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Two Toms 

We have the vision of the one, we need the vision of the other

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Tom Gilmore walks fast, with a big man’s stride. “A developer is like a shark,” he says. “He has to keep moving.” Gilmore is moving west along Sixth Street at more than 4 mph. He’s heading toward lunch at one of Los Angeles’ fanciest downtown restaurants, Cicada, of which he owns a big hunk, from the central-city area of which he owns a bigger chunk. He’s wearing a well-cut dark-olive suit, which he says cost $179.95 at a Hollywood discounter. Much investor capital has passed through his hands in recent years, but he appears to have been very careful about where money goes. He’s carrying on two conversations, one with a reporter he’s just met, and the other with a homeless man he seems to know well.

For a transplanted New Yorker who first saw L.A.’s downtown 10 years ago, he’s done well. He’s the man who bought St. Vibiana’s from the cardinal who wanted to tear it down. How many people own a cathedral? Then again, how many people would want to?

“I see myself as a de facto urban planner,” Gilmore says. “You have to make a city work for you.” First to work for him is his Old Bank District — a pre-WWI block on Fourth Street between Main and Spring streets.

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The de facto back lot to much urban-themed TV production, it includes some of the city’s most-filmed architectural landmarks: the San Fernando Building; the Continental Building; and the Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank. (This last marble-veneer Palladian wonder is familiar to millions of X-Files fans, portraying the institution where Fox Mulder and Dana Scully bank.) The 240 units in these buildings, already 90 percent rented, could create critical mass sufficient to ignite a downtown residential renaissance. Acting on this belief, Gilmore says he’s moving his own household from Hollywood’s Beechwood Canyon to a Spring Street loft.

“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have thought it possible,” Gilmore says. L.A.’s old downtown bottomed just before the 1992 riots tore the city apart. Downtown had long centered around the homeless population: The last department stores closed, along with most theaters. The city, after pouring hundreds of millions into its Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) revival effort, washed its hands of the costly failure.

But the city did it wrong, Gilmore says. “You have to let it happen; you have to avoid the bureaucratic CRA approach,” says Gilmore. “You can’t plan everything. You have to take risks. This isn’t a perfect world and cities are based on imperfections. We’ve had no time to plan everything.”

Actually, the CRA has since helped Gilmore. It’s revised building codes to make his rehabs less costly. Gilmore’s committed beyond the Greater Skid Row area: He owns the Seventh Street former home of Clifton’s Cafeteria, and the Equitable Building in Hollywood, a classic office pile perfectly sited by the TrizecHahn development. And he owns the spectacular Palace Theater on Broadway, whose upstairs houses his lofty offices.

It’s easy to see why, theoretically, the area between Staples Center and the four-level, bounded on the east by San Pedro Street and on the west by Hill Street, ought to be facing revival: For one thing, it’s where all freeways and public transit meet. “It’s the developable center of the entire region,” says Sabrina Venskus, a major opponent of the Playa Vista Westside development. She believes the city has little business developing its distant outskirts when it’s got a virtually uninhabited center.

Gilmore disdains the Westside. Downtown, he says, “There are architectural treasures . . .” And there is an increasingly mobile, affluent population who would rather live affordably in a re-growing urban center than pay more to live across Lincoln Boulevard from the Marina, many miles from the typical workplace. But the big bet is that the newcomers will attract their own services — coffee shops, grocery stores, restaurants. And ignite the region’s largest urban, residential pedestrian environment in more than a century.

Gilmore isn’t alone in betting on downtown. National players like Avalon Bay Communities and Camden Property Trust are said to be looking. And there are Geoff Palmer’s controversial Medici complexes: new, luxury gated communities walled off from surrounding streets. “They actually face away from the city’s center,” Gilmore says. But Gilmore’s may become the first downtown-revival success story. Ira Yellin’s nearly decade-old Grand Central Square has yet to turn a profit, and its landmark theater is now vacant.

Re-populating Los Angeles’ downtown has been a project much like nuclear fusion: huge investment, but no sustained reaction. Many of the current 20,000 dwellers are poor, homeless and hopeless. Absentee landlords let their upstairs offices rot empty while collecting high rents off their storefronts. There are many vacant lots. And what does Gilmore have that the CRA and Yellin didn’t? Well, for one thing, Gilmore will listen to anyone — he even wants the homeless to become part of the productive population. And as activist Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy puts it, “Gilmore has a vision like no one else’s.” Gilmore’s sincerity and ability is perhaps one of the few things Janis-Aparicio and the business-oriented Central City Association’s chief, Carol Schatz, agree on.

For another thing, Gilmore spent his young longhair years working as a gardener and landscaper at Mohonk House — a stately 19th-century upstate New York resort on 7,800 acres of Appalachian countryside that somehow still thrives today. Gilmore says that the idyllic surroundings and the hard-working and fastidious Smiley family who run the place taught him to become what he wanted to be: “We define ourselves more by our challenges than by our ideals.”

It’s hard to think of a bigger challenge than making Los Angeles’ old downtown attract, rather than repel, inhabitants. But that’s what’s happened to rundown districts of New York, Denver, Boston, Houston and, for that matter, Pasadena. As Gilmore says:

“Los Angeles is nowhere near its adulthood. It’s ready to grow.”

Get Well Soon, Tom Hayden

Years ago, my reporter’s beat included a genuine backwoods philosopher named Kenneth Burke. Burke’s little house was stuffed with books, music and a big grand piano, and as far as I could tell, he never stopped talking as long as there was another person in sight.

I once asked him why, and he told me the story of the genius wren he once saw, building a nest on his house. The wren, Burke said, had figured out how to use a long twig as a lever to build herself a better nest. “The problem for her was,” Burke said, “that she didn’t have the language to tell other wrens about her invention.” Because birds couldn’t tell one another things the way people can, he said, wren civilization never developed to challenge humanity’s.

If there’s anyone out there who ought to know the value of communication, it’s Tom Hayden. He’s been communicating ideas to the rest of us for nearly 40 years. To those whose thinking was changed for the better after encountering his writings in the ’60s and ’70s, his 20-year interregnum in public office seemed Hayden’s just reward for his own past struggles. But not his most intellectually productive years.

Then there was Hayden’s City Council–election debacle this year, and the heart attack from which he is said to be recovering. But I hear that he’s slower to heal from the bitterness of his June electoral defeat. That’s when he told the media:

“It was my wish to be Upton Sinclair or Lincoln Steffens inside City Hall, challenging the shameful insider culture of power that has turned Los Angeles more into a city of scandals than a city of angels.”

Several things are plainly wrong with this not un-Nixonian statement. First, of course, compared to a 20-year officeholder like Tom Hayden, winner Jack Weiss was an outsider’s outsider: This was part of Weiss’ appeal. And, as Hayden surely knows, authors Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens never held elected office. Yet, via writings and speeches, both did far more to change America than any local officeholder ever has.

So if he really wants to become Sinclair or Steffens, Hayden should avoid public office, think and communicate. Lecture. Write more books. Divulge what he learned about power from 20 years inside. And what we can do to make that power more accessible. Surely this is a higher destiny than drafting ordinances and fixing Brentwood potholes could ever have been.

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