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Doing the Medici

Hating downtown Los Angeles isn‘t new. My old friend Father Malcolm Boyd -- who served in Hollywood’s bureaucracy before his ordination -- remembers people hating it nearly 50 years ago, at least in the screen community.

Back then, you had to go downtown for your income-tax refund. As the story goes, one of the sexiest stars of the era refused to: For her, she told reporters, a lousy $7,200 (easily $70,000 in today‘s money) wasn’t worth going to Civic Center.

Maybe we live in times of diminished principles. But I doubt that even Madonna or Julia Roberts would turn her back on that much money out of pure snobbery (and just think of the publicity opportunity!). As to whether either star would remain downtown all day for 70 grand -- well, maybe on a location shoot. It‘s still hard to find anyone who’ll profess affection for our regional center.

Yet for decades, more and more money has been plowed into saving downtown, with mixed to dismal results. According to a June 4 New York Times piece, around $2 billion in city and state money has been spent there since 1980. The result? Go look: lots of fancy new office buildings. Plus the decimation of the original housing stock, the small businesses, restaurants, theaters and stores that make most downtowns worth being in. Officialdom now claims that Staples Center, and the new concert hall and cathedral, will save the day. Downtown experts counter that without more residents -- and the amenities they attract -- the new structures aren‘t going to help at all.

Which brings us to a less-celebrated monument called the Medici. Which sprawls at the unprepossessing corner of Bixel and Seventh streets, across the Harbor Freeway from downtown. And promises to bring in a good 600 new residents. This is quite sudden. In a city in which a typical development stays on paper for a decade, this 500,000-square-foot complex seemed to sprout out of thin air, like a sorcerer’s castle in Orlando Furioso, over a handful of months.

Though its architecture is reprehensibly retro -- resembling an overrenovated hotel on Venice‘s Lido -- Medici looks cool. Particularly inside. It’s got a 24-foot, 24-hour waterfall near ”peaceful and lushly landscaped gardens [that] offer a serene sanctuary for residents“ plus ”black marble vanities and solid oak front doors,“ according to its Web site. Many of its apartments -- which range from singles to big penthouses -- are larger than Westside tract homes. There‘s also a one-acre private park with tennis courts, a rubberized track, a sand volleyball court and other neat stuff.

The project was originally planned as ”market rate“ apartments. Now, the developer is asking from $1,300 per month for a studio up to over $8,000 for a penthouse. For that kind of money, you can rent in the Marina. Nevertheless, about 75 percent of the completed units are said to be full.

Not everyone approves. ACORN, for instance, the South-Central neighborhood organization that’s recently fought predatory home lending, led a protest against the Medici last month. ACORN organizer Peter Kuhns objected to the fact that the showy double structure (which abuts a glaringly pink Holiday Inn) has no low-income housing component in an area that is, on the whole, very poor. That lovely-looking one-acre park preserve with the high perimeter fence also tends to grate local sensibilities in a council district whose largest park is the City Hall lawn (which has now been closed for two years). There is, of course, no nearby public-access volleyball or tennis court.

John Sheppard, who handles land-use planning for 9th District Councilwoman Rita Walters, said that ”ACORN was never around to protest when we held our public hearings.“ He pointed out that the project doesn‘t replace affordable housing, only the abandoned Thomas Cadillac site (whose ironic sole recent vendor was a used-bicycle-parts stand run by homeless people). Medici is therefore, Sheppard said, a net bonus to a community that has little but low-end housing and not enough of that. As for creating a low-income component, the Medici developers are mandated to provide 60 units of affordable housing off-site, said Sheppard. Very off-site -- the developer can either construct a new building or renovate a derelict one any place within three miles of Bixel and Seventh. This means that the mitigation could be as far away as South-Central or Koreatown: not exactly in the neighborhood.

