A Decade into Downtown Revitalization, Cities Face Tough Decisions

Clement Lau on
Dec 6, 2011

Downtown Los Angeles' residential population nearly tripled between 2000 and 2008.  There are now about 45,000 people who call Downtown home, including my wife and I, who recently celebrated the anniversary of our move to Downtown (or DTLA as it's become known among locals).  We are, in many ways, exactly what planners had in mind when they began to promote downtowns as residential neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, enabling developers to convert older commercial buildings into apartments and lofts, is credited with sparking this movement. 

My wife and I rely on public transportation to get to work and share one car, which we drive primarily on the weekends.  We dine at a wide variety of restaurants, watch the latest movies at a first-rate theater, enjoy diverse cultural events, walk to our church, and go to the gym without driving.  These benefits of downtown living are obvious and have certainly helped to attract people like us to Downtown.  However, now that we are more than ten years into the rebirth of Downtown, the area's evolution remains unclear. Whether Downtown can keep its existing residents in the long-term and draw in new ones will depend to a great extent on the provision and improvement of critical amenities like schools and parks.  Two recent community meetings highlighted the divergent paths that Downtown Los Angeles—like other revitalized downtowns from Oakland to San Diego—might follow. 

  On November 3, 2011, a group of neighborhood churches hosted a town hall meeting for residents who wanted to learn more about schooling options available in the area and discuss ways to make Downtown more kid-friendly.  According to a recent study by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, over 18% of Downtown residents either have kids at home or plan to start a family soon. It was clear that contrary to public perception, there are a number of quality public and charter schools within close proximity to Downtown in neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Elysian Park.  However, some South Park residents expressed a desire for a new elementary school within walking distance from their homes. It is an understandable desire. People live downtown so that they can abandon their cars. Having to make two round-trip drives per day to pick the kids up at school defeats the purpose. 

A week later, City Councilmember José Huizar hosted "The Future of Your Downtown."  Contrary to the big picture feel of the event title, the meeting was actually focused on two related planning initiatives: Bringing Back Broadway and the L.A. Streetcar. Bringing Back Broadway is the effort to revitalize Broadway, one of the birthplaces of vaudeville and film, and one of the city's oldest, most storied corridors.  The proposed L.A. Streetcar is an approximately 4-mile system that would serve areas including Bunker Hill, Grand Avenue and the Music Center, Historic Broadway and the Historic Core, South Park, LA Live, and the Convention Center.  

As a Downtown resident, I certainly like to see exciting new projects. However, a cohesive vision of the future of Downtown appears to be missing.  By this, I mean that there are numerous planning efforts happening in DTLA, but they seem to be considered in isolation rather than together comprehensively (the same could probably be said for the other California cities that are planning streetcar lines, see CP&DR Vol. 25, No. 21, Nov. 2010).Tellingly, the issue of schools was only briefly mentioned at this meeting when a member of the audience asked about the potential to convert unused historic commercial buildings on Broadway to charter or public schools.  As well, this meeting was generally more concerned about attracting visitors to DTLA rather than maintaining or increasing its residential population.         

DTLA can be both a vibrant residential community and a successful tourist attraction; the two visions can complement rather than conflict with each other.  However, much more resources and attention have been given to projects designed primarily to attract visitors like Bringing Back Broadway, the L.A. Streetcar, and even a professional football stadium.  In order to create well-rounded urban centers in Los Angeles and elsewhere, planning efforts must focus on maintaining and growing resident populations. This means the provision of quality schooling and recreational options must become priorities in Downtown. My sister often gives me props for living the true urban life.  I am convinced that more people will continue living this urban life or try it for the first time when they are assured that DTLA does not just offer good restaurants, shops, and entertainment, but also great schools, parks, and other vital amenities.   

Planners, developers, and civic leaders deserve credit for the massive efforts they have put forth to make old city centers viable residential areas. But planning is a perpetual, generational project.  It is not enough to look ten years back and marvel at how far we have come. We also have to look ten, or twenty, years ahead and decide what sort of life downtown dwellers want for themselves and—by then—for their children. 

Clement Lau is a planner and freelance writer based in Los Angeles.