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Building a Downtown LA for everyone

How does a city keep one of its hottest neighborhoods from becoming just another enclave of the superrich?

The once-cheap rents and many converted loft spaces of Downtown Los Angeles provided the preconditions to build a vibrant cultural scene in the neighborhood over the past 15 years, which today in turn attracts a lawyer or producer who would rather live in the middle of the din than in a bungalow in Silver Lake. Yet even as development has soared in the past decade or so, the area is still being formed. LA has the physical space and potentially the political will to craft a downtown geared toward all sorts of people, so that the young lawyer might actually reside next to a formerly homeless resident, Southern California Institute of Architecture student, or social worker. As the buildings and sub-neighborhoods of Downtown enter a new stage of evolution, aided by a building boom, can Downtown become more than a world of $500 shoes and glassy high-rise condos offered at a million-five?

A decade ago, Downtown was still underpopulated, underdeveloped terrain at the end of a long idle period, even as many of the city’s traditional suit-wearing professionals regularly went there for work. Years later, the area has morphed under the influence of the city and the private developers it’s incentivized. The Bringing Back Broadway initiative, designed to reinvigorate the stretch of Broadway that runs through the Historic Core, has brought renewed attention to that rundown strip of theaters. The Broad, the recently opened museum designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is drawing precious millennial visitors. And the recently opened Expo Line and Metro Bike Share, alongside the Gold Line extension and the forthcoming Regional Connector link, are helping recast the way one can live in Los Angeles in an everyday sense.

The Ace Hotel.

This matters to Angelenos in the same way an entirely networked subway that can take a New Yorker to Rockaway Beach or Jackson Heights might. There is the knowledge that Los Angeles can now provide something: A complete assemblage of life at your disposal, a way to live should you wish to go car-less for an evening, or a year, or longer. People are moving in. GQ is calling it cool.

All that means Downtown now also carries obvious markers of rarefied yuppiedom. A night in the Ace Hotel costs several hundred dollars. Many new apartments rent at rates upwards of $3,000 or even $4,000 a month for a one-bedroom. Overproduction of a higher-end model of living can breed the kind of corrective that only suits a slim margin of the population: A few months free, longer leases at lower rents, and the like, for the higher overall cost.

While new development has brought more business, food, nightlife, and housing into the area, the aggressive shift to high-end residential and commercial use is visibly altering the area’s fabric. Downtown’s long-standing homeless population has been squeezed into a Skid Row that is a fraction of its former self, while low and middle income residents struggle to find a place in an area suddenly awash in a stunning number of pricey boutiques and restaurants.

If Los Angeles wants to keep its Downtown from becoming a homogenous replica of so many other neighborhoods across the U.S. whose “newness” and “hipness” seem to necessarily exclude moderate rents and good bodegas, it’s going to have to stop and take a careful look at how to manage the next evolution of the neighborhood. “We have a great opportunity in LA,” LA Conservancy Director of Advocacy Adrian Scott Fine says about the development climate in Downtown right now, “and I don’t think that taking a pause is going to derail all the development that is happening. But we only have one opportunity to do it right.”

In the late 1800s, Bunker Hill, now the site of office towers, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and The Broad, housed mansions and amenities geared toward the city’s wealthy and professional classes. By the 1940s, though, the area had become home to boarding houses and poor and working class residents. Federal legislation supposedly designed to improve low-income areas instead declared Bunker Hill a blighted community, famously allowing Los Angeles to push out its residents and demolish most of its housing. A widely viewed and elegantly nostalgic video by Keven McAlester, distributed by the New Yorker in 2016, depicts the neighborhood in the 1940s and today—what was once residential has been thoroughly supplanted by large-scale commercial buildings. That tension between commercial buildings, high-end homes, low-cost apartments, and the people who use each of them has shaped Downtown LA throughout its history.

A large white building. There is a street in the foreground and a yellow bus is parked outside of the building.
The Broad.
Liz Kuball

In the 1880s, what is now the Arts District on the east side of Downtown was home to vineyards, before the Southern Pacific Railroad brought LA into the transcontinental train system. By the end of the century, several railroads, including the Union Pacific, had arrived in the city. Warehouse spaces cropped up across the AD as a boom in manufacturing and oil brought business to the area for the first time. By 1930, Alan Taylor writes at The Atlantic, the LA region produced about a third of the world’s oil.

