On a warm summer night in 2004, Brigham Yen, then a fresh-faced Berkeley graduate, drove to the empty intersection of Seventh Street and Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles and pondered the future. Amid the deafening silence of the city's deserted streets, he surveyed abandoned storefronts housed within beautiful historic structures whose grandeur, though faded, yearned to be showcased again. The city's adoption of the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance in 1999 had opened a new chapter for its long-forgotten center by permitting empty historic buildings in the downtown core to be converted into housing. It was a crazy, untested experiment of urban living in a city whose image had been defined by the automobile and sun-soaked sprawl for several generations. Inspired by New York City and traditional urban city centers like it, Yen was excited by the idea of building something similar but uniquely Los Angeles in his hometown.
Since that evening, downtown L.A. has steadily evolved. In July 2007, the opening of a Ralphs grocery store on Ninth Street — after 50 years without a downtown supermarket — validated the central city's then-nascent residential popula communities had long taken for granted. Other grocers later joined the mix, with Whole Foods on Grand Avenue being the most significant recent addition. In 2008, as the country entered the great recession, the L.A. Live complex debuted after three years of construction, offering the first glimpse of a sports and entertainment district that is still coming into focus adjacent to the L.A. Convention Center in the South Park district. Bottega Louie's 2009 opening at Seventh Street and Grand Avenue, where Yen had first explored several years prior, ignited a dynamic downtown dining scene that continues to expand and receive national attention. The 2010 opening of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences, part of L.A. Live's second phase, marked several firsts for the central city. The hotel's tower was the first skyline-altering structure to be constructed downtown since the office boom of the 1980s and '90s. It also was the first project to bring five-star hotel accommodations and luxury condominium units to the area.
Today, the blocks surrounding L.A. Live are filled with cranes and construction crews, replacing acres of surface parking with high-rise residential units, hotel rooms and, soon, retail. Meanwhile, trendy hotel brands that would once have selected the city's Westside as the only suitable location for an L.A. outpost now dot the downtown landscape, making it one of the region's most promising hospitality markets.
This story of growth and rejuvenation has played out across downtown's unique districts, forming a distinct city within a larger metropolis. The Wilshire Grand Tower is now a landmark in the Financial District, while the opening of the Instagram-friendly Broad Museum on Bunker Hill added yet another cultural attraction to the city's most prominent arts corridor, bringing needed street life to a quiet corporate office district. The introduction of Hauser & Wirth to the Arts District reimagined an entire block by creating a multifunctional space that serves as a traditional gallery, gathering space and dining destination all in one. Meanwhile, refreshed landmarks in the city's historic core, such as the Grand Central Market and Clifton's Cafeteria, have made once-significant destinations relevant to a new generation of Angelenos and visitors, effectively blending old and new in a city often maligned for its lack of history.
Broadway, the city's original retail corridor, also is preparing for its comeback. Once Los Angeles' premier shopping destination, the street is now home to a small but growing mix of independent and mainstream brands at its southern end, ranging from Acne Studios and Theory to West Elm and Urban Outfitters. Apple's highly anticipated flagship store, which is set to take over the Tower Theatre at Eighth and Broadway, is expected to set a new precedent in the area. There's also the streetcar in the works under the aegis of City Councilman José Huizar, who's behind the Bringing Back Broadway initiative; it's now projected to be running a 23-stop loop by 2021.
Despite this rebirth, downtown L.A. is a place of striking contrasts. New hotels, restaurants and residential complexes border Skid Row, the nation's largest concentration of homeless people. While the issue is being recognized as a regional one with a variety of contributing factors, it remains heavily entrenched in downtown. Recent ballot initiatives have seen residents approve a series of measures designed to provide funding for the construction of homeless housing throughout the city; however, identifying land on which to build these projects has proven politically challenging for civic leaders. Early success stories such as the Bridge Home project in the El Pueblo District near Olvera Street are promising but feel overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the problem. Time will tell if these initiatives lead to successful long-term solutions or if they spur continued conversations on closely related issues such as mental health reform and regional housing supply constraints.
