Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Give my regards to Broadway -- then give it to Caruso

In which M2 makes a modest proposal to the city

To say that downtown Los Angeles is, to steal a line from Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) in the original Star Wars, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” would be one of the understatements of the new century.

Broadway is particularly nasty. The magnificent old buildings, built between the 1910s and the 50s – offices, apartments, coffee shops and theatres – stand largely empty, except for their ground floors. Seedy clothing shops, cheap luggage outlets, five-and-dimes, naughty bookstores, check-cashing offices and all manner of other less-than-wholesome businesses are the major occupants. Just going to see a movie or enjoy a tour at one of Broadway’s classic movie palaces can be an adventure in bum-dodging seediness.

Fact is, downtown L.A. is an awful mess, one that every do-gooder organization in town – as well as the city government itself – has failed to ameliorate. From L.A. cultural critic, Mike Davis, to the French intellectual, Bernard Henri-Levi, many have complained that Los Angeles is a city without a center. Others say Los Angeles doesn’t need one – it’s a city of neighborhoods with a hundred little centers each with its own character (between the strip mall-laden boulevards, that is). Whatever side of the argument you fall on, I think you’ll agree that it’s a damned shame to watch Broadway and downtown fall into terminal decay. But what to do about it?

Give it to Caruso – Rick Caruso, that is.

Caruso, of course, is the developer of upscale, outdoor shopping experiences – “lifetyle malls,” he calls them – such as The Grove at Farmer’s Market in the mid-Wilshire and the Promenade at Westlake. Caruso’s designers’ deft touch with classic architectural detail, judicious employment of theming, and joyful use of water make his properties more than just malls; they become neighborhood showpieces and central meeting places. I know this for a fact. I lived in Park La Brea for some years, across 3rd Street from The Grove. It was almost always a delight to go there, sit on the terrace at Ristorante La Piazza and just watch people and enjoy the sunshine, the fountain and the trolley. I think, given the right incentive, Caruso could transform Broadway from a den of sleaze into the gem of the city.

The L.A. city government should condemn the buildings on both sides of the main part of Broadway, kick most of the existing businesses out and hand them over to Caruso for development for a nominal fee – with the stricture that the overall architectural integrity of the building exteriors be maintained. Provisions would also be made for the preservation of the grand movie palaces – those actually worth preserving, that is. Caruso’s builders would then gut the bulk of the office buildings and old hotels and develop new, state-of- the-art apartments, condos, offices and hotels, with some dwellings set aside for low-income residents. The ground floors would be renovated and new retail business, restaurants, nightclubs and so forth installed. The street itself might be pedestrianized, its sidewalks expanded to accommodate outdoor cafes, and include fountains, garden landscaping and perhaps a trolley.

I know what you’re thinking. Every NIMBY, neighborhood activist, weekly paper editorial writer, preservation fanatic and public policy junkie would jump on such a deal, screaming about the social injustice of it all, suing hither and thither to keep downtown down. It's a give-away! they'll shout. Accusations of cronyism will fly like starlings to a cornfield.

Let them scream. When the dust clears, 8 or 10 years down the road, and Broadway is a gleaming jewel that everyone can enjoy, that is the center of a vibrant and economically viable neighborhood that draws people from throughout the city and even tourists from abroad, the screams will be all but forgotten.

Similar things happened in San Francisco when I lived there. The city and developers struggled for years to get a new baseball park built downtown, to develop the moribund Embarcadero and create a new museum complex in what was then the S.F. version of skid row. How they howled. But today San Francisco is home to the most beautiful ball park in America, the Embarcadero is a ribbon of silver light that arcs along the waterfront, decorated in whimsical sculpture and anchored by a renovated Ferry Building that serves as the city’s farmer’s market, and the Yerba Buena and MOMA museum complex is a patch of cultured green amid the steel and glass towers of downtown. No one is screaming now, and the city is a better place for all.

I think Los Angeles can do this downtown, and I think Caruso’s just the man to do it.