With railroads and business came the city’s late 19th and early 20th century population boom. Downtown’s core saw the construction of commercial buildings like the famed Bradbury Building, built in 1893 at Broadway and Third, and designed with Edward Bellamy’s late 1880s utopian novel Looking Backward in mind; and the Broadway Spring Arcade, which nearly mimics the feel of the Parisian arcades of the 19th century.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Slightly east, Main and Spring welcomed a bevy of high-end historic hotels that catered to the train station nearby. These included the historically innovative and chic Barclay Hotel (called Van Nuys when it was built in 1897), at Fourth and Main, as well as the ornate Beaux-Arts Alexandria Hotel at Fourth and Spring, designed by John Parkinson.

By the 1920s and ’30s, Broadway held the highest concentration of theaters on a single block in the nation. Spring Street housed the Los Angeles Stock Exchange (which later merged with the Pacific Stock Exchange) in a Samuel Lunden building of limestone, granite, and concrete, dense and windowless to impart a sense of security. LA’s famed streetcars served the area in a vastly networked system that is being partially revived today via light rail and subway (and even streetcar).

Skid Row, which reportedly takes its name from the railroad construction of the 19th century, was born out of a transient population that worked seasonally and moved from place to place, setting up shop during down periods at the very end of the transcontinental line, just east of Downtown LA’s core. Missions and SROs sprung up to serve them. The Depression brought with it a new wave of people in search of jobs, swelling Skid Row’s size in an otherwise declining Downtown.

In the 1940s, several powerful players in Downtown organized the Greater Los Angeles Plans Incorporated, with the idea of maintaining the Central Business District and giving DTLA a cultural and political gravity it had lost. The midcentury also saw a rise in automobile use and suburbanization that didn’t fit naturally into Downtown’s landscape; shopping and other commerce moved west, bringing most residents with it. Many of the high-end hotels in the neighborhood’s core—including the Barclay and Alexandria—were converted into single room occupancy housing by this era, to accommodate the lower income residents who were left. Meanwhile, Downtown's Financial District moved from its home around Broadway-Spring to the west, closer to Bunker Hill.

As midcentury gave way to the Vietnam War era, Skid Row grew further with the arrival of people with a history of substance abuse or mental illness, or who were living in poverty. Many of the cheap SROs were demolished, and their residents often ended up in Skid Row.

Diane Kanner, who worked in Downtown from 1968 until 1972 and is a Los Angeles City Historical Society board member, says that the development and use of Downtown in these years was richer than people now tend to believe. She mentioned her use and knowledge in those years of the Biltmore Theatre, the lovingly restored and recently reopened Clifton’s Cafeteria, Grand Central Market, and the Philharmonic, and referred to Spanish language movies that played along Broadway. While the narrative may be that Broadway fell into disuse, it was quite alive for the predominantly Latinx community that watched those movies or shopped in the street’s converted theaters. “I don’t like to think of ‘stalled development,’” she wrote in an email, “as the street was and is serving that community.”

By the 1980s, the city made a deliberate attempt to contain non-white residents, the working class, and those in poverty to specific areas of Downtown LA (and the city), away from the business district and Bunker Hill. Between the late 1940s and early 1990s, there were a series of fatal tenement fires in the Downtown residential spaces that did exist, like the Hotel St. George SRO, and in buildings in the nearby Westlake. In his book Ecology of Fear, historian Mike Davis suggests the city abdicated safety standards for the populations in those areas.

In these years, new buildings, like the famed Bonaventure Hotel, designed by John Portman and opened in 1976, were built with concrete bases and connected by sky bridges—designed to keep the city away. The Los Angeles Stock Exchange’s fortress-like building became a nightclub.

Clifton’s Cafeteria.

According to one analyst, Downtown residents numbered approximately 12,000 before the aughts, and had soared to 50,000 plus by the 2010s. In the early aughts, developer Tom Gilmore’s name became synonymous with new life for DTLA in the form of mixed-use residential. The adaptive reuse ordinance, which made it easier to convert historic buildings into housing, passed in 1999 and ushered in a new era of development led by Gilmore’s renovation of sites then considered within the boundaries of Skid Row, including the Palace Theatre, the Continental, and the Farmers and Merchants National Bank Building, all part of a collection he called the Old Bank District.