After 14 years, Yen, who has helped to shepherd changes in downtown L.A. while also chronicling them in his popular DTLA Rising blog, remains optimistic about its future. As the story of the downtown renaissance writes its next chapter, he reflects on the central city's journey, where it's going and some of the challenges it still faces. In this issue, readers will explore the changing face of the central city through its food, music and cultural offerings. From the accessible dining that is now transforming the Eighth Street corridor to the strengthening of downtown and adjacent cultural hubs like Grand Avenue and nearby Exposition Park, it's an exciting time to live, work and play in the urban heart of Los Angeles.
L.A. WEEKLY: How does the downtown Los Angeles of 2018 compare to the one you first explored in 2004? What are the most significant changes?
BRIGHAM YEN: The downtown L.A. of today is virtually unrecognizable when compared to the one I encountered back in 2004 when I first began seriously exploring it after college. Back then, it was pretty much a ghost town. It was both sad and beautiful at the same time. There were so many architecturally beautiful buildings — many of them historic — but everything seemed abandoned and left for dead. At the time, the idea of having an active, urban downtown with unique flourishing businesses felt like a pipe dream.
Today, I still walk around downtown in awe, and it never ceases to amaze me how much there is here now. Places that were once abandoned have gained a new lease on life and formerly sad, empty and wasteful parking lots have sprouted new towers with great businesses on the ground floor, activating our sidewalks with vibrant pedestrian activity. It's so exhilarating to me to now be able to cross the street and see people walking with me at all times of the day. That was not the case 14 years ago, when the central city literally shut down by 5 p.m. DTLA has become the antithesis to "L.A. car culture" while renewing itself as the "real L.A." at the same time.
Downtown has obviously come a long way. What's next for the area? Are there upcoming developments that particularly excite you?
Although downtown has come a long way, it still feels like a child from a development standpoint, especially when compared with more established urban centers. Downtown still has a way to go before it can become a fully self-sustaining community that offers its denizens anything they can possibly need or want. There are many conveniences that other established L.A. communities are able to offer that haven't made their way here just yet, but that's gradually changing. I believe downtown L.A. has great potential and can reach that long-term goal, especially as we continue to attract more investment into the area.
I'm always excited to see new downtown developments take shape, and I'm really looking forward to several exciting projects currently in the pipeline such as the Grand Avenue Project on Bunker Hill, the Colburn School expansion, the completion of Oceanwide Plaza by Staples Center and new infrastructure like the Metro Regional Connector. When it comes to public space, I am particularly excited about the future reimagining of Pershing Square, which I view as an "urban glue" that will be a catalyst for much-needed upgrades to the surrounding blocks. That project could instantly transform one of the city's worst public spaces into one of its best.
What do you see as the downtown area's most significant challenges, and are there solutions in sight?
I believe mobility and entrenched societal issues like homelessness will continue to be challenges that we must face head on. It's hard to argue against the need to focus on resolving the homeless crisis that is reverberating across the city, and particularly downtown, where it negatively impacts the quality of life for both the unhoused and housed alike. Decentralizing services across the county rather than further concentrating poverty in Skid Row will be important long-term. It is going to require effort, courage and action to make this a reality. Homelessness is a complex problem, but one thing most can agree upon is that it is a regional issue that must be addressed as such, with communities outside of downtown L.A. also being part of the solution. Permanent supportive housing with mental health treatment that can assist those struggling with mental illness and/or drug addiction must be built throughout the region, not only downtown L.A. or Skid Row.
When it comes to mobility, we need to continue making downtown streets safer and more attractive for multimodal transit, especially walking, biking and public transportation. Our streets must also be able to adjust to and accommodate new means of mobility, like the increasingly popular dockless scooters and bikes that are revolutionizing connectivity. The MyFigueroa project was a great start but we need to implement this "complete streets" concept to more thoroughfares in downtown L.A. in order to form a usable network of protected bike lanes that create practical accessibility.
