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The Grand Illusion?

You have to take the elevator to the top of the Department of Water and Power Building in downtown Los Angeles and look southeast, past the fountains and plazas of the Music Center, along the tree-studded County Mall between the courthouse and the county building, past the desolate “court of flags” where tar liquefies in the harsh summer heat, across the fenced parking lot next to the criminal justice center and then finally up the steps to the employees-only entrance to City Hall, to realize that there was once some planning at work here. Decades ago this was supposed to be a civic mall, modeled after the granddaddy of civic malls in Washington, D.C., but without the marble monuments.

The joint city-county Los Angeles Grand Avenue Authority this week selected the Related Companies to design a 3.2 million-square-foot development of parks, housing and commercial attractions to try, again, to turn downtown into a public square. The vote by county Supervisor Gloria Molina, Councilwoman Jan Perry, Community Redevelopment Agency chief Bud Ovrum, and county executive officer David Janssen opens a six-month negotiation period. No detailed plans or drawings have been made public. The authority insists that no taxpayer funds will be used in the development.

Such projects have never worked before, in part because Bunker Hill, the Music Center, and all the courthouses and civic buildings left out one key ingredient: residents. Supporters of the $1.2 billion Grand Avenue project, pushed by billionaire businessman Eli Broad, say things are different this time, because changes in housing laws over the last five years mean thousands of people now make downtown their home and will provide a human dimension to the monumental development.

The catch is that with its new loft-dwelling and condo-buying residents, downtown is no longer the exclusive plaything of business and civic visionaries. It is becoming a neighborhood, with a neighborhood council and residents associations, and some of the locals have their own ideas about what should go into their backyard. The success or failure of the Grand Avenue project could depend on their previously nonexistent role in the shape of the city’s center. Stay tuned.


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