That first round of gentrification was ultimately so successful it has provided the groundwork for another round of development 15 years later—one that is even higher-end. Downtown is right now undergoing a fresh wave of building and conversions, with lots of amenities, geared largely toward high earners.

The Arts District now has many boutiques, an artisanal pie shop, and major development projects in every direction. The recently opened Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery makes its home in the reconfigured Globe Grain and Milling Company complex on the northeast edge of the region. The more-than-100,000-square-foot space spans an entire north-south block, so that one can visit shops on Third and be spit out across from Second Street’s sizable Garey Building, which boasts an “Improvement Club” (gym), and the tagline “Gritty is Pretty.”

On the opposite, western edge of Downtown, in the Financial District, a WeWork coworking space now sits inside the stunningly restored Fine Arts Building on Seventh Street. The Fine Arts was originally designed in 1928 by Walker & Eisen, the same designers credited with the office tower that is now home to the Ace Hotel and its theater, to attract galleries and artists. Further south, in South Park, the immense mixed-used condo Metropolis is set to be the largest such development on the West Coast when it finishes construction. It will have a sleek glass veneer and studios selling for upwards of half a million dollars, and a boutique hotel that manages to pay homage to some acting greats while simultaneously embodying today’s ornate and gilded version of luxury.

Hauser Wirth & Schimmel.

The LA Conservancy started roughly in the middle of these areas, in a closet in the Eastern Columbia Building at Ninth and Broadway, Fine says, long before that building was converted into expensive condos. Opened in 1930 and designed by Claud Beelman, the stunning Art Deco tower still maintains its iconic clock and neon “Eastern” sign. Originally designed for the Eastern and Columbia Outfitting companies, the building was renovated in 2006 to become a high-end residential tower on the order of a major old New York co-op. There is now a pool on top, and units run from roughly $700,000 for a 1,150-square-foot one-bedroom, to nearly $5,000 monthly to rent a 1,770-square-foot two-bedroom, two-bathroom (don’t forget the view).

Fine says the Conservancy is concerned over some of the high-rises slated for development in Downtown areas like the Historic Core and Arts District, saying they are not seeing the most “robust environmental review” for these properties. Downtown towers on the docket include Oceanwide Plaza, slated for the west side of the neighborhood, on Flower Street, with three buildings up to 65 stories; 6AM in the Arts District, with two 58-story towers; and a 30-story asymmetrical tower across from the LA Times building.

The organization worries over the scale and characteristics of some of the proposed new buildings in such a unique part of Los Angeles—the city has only one historic downtown. Fine underscores that the neighborhood today is filled with smaller spaces that could be adapted to serve multiple functions and types of residents—not only the wealthy ones.“On the Arts District,” Fine says, “we want to maintain that quirky, funky industrial flavor and feel of the place. And I think it turning to a Soho is not what the Arts District is or historically has been.” The Conservancy is talking with the city about what it deems the character or “background” building: A site that doesn’t individually warrant historic status, but helps provide the look and feel we associate with an area.

“One by one like a domino, they disappear. So we’re trying to figure out how can you incentivize development that would keep these buildings and integrate them, rather than knock them down?” Fine cites the AD’s Biscuit Lofts, originally designed by Eckel and Aldrich as a Nabisco Factory, and renovated into housing in the mid-aughts by Aleks Istanbullu Architects.

But buildings are the simple part of preserving what makes a neighborhood unique.

Fifteen years into its new chapter, a large homeless and high-needs population still lives in Downtown LA. LA today maintains a roughly 2.7 percent rental vacancy rate—lower, even, than New York City’s, along with a median income well below its major East Coast counterpart. The tight rental market naturally creates a ripple effect on the housing stock, forcing many residents into precarious living situations, and often out onto the street, Skid Row Housing Trust CEO Mike Alvidrez underlines in a phone interview.

Skid Row runs north-south toward the east side of Downtown, close to where the late 1800s railroad tracks align with the LA River, between the Broadway and Arts Districts. Los Angeles County’s homeless population has continued to grow since 2013, with roughly 47,000 people experiencing homelessness today, and several thousand living in Skid Row. The city has sought to address the ongoing homelessness crisis with an extensive plan to connect those in need to services, and to develop new supportive housing. A ballot measure passed in November will provide $1.2 billion toward homeless housing.