The last 10 years have been a period of strong growth for downtown L.A. Where do you see the area going over the course of the next decade, and what role will it play in the region?
I feel like downtown L.A. has really hit a critical mass. It's not a flash in the pan or going away, as some critics argued during past boom and bust cycles when the area failed to establish itself as a stable urban center. Downtown L.A. has established itself as a major player not only within the region but globally as well. Over the last couple of decades, over $20 billion has been invested in downtown, which means we're here to stay this time. Today, there are half a million downtown office workers and over 70,000 Angelenos who call DTLA home. More amenities and services will continue to find opportunities downtown, catering to the growing population base. I see downtown's role within the region also growing in significance, fulfilling its symbolic role as L.A.'s true urban center.
High-profile companies such as Warner Music Group and tech startup Honey will be opening their headquarters in downtown L.A. Despite this, the downtown office market still has a high vacancy rate. How do you see downtown evolving as an employment center?
I think it will take time for downtown to reposition itself as a preeminent regional office market. We are obviously now in direct competition with the Westside and even the San Fernando Valley, as Warner Music Group's departure from Burbank shows. There are pros and cons to downtown L.A.'s geographic location, and our goal as downtown advocates is to turn as many cons into pros as possible.
Part of the issue (and one of the cons) lies with the availability of executive-0x000Aquality housing options for the CEOs of the world, who often make decisions on where companies should locate a headquarters or large regional office. Currently, a sizable portion of the most attractive housing stock resides on the Westside near the ocean. In order for downtown L.A. to be more effective at attracting companies to relocate, we have to create an attractive environment that appeals not only to employees, which we are currently doing with the new housing stock being added, but also to top management seeking a housing product that rivals the luxury caliber seen on the Westside, though in an urban format.
In addition, downtown L.A. will need to continue adding amenities and services that support a growing population and the needs and demands that mature communities offer. New projects like Metropolis, Oceanwide and Circa help us toward that goal.
With all that said, there is nowhere else in the region that has the type of infrastructure we have here in downtown L.A. Being the hub of an expanding multibillion-dollar rail system cannot be replicated and will become increasingly attractive to a new generation of Angelenos who value an urban lifestyle that is sustainable and multimodal. I think we're at the cusp of seeing more employers take advantage of what downtown has to offer.
After 14 years of being involved in downtown, are there aspects of it that still surprise or inspire you?
I am always surprised by how many people have not heard about what's going on down here, even within our own city limits. I enjoy dispelling the myth that L.A. has no urban center, even among Angelenos who remember the downtown L.A. of the past. There is still much work to be done to continue making downtown a vibrant, urban center that has everything one could need or want. However, seeing the amount of pride people have in our city center's rebirth always inspires me to continue fighting for positive changes and sustainable growth.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
What are your favorite downtown L.A. haunts?
It's so hard to choose my favorite spots in downtown when I love pretty much all of it! I would have to say I am a huge fan of all the architectural treasures that can be found throughout the area and the uniquely downtown destinations and landmarks, like the Last Bookstore and Grand Central Market. Oh, and who doesn't love taking a ride up and down Angels Flight?
What would be your dream project for downtown L.A., if you could make anything happen?
I would love to see a permanent art piece by world-renowned artist Janet Echelman installed along the arts corridor of Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill. If you're familiar with her work, you'll know exactly what I mean. Her colorful sculptures are incredibly dynamic and graceful as they sway with the wind. I envision one of her pieces suspended above Grand Avenue (possibly between Wells Fargo Center and California Plaza), visually welcoming visitors to the West Coast's most significant cultural hub. She has a wonderful, large-scale installation in Boston but I would love to see something of a similar scope on Grand Avenue.