Calling the rental office, I immediately encountered the project’s most personal irritation. Every middle school history pupil learns that the greatest name of the Renaissance is pronounced MED-eh-chee. But the woman on the phone kept saying it med-EE-chee. Lorenzo the Great would have had her flogged. Anyway, she said that 268 out of 335 extant units are now leased. (Another 300 are proposed, but that low-income housing must be complete before they can be built.) She described the Medici as ”a little Club Med resort.“ But it sure is a long way from the beach.

Geoff Palmer, Medici‘s developer, stated his own housing philosophy in a recent Downtown News interview. ”We’re trying to gentrify downtown,“ he said. ”The government should stay out of land development,“ adding that low-income workers should ”live where they can afford it.“

That‘s the first time I’ve seen the term ”gentrify“ used in a positive sense. But Palmer implies the economic realities behind the Medici: An increasing number of the 300,000 or so people who work downtown would rather live near work in an affluent, high-security unit than drive an hour to a similar place in Palms or Pasadena -- let alone Orange County. In other words, the region‘s rocketing housing costs may finally be lifting Central City’s developmental depression. But what kind of place would a gentrified residential downtown Los Angeles be?

While Palmer is selling exclusivity, Sheppard is optimistic that L.A.‘s future midcity will be economically diverse. He noted that the city is also developing a low-income housing project nearby, on the corner of Hope Street and Olympic Boulevard. Sheppard said that the low-income site, closer to Staples Center, ”is the more valuable property.“

The great downtowns of recent history have all included both low-income and high-income residents: Think of Paris with its nine-story walkups, New York with its much-reviled rent control, whose lucky beneficiaries sometimes paid $250 a month to live within a block of Bloomingdales.

This urban inclusiveness is certainly a noble idea -- but is it possible anywhere in the 21st century? Rent control is fast phasing out in New York, and I’ve read that it‘s becoming impossible to rent almost anything in Paris without somehow breaking the law.

Los Angeles might yet have such a mixed-resident downtown if this Staples-area patchwork of high-to-low-income housing continues to develop. (Low income is currently defined as a family earning $22,500 a year or less.) But if public-housing funds become even scarcer (as they would under a Bush administration) and luxury housing both more in demand and more profitable, upscale is another direction the area could take: Imagine Banana Republics, Crate and Barrels, and Starbucks lining Broadway, a Gelson’s replacing Grand Central Market with occasional high-security residential blocks, their units facing inward toward choice private amenities, private lives, the poor people shoved out beyond the downtown peripheries. ”The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime, it was folly to grieve, or to think,“ as Edgar Allan Poe put it in ”The Masque of the Red Death.“

Updating the City Attorney‘s Race

Last week, I said that Mayor Dick Riordan favored his chief deputy, Rocky Delgadillo, in next year’s city-attorney race. Not so, said the other leading city-attorney candidate, City Councilman Mike Feuer, who called me after the piece appeared. Mike said he‘d talked to the mayor himself at some length, and had been told that Riordan would not take sides in the race to replace termed-out incumbent (and mayoral candidate) Jim Hahn. He suggested I give Riordan a call to confirm this.

I decided instead to ask Riordan and Delgadillo in person after a worthwhile City Hall news conference initiating a public-private partnership project to renovate some 500 derelict inner-city homes. When I asked Riordan if he had endorsed a city-attorney candidate, he said, ”No.“

Then, putting his arm around Delgadillo, the mayor added, ”But I do sort of like this nice young fellow here.“

So perhaps Mr. Feuer really ought not to count on the mayor’s endorsement this time around, I thought. But then there was more to come. This week, the phone rang. Unbelievably, it was Dick Riordan (who had never before called me during the seven years he‘s been mayor). Riordan told me that he’d heard that I‘d been saying he endorsed Delgadillo. He said he had not.

I told him what I’d heard him say, above. ”Yes, that‘s about what I said,“ Riordan said.

Then Feuer called me to explain why he’d told the mayor to call me. And I told Feuer, ”I think I‘m unbuckling my saddle, because this horse is just about dead.“


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