When he's done with that, then we'll see what he can do with Alcatraz, a historic eyesore if there ever was one.


Blogger J said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:36 AM  
Blogger JSM said...

It figures that someone who chooses to reside in the vapid, dull, homogenous Valley would want to see another Grove in LA - and in downtown, no less. Surely something should be done to enliven and clean up Broadway. But installing another soulless shopping mall is exactly the kind of solution that makes this city a laughing stock. Think outside the box, for chrissake.

10:26 AM  
Blogger malibu scout said...

What a great idea. Caruso is exactly the right choice for Broadway. With downtown getting spruced up at both ends, it's time to tackle Broadway.

12:16 PM  
Blogger M2 said...

JSM -- Thanks for the comment, tho' not for your insulting tone. Think outside the box? I think I have. Has anyone else proposed such a daring idea? No. Have you come up with a better one? No; that you've communicated here, anyway. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts and ideas, but let's keep the tone civil, shall we?

4:49 PM  
Blogger M2 said...

Malibu -- Thanks for your comment. Kepp reading.

4:50 PM  
Blogger JSM said...

M2, you're right, I sincerely apologize for being snappy and beligerent. No reason for it. Back to your idea: Is it new? Yes. Is it outside the box? No.

Handing over the task of developing a blighted area to a well-funded developer with a proven track record of erecting bloated hotels/malls/entertainment meccas is the common default plan for LA city officials who are desperate to see an area attract more white folks with money, but don't seem interested in maintaining or creating any of the character/originality/eccentricity that makes great cities great -- and can still attract white folks with money. (For the record, I am white folks with at least a little money)

Look at the new LA Live planned next to Staples Center, or the plans for Grand Avenue: High-profile developers installing generic chain stores, overpriced multiplexes and bad restaurants. We have enough of those in LA.

Downtown is an opportunity to give the city something different. The most obvious starting point on Broadway is that series of magnificent old theaters you mentioned. Steve Needleman spent millions restoring the Orpheum, and has gradually been bringing some great shows there (I saw hundreds of indie rock kids flood the place to see Bright Eyes). He also built four dozen lofts above the theater, which are full. But unfortunately, the rest of the theater owners aren't doing their share. Michael Delijani tried to bring an allegedly groundbreaking European theater production to one of his Broadway theaters (I think it was the Los Angeles theater), but the show sucked and the tickets were like $150. It bombed.

The fact is, most of these theater owners are inept at revitalizing their properties and neighborhoods, or simply don't care because they make enough money from occasional film shoots. However, if these theater owners were solid, community-minded, creative, entrepreneurial individuals, Broadway would be a different place. Not perfect, but well on the way to what it could be.

So, what to do? Political pressure exerts a tremendous amount of influence and power over what gets done, how it gets done, and how quickly. If the mayor, or even the city council, made it clear to these theater owners that it was in their best interest to get to work, you'd see changes. The city can also offer incentives and team up with the owners to organize events. But I think nature will run its course. The more people keep moving downtown, the more interest there will be in areas like Broadway and properties like its historic theaters. And some younger or more adventurous developers with some unique ideas and some - god forbid - taste, will start buying them up and making them lively again. The key is that the city ultimately has the final say on new developments - not only on paper, but in reality city officials can choose to get in developer's faces and demand they do x, y or z. So it's ultimately up to the city to "guide" what happens. They can greenlight a Caruso, or they can seek out more people like Needleman who can bring the Silverlake crowd to downtown (just an example of one of many non-Grove sects, which is what downtown needs, if you ask me or almost anyone who doesn't live in the suburbs -- no offense, but do we really want downtown to become another suburb?).

I say give it time. Look at what happened in, say, New York's meatpacking district. That used to be a shithole, and now no one can afford to live there and there's great restaurants and clubs. They didn't install a mall to make that happen. They let nature (or, rather, urban growth+capitalism+the city opting not to build an amusement park) run its course.

But meanwhile, we can all let the city officials know that we're watching - and we don't want to see them take the easy way out.

That's my two cents.

11:20 AM  

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