhoods, unable to capitalize on its prime location.

Converting the Industrial District into a yuppie loft haven would not be easy. Rundown buildings with windowless walls and a lack of green space contribute to a "sense of foreboding" in the neighborhood that will have to be overcome before the kind of people who have flocked to DTLA in recent years are willing to call it home. CCEA officials are looking to create a planning framework for beautification efforts that will bring parks, retail, and—most importantly—pedestrians to the streets of the Industrial District. What shape that framework will take is still to be decided.

The Central City East Planning Study aims to open the door for new development in the Industrial District by offering a few potential strategies to entice more commercial action. There’s the option of just waiting, allowing accelerated development in adjacent neighborhoods to slowly bleed into the district, but that hasn’t seemed to work so far.

More proactive options include focusing development along a major traffic corridor like Sixth Street or offering a large parcel of land to developers as a "once-in-a-generation" development opportunity much like the Alameda Square project in the Arts District.

The last option is a rezoning free-for-all, opening the neighborhood’s zoning to any and all uses in order to spur development. Some are arguing that the Industrial District remains frozen in amber due to the hassles of circumventing its antiquated industrial zoning.

Greg Fischer, consultant for the CCEA study, says that until the zoning changes "you cannot put in parks, you cannot put in schools, and they put you through torture to build any housing." There is a place for industry in the district, but officials envision a switch to more modern industries that can coexist with nearby housing. Tanner Blackman of Kindel Gagan, the lobbying firm also behind the study, says "industrial uses today, like making hipster jeans, is a lot more compatible with residential than in previous generations."

While some are gung-ho about getting mixed-users buildings and hipster jean factories into the district, others are concerned that rezoning would mean the rapid displacement of industry and middle class jobs from the neighborhood. There could be a lot of argument here, as many of the neighborhood stakeholders the study is representing operate industrial businesses that could be on the chopping block if the character of the neighborhood changes dramatically.

Then there’s Skid Row.

The CCEA says the purpose of the study is "not to try and solve homelessness," but to investigate the economic and land use issues in the neighborhood; however, "homelessness is a big part of that equation." It’s hard to separate the issues of the Industrial District with the location of Skid Row right in the middle of the neighborhood.

Residents of the Industrial District surveyed for the study were described as feeling "landlocked" between San Pedro and Alameda Streets, unable to connect with the rest of Downtown because of the "psychological barrier" of Skid Row’s homeless population (who were apparently not consulted). The everyday sight of sidewalk encampments are seen by business owners and residents as an obstacle to growth, but the authors of the study claim that neighborhood stakeholders are not interested in pushing out the homeless shelters. They view the neighborhood as "an inclusive, diverse community," but it’s hard to imagine a future where the central hub of homeless services in Los Angeles coexists with furious commercial redevelopment.

Skid Row is not without its civic voice, though. Another study on the Industrial District, released by affordable housing developer Skid Row Housing Trust, outlined changes they feel can improve the dire situation on the neighborhood’s streets. They too advocate for big changes like focusing development along the Sixth Street corridor, but also suggest small projects that can add up to large improvements in the living situation on Skid Row.

Their study calls for an increase in available showers, toilets, and trash cans to serve the homeless community. There are only two public showers and six restrooms available in the entire 50-block radius, and 97 trashcans. They also call for "safety zones" with 24-hour programming and bans on drugs and alcohol, as well as gardens on rooftops and empty lots.

To move these changes along in City Hall, several Skid Row activists are looking to break off from the Downtown Neighborhood Council to form a separate neighborhood council that represents Skid Row alone. Jeff Page, who is leading the effort, says the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council usually focuses on business growth and hotel stock, but "we are on a totally different level of issues in Skid Row." A public vote on the split could happen as early as 2017.

One side effect of the Industrial District’s clash with Skid Row is the new light shed on the need to spread out homeless services throughout the city of Los Angeles, rather than concentrating them Downtown. Earlier this year, City Hall released a report on potential solutions to LA’s growing homeless problem that included a recommendation to expand shelter services throughout the city (LA has an unusually large unsheltered homeless population, andfewer and fewer shelters).

While many homeless people feel that Skid Row is a true home and community, others are forced to commute from all edges of the city to the neighborhood’s crowded shelters, where resources are stretched to the limit. By centralizing nearly all of Los Angeles’s homeless services into one neighborhood, the city has both made resources easier to find and access, but also created a slum. And now the richer residents of the Industrial District are looking to make changes that could seriously threaten Skid Row (which has been there for a century). When development comes to the Industrial District, and it will come, the city should be prepared to deal with thousands of displaced homeless people.