By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Some experts see this all as a formula for more of the same downtown blight that city officials have been trying to eradicate.
“The problem is, if transportation issues aren’t dealt with and we face increased congestion, then we are going to have tenement areas,” with the new ordinance, says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chair of UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning. “A lot hinges on good design. It’s problematic that they’re doing away with setbacks — when you have so much density and no green space.”
“The architectural community needs to stand up,” adds Yaroslavsky. “I know their bread is buttered by these developers, but this is not in the long-term interest of the city. To give a developer everything they want is not only bad policy, it’s unnecessary.”
At the meeting, however, Tangri argued that, “The purpose of these ordinances is to bring a variety of income levels to downtown, and I believe they can be instrumental in doing so.”
Not true, says Yaroslavsky: “They’re building for the affluent. That’s where the money is for the developers, and that’s what the city is encouraging. I do not recommend lifting zoning restrictions carte blanche, the way they’re doing. I believe that everything ought to be done in moderation. .?.?. Is there a single voice in the city today advocating for responsible government? Is there a Marvin Braude, somebody in the Mayor’s Office who could speak up for responsible behavior?”
FROM THE LATE ’70S to the late ’80s, Los Angeles saw the rise of a new skyline, accompanied by a recession and the sight of block after block of vacant, newly built office space. Maybe it should have, but it did not, put to rest the “build it and they will come” theory of economic development. Many corporations didn’t really want to do business in downtown Los Angeles, while others who were there fled.
The spin behind the Downtown Ordinance is that it’s capitalizing on the current boom in that area. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll have a hard time finding that boom. If this were a football game, the ordinance could be seen as a Hail Mary pass — a welfare program for developers unmatched by any large American city — to keep downtown’s softening real estate market from dying.
But as Yaroslavsky points out, “If there’s going to be a recession, all the handouts in the world won’t lead to the construction of one new building.”
Author and urban-planning expert Joel Kotkin holds the view that downtown is currently not as booming as it appears. Kotkin cites the “nine o’clock rule” — drive through a neighborhood on a weekend evening at 9 p.m., and see how many lights are on.
Jerry Sullivan has done just that. He lives and works downtown, and is editor of a small newspaper called The Los Angeles Garment & Citizen. “I go home every night and walk by the Eastern Columbia at Ninth and Broadway,” Sullivan explains, referring to one of the swankier new housing developments. “We’re told it’s sold out, but when I go home at night, I rarely see more than a few lights on. Maybe they’re sold, but they’re not occupied. I think there’s more of that than folks realize.”
Sullivan says he’s also observed buildings originally advertised as condominiums flip to leases and rentals after several months. “I spoke with an ad agency representing some of these places, and it’s obvious they were struggling.”
However, Councilwoman Jan Perry insists that downtown is on the rise, having seen its population increase by 20 percent to almost 30,000 over the past few years. The Downtown Center Business Improvement District reports that the median household income of downtown residents is now $99,000.
But Sullivan argues that those figures are misleading. “There were 20,000 people here five years ago, and they were all poor. They added about 10,000 people, so the base of the ideal consumer is 10,000. When they cite that $99,000 figure, they’re only talking about a fraction of the total. Yet that’s been the sales pitch.”
Adds Kotkin, “If it’s such a hot market, why do you need zoning changes?”
PERRYENJOYS IMAGINING the future.
“The purposes of these ordinances is to help us become the downtown that is not the downtown of today,” she told the Weekly.
Perry envisions a goal for 2050 — a future downtown with neighborhoods, each with its own coffee shops and nightlife, and mothers with baby carriages on the sidewalk. She sees retirees settling downtown after they’ve cashed in their Westside condos and want to be closer to a transportation hub where there’s affordable housing — perhaps a tiny apartment for a widower in his 60s, or a student at L.A. Trade Tech, or a family with kids attending one of the three magnet schools planned on downtown’s perimeter.
These will be people who walk because they want to, “because they’re concerned about their health,” and they’ll be supported by a fleet of shuttles and trains carrying them to all corners of the Southland. And yes, it will be crowded, as crowded as Athens, London, New York or any vital city center.
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