Thursday, March 09, 2006

HegeLiAn dialectic

In which M2 engages in dialogue with a most worthy disputant

Blogspot member, JST, writes to castigate me for my idea of letting hoity-toity developer, Rick Caruso, redevelop central Broadway in downtown L.A. (See Give my regards to Broadway -- then give it to Caruso).

Writes JST in his first note:

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.

I replied saying that I rather thought my idea new and quite "outside the box" and would JST please enlighten us with a few ideas of his own? He complied, and in abundance.

He begins:

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)

Maybe so. But I'm not a city official and that's not my intention. Rather, I want to save and preserve Broadway and the downtown area for everyone, bringing back some of the vibrancy and elegance of its past. That’s why in my original post I wrote that Caruso (or whatever developer) would operate under 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.

I should add here that I think it wise that the city also insist that the developer reserve numerous retail and dining spaces at lower rents for locally-owned businesses. I also think the city should insist the developer take care to preserve those building lobbies worth preserving. I suppose they could appoint some commission or other to oversee that.

JST continues:

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.

I was not aware of this project but will certainly look into it now that I am. But it should be remembered that in my orignal post I gave three examples of highly successful urban renewal projects I've seen in San Francisco.

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.

I think what I described in the orignal post is different. It's not a shopping mall: It's a classic street given a new life with a mix of retail, dining, offices, hotels and residences. Theaters like the Orpheum would of course be maintained as a vital part of the neighborhood.

...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?).

There are some good, if rather general, ideas here, and I say: "Get up off it, sir, and act on them."

But the endnote: 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? does rub me wrong. Here's the deal: JST seems to assume that because I choose to live in the Valley (where I have been living all of two months now), that I’m some kind of suburbanite living in a tract home with a pool that’s too big for my backyard and a minivan in my driveway – the sort of person who just doesn’t get the gritty-city aesthetic. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For the record, I live in a little garden studio in an old building my friends refer to as “funky” on Vineland near Ventura (you can see exactly where if you explore the post below). Hardly a tract-home paradise and far more bohemian than my old address in the mid-Wilshire. Prior to coming south I lived most of my adult life in San Francisco – the Tenderloin, SOMA, the Mission, Lower Haight, Hayes Valley – and lived a life so bohemian I think most Angelenos, regardless what side of the hill they live on, would be staggered if they knew the all of the details (if they believed them). I’ve also lived in truly gritty Helsinki, Finland, and in pastoral Stratford-upon-Avon. Business and travel have taken me to London, Paris, Budapest, Copenhagen, Valladolid (Mexico), New York, Philly, Atlanta and Seattle. I think I know and appreciate the urban aesthetic -- or, rather many urban aesthetics. To me, most of L.A. (both sides) looks pretty much like a big suburb.

But I digress… JST goes on:

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.

Agreed in part, but L.A. simply isn't New York; our downtown doesn't share the density of Manhattan. This is changing gradually, as the city opts to let big box developers build the kind of gawdawful, big boxy "lofts" that have uglied-up vast swaths of San Francisco's South of Market district.

I think that if the city fails to act quickly to preserve – and reinvent – Broadway and its architectural integrity, that the net effect will be an ugly hodge-podge of lofts, moribund theatres, crack dens and all that, and not the elegant boulevard that it ought to be. And I think Caruso has shown he has the skill and employs the talent to pull it off – if, as I stressed before, he’s given the right guidelines and incentives.

JST concludes:

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 certainly common ground.

Thanks, JST, for reading and taking the time to respond - and to care.


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