Skid Row’s 50 or so square blocks is shrinking as development to the west and east, as well as in Little Tokyo to the north, has pushed against the community’s boundaries, explains Brooke Lykins, chief development officer at the Downtown Women’s Center, which provides services and supportive housing geared specifically to women experiencing homelessness. “There used to be a time in this country when we built and operated housing for poor people, and that essentially stopped in the ’70s and ’80s,” Lykins says. “And that is where you see the advent of modern urban homelessness in the way that we know it today.”

Grand Central Market.

The DWC, alongside organizations like the Skid Row Housing Trust, seeks to create more permanent supportive housing, with the hope that it will serve as a model in aiding the homeless community and become a first step communities throughout the U.S. take when addressing homelessness.

The Housing Trust aims to “use design to shape space conducive to recovery,” according to Alvidrez, and many of its 25 projects are feats of design by respected architects, providing nearly 1,800 permanent and supportive homes. Most famously perhaps, is Michael Maltzan’s Star Apartments at Sixth and Maple, which provides housing and on-site services, including a medical clinic. The New Pershing Apartments are inside a building at Fifth and Main dating from the late 1800s; they were restored by Killefer Flammang Architects to preserve the lovely historic façade while incorporating 67 apartments, most of which are Section 8-eligible. The units run from 300 to 400 square feet, and the renovation easily blends into the surrounding Historic Core.

Similarly, DWC’s own site exemplifies the shifts in the area over the past decades. It moved in the early 2010s from its original location at Los Angeles and Third Street to a carefully adapted space on San Pedro, sold by the city for a dollar to incentivize DWC to move east and enable development (which never came to pass) in their former space.

The San Pedro location is a 1927 building, formerly used as a shoe factory, with a Gothic Revival exterior. After an extensive renovation by Pica & Sullivan, designed to make the units feel more like homes than hospital rooms, says Lykins, the DWC now provides a day center with health services and other care on the ground floor, as well as 71 residential units with baths and kitchenettes, and a library, deck, and community room.

Farmers and Merchants Bank Building.

A 2016 paper by two urban planners coming out of UCLA, titled “Skid Row, Gallery Row and the space in between: cultural revitalisation and its impacts on two Los Angeles neighbourhoods,” looks closely at the history and development of Downtown LA through Gallery Row and Skid Row, both defined by a shared border of Main Street, with the former to the west and the latter to the east. The paper complicates the notion of what makes a gentrifier—citing, for instance, wealthier newcomers who actively work to preserve their adopted neighborhoods, or homeless residents whose activism shapes the evolution of their longtime homes. The authors ask if even the spate of architecturally significant development championed by the Skid Row Housing Trust might serve as an attractive force for gentrifiers.

The paper’s primary author, Brady Collins, writes in an email, “there is real community infrastructure on Skid Row. It doesn't matter that folks live in tents. They call themselves neighbors, and interact as neighbors in any other part of the city would. In this sense, Skid Row residents have as many valid concerns about gentrification as do residents of Boyle Heights or South LA.” These residents are well aware of that; they’re seeking to assert their power with the city through an independent neighborhood council.

The new DWC space overlooks not only Skid Row, but also newer residential buildings like the Little Tokyo Lofts, at a nexus of the kinds of spaces and communities that define Downtown. It’s not a reversal of the trend toward economic segregation seen in cities nationwide, but here there is at least space for individuals at many different parts of the economic spectrum.

In the past several years, there’s been a certain absurdist aspect to the evolution of our urban cores. Like dominoes, scores of younger adults move to neighborhoods with a preexisting identity, pushing up rent and pushing people out. Eventually, the highest-end professionals on the economic spectrum join in, buying pied-à-terres and driving these areas further out of reach. Families that once would have moved out stay in central areas if they can, buying larger spaces; others leave for the outskirts. Homelessness soars.

It’s long past time that the dominoes are replaced by cohesive plans that can accommodate many different kinds of people living together As Los Angeles struggles with this concept, it’s sites like the DWC building, at the edge of Little Tokyo, the Arts District, and the rest of Los Angeles, where coexistence may as well begin.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler