The anti-development movement has seeped into many pockets of Los Angeles, where activists have become convinced that taller buildings inexorably lead to more traffic. But downtown Los Angeles, where construction cranes line the horizon and subway trains rumble below, has mostly remained pro-growth. Until now.
An advocacy group calling itself the Society for the Preservation of Downtown L.A. (or SP–DTLA, as it is referred to on its suspiciously thorough Wikipedia page), is fighting three proposed developments in or around downtown's Historic Core district, where most buildings are, you know, old.
"I’m a longtime downtown L.A. resident," says Alex Hertzberg, SP–DTLA's executive director. "There was a time when it was just a wasteland. We had a flag out for anyone to come and develop. And that was great. But it was a long time ago. The pendulum has really swung very far in the other way."
Many of the newer projects, Hertzberg says, are two or three times the size of the older buildings, most of which were built at a time when the city limited all buildings to a height of 150 feet, or 13 stories.
SP–DTLA has singled out three projects that they say offend the character of downtown's Historic Core: a 33-story tower on Fourth and Hill; a 32-story mixed-use tower to be built on a parking lot on Hill just south of Ninth Street; and, just to the north, a 26-story tower called the Alexan Broadway. That $140 million building will loom over its next-door neighbor, the Eastern Columbia, famous for its emerald hue and beloved art deco clock tower.
The new glass building, opponents say, will obstruct people's view of the clock, hence the cry, "Don't block the clock."
Interestingly, the Eastern Columbia building itself skirted the city charter's height restrictions when it was built in the late 1920s by making its clock tower empty. That allowed the name Eastern Columbia — a furniture and clothing company for which the building served as headquarters — to rise above the sightline.
But as Noah Cross said, politicians, ugly buildings and you-know-who all become respectable if they last long enough. Now the Eastern Columbia is a treasure.
One SP-DTLA member is Harry Chandler Jr., scion of the Chandler family, which owned the Los Angeles Times for more than 100 years and was, in many ways, responsible for developing the character of Los Angeles (in the words of David Halberstam: "They did not so much foster the growth of Southern California as, more simply, invent it").
"Obviously the character of the historic core is such that there's been decades and decades of height limits that have kept it charming," Chandler says. "The last thing we want is to turn it into a high-rise city and take out all of the parking and charm."
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Of course, many people would say we need more units to offset the city's housing shortage — which many believe to be at least partly responsible for L.A.'s rapidly rising rents — and that parking lots are a waste of valuable land. But not the SP-DTLA.
"We don’t need more rental units, I’ll tell you that much," Hertzberg says. "Those statistics are predicated on the existing [housing] inventory. But we’ve had eight solid years of construction, so we don’t know what effects that inventory will have."
Another group of anti-development activists, led by AIDS Healthcare Foundation CEO Michael Weinstein, is gathering signatures for a ballot measure, dubbed the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. Its aim is to make it much more difficult for developers to obtain zoning variances — exceptions to the city's general plan that often pave the way for taller or bigger developments than would typically be allowed.
"We have not taken a position on [the initiative] as an organization," Hertzberg says. "But many of the folks we represent are very much in favor of it, even though it is a very blunt tool. I definitely could see the use of it. I think, just speaking for myself, I wish that it weren’t necessary. But it may be the only possible resort."