One of the things prominently on display at this year's California Chapter, American Planning Association conference was the evolution of the City of Los Angeles from a gargantuan suburb into a true "big city."

New mixed-use and adaptive reuse projects are located all around the conference site in Hollywood, often within easy walking distance of a Red Line subway station. Conference attendees who ventured onto the Red Line encountered a bustling public transit system no matter the time of day.

A breakout session on Tuesday explained the city's adaptive reuse ordinance and related programs.  But what the session highlighted was the re-birth of downtown Los Angeles as a desirable place to live for more than 10,000 people.

Similarly, another breakout session on transit-oriented development focused on new development projects adjacent to transit stations along the Red Line and the Gold Line. But what that session highlighted was the re-birth of Los Angeles as a high-density big city where tens of thousands of people live in a setting more like New York or San Francisco than Los Angeles.

The downtown adaptive reuse session, naturally, featured Tom Gilmore, the developer rightly credited with getting things turned around. A New York transplant, Gilmore in 1999 started acquiring properties east of Pershing Square. It was "an absolutely vacant" part of downtown at the time. Scores of buildings housed only pigeons, squatters and drug dealers. Tent encampments for homeless people lined the streets. Even most social service agencies had abandoned the neighborhood. But what Gilmore saw was first-rate Beaux Arts architecture, great location � and a world of potential.

Gilmore deemed the area the "Old Bank District," a name he made up out of thin air. The name stuck. The city started to cooperate, people started to believe, and now people who could live anywhere choose to reside in these old mid-rise office, retail and industrial buildings that Gilmore and others have converted to residential uses.

All of the presenters � Gilmore, downtown City Councilwoman Jan Perry, former city building official Hamid Behdad (who also worked in three mayoral administrations) and architect Wade Killefer � emphasized the need for vision and political willpower, because the usual processes and political inclinations are lined up against such ambitious projects. It's almost always cheaper and easier to ignore slums or to demolish decrepit buildings, and the situation with Gilmore's Old Bank District was no different. (Behdad: "If Jesus Christ came to the City of Los Angeles to get a permit to save the world, he would just say, 'Ah, the hell with it.'")

You can see for yourself that downtown is on the rebound. Formerly frightful places feel almost inviting. Cranes are everywhere. Yet Gilmore warned that downtown needs another 10 years of progress before it is sustainable economically and socially.

Meanwhile, Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) big shot Don Spivak and Housing Department head Mercedes Marquez talked about some of the biggest and most impressive transit-oriented development projects anywhere on the West Coast � especially in North Hollywood along the Red Line and at Gold Line stations between downtown L.A. and South Pasadena.

Especially impressive are the Gold Line developments � many of them affordable � at virtually every station in the City of Los Angeles. These include more than 500 units at the Lincoln Heights/Cypress Park station on Avenue 26 and more than 100 units at the Highland Park station on Avenue 57. The Lincoln/Cypress station is three minutes from Union Station, while the Highland Park station is seven minutes from Union Station.

The city is also developing more than 400 units at Taylor Yards, which � though a mile from the Gold Line � is located adjacent to the Metrolink line. No Metrolink station is currently open, however.

Marquez said the Housing Department has been working with CRA, the Department of Transportation, and other city agencies to acquire land for affordable housing "ahead of the curve," before the presence of transit stations

Marquez said the Lincoln/Cypress project is "the fastest selling condo complex in all of Southern California because of the money we put in for soft seconds." The Housing Department controls the largest housing trust fund in the country. Most of the units have deed covenants guaranteeing affordability.

Up to now, most TOD along the Gold Line has occurred in the more affluent communities of South Pasadena and Pasadena. Gold Line ridership has generally been below expectations because the light-rail line is slow and travels through relatively low-density neighborhoods. However, Gold Line ridership has increased 26% during the last year, to 24,000 riders per day. This compares to a 14% increase on all rail lines in L.A. and only a 5% increase on the Orange Line bus rapid transit in the San Fernando Valley. Overall, more than 300,000 people a day now ride rail and BRT lines in Los Angeles.

� Paul Shigley and Bill Fulton