August 30, 1992 - From the August, 1992 issue

DSPAC Leaders Offer Glimpse of Downtown Los Angeles’ Future

After two years of delay, the process of completing a “Downtown Strategic Plan” under the auspices of the Community Redevelopment Agency is back on track. Over the last few months, a star-studded consultant team has worked with the Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee (DSPAC) — consisting of key downtown stakeholders — in formulating recommendations that will result in a draft plan by this fall.

Joining The Planning Report for a roundtable on what is at stake in the DSPAC process were Robert Harris of the USC School of Architecture (co-chair of DSPAC, with Alan Woo); architect Brenda Levin; Charles Woo, a Central City East businessman; and developer/attorney Ira Yellin, who is renovating the Bradbury Building and Grand Central Market. Levin, Woo, and Yellin are each serving as co-chairs for one of  DSPAC’s three subcommittees.


Brenda Levin

Levin: The Strategic Plan is providing a sorely lacking vision for downtown — a visual sense for what downtown could be like, look like and feel like.

How would you characterize the importance of the Downtown Strategic Plan?

Yellin: What’s at stake is the economic future and well-being (and thus, ultimately, the human future) of the Southern California region. The future health and welfare of downtown is absolutely critical to the future health and welfare of the region — economically, socially, culturally, and morally.

Downtown is the Center of centers: to the extent that the center remains and becomes healthy, wealthy, and wise this region has an extraordinary future. To the extent that downtown is troubled and erratic, this region will reflect those same ills, and the social, economic and human problems will fester and multiply.

That, to me, is the overarching meaning behind this effort. In essence, we’re trying to answer the question, “Why downtown?” — why is downtown important and why must our downtown be a great downtown for the benefit of all our peoples and all of Southern California.

Then you come down to the individual sectors of downtown. As a stakeholder in the historic core, I see a rotten and rotting core, and it’s not getting any better. So long as the center of downtown is rotting away, the rest of downtown will be infected and will never tie together to become a whole city. The historic core, where I sit, is in the middle of it all and it stinks.

C. Woo: Our effort in DSPAC is to bring the city to a higher level in job opportunities and quality of life. Downtown is the center of Los Angeles in terms of job opportunities, politics and government, and transportation. When people think of Los Angeles nationwide, the picture of downtown is what they have in mind.

In Central City East we have the same problems Ira described, though we have two realities. The first is as a light industrial center providing many jobs. Because of Los Angeles’ role as a port, Central City East is the center of Pacific Rim trade and commerce. Its closeness to the financial center, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and Olvera Street enhance that image.

Yet at the same time we have the problems of crime and homelessness. What downtown will be like in 20 or 30 years depends on how we tackle those problems now.

Levin: The Strategic Plan is providing a sorely lacking vision for downtown — a visual sense for what downtown could be like, look like and feel like. For the first time it’s an integrated effort including both policies and a physical plan that meets an agenda tied to a vision for downtown.

The Strategic Plan will ultimately be the document that people refer to and reference over the next 20 years for articulating that vision. It will require being bought into by the public sector but it has engaged and involved both public and private sector stakeholders, who will be able to articulate the vision and build a consensus for the plan.

Harris: Any discussion of what DSPAC is doing has to start with the distinction between a strategic plan and some other type of plan. For example, that means the strategic plan must strike a balance between laying out a vision and a set of fundamental, enduring strategies while at the same time being specific enough that something can be implemented.

Yet it’s not a specific plan, it’s not a set of policies to be adopted like a comprehensive plan. So we have to start by breaking new ground on how to do a plan like this.

How has the process thus far been shaped by the imperative that this become a “strategic” document?

Harris: The first problem was to address the questions, where are we? What is this place? And how do we understand it? The consultants’ work has shown us that there are three elements crucial to putting that together. The first is to understand that there is a part of downtown — marked by its history, physical fabric and future potential — which the consultants remind us could be known as “The City” in London’s terms: it is a mixed-use area of commerce, cultural facilities. housing, and educational opportunities.

Side by side with that are equally important elements which in London terms could be called “the markets”: centers of manufacturing, warehousing, and industry — areas slightly behind the scenes, that make the place run.

We then see within that a regional framework of transportation and open space — a series of great open spaces with Elysian Park, Echo Park, MacArthur Park and Exposition Park to the west and the river’s potential to become a great regional park on the east. That fabric of open space plus the City and the Markets provides a comprehensive framework to understand downtown’s physical existence and cultural existence.

The consultants have proposed three other matters as central recommendations. First, any strategy depends on our having clean and safe streets. Second, we must have a level playing field so that doing business downtown (in terms of permits and cost) is competitive with doing business elsewhere. And third (though the DSPAC hasn’t yet had time to resolve this), the consultants recommended a Downtown Development Corporation that would expedite and support new enterprises.

Levin: Most of the DSPAC process has taken place in subcommittees which have met regularly, aiming toward developing a series of strategic interventions. Those interventions have now been translated into physical form ideas. With the exception of the big three concepts Bob just mentioned, we haven’t shaken down the priorities or the time frames.

As we reconvene in committees, all of us will look back to the strategic interventions as our blueprint, examining how they’ve been translated into physical forms and how we can create a hierarchy among them.

Although the Downtown Strategic Plan is a 20- or 30-year plan, what might we see from this effort in the next few years?

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Harris: It looks like the Strategic Plan will have two components. One is a set of directions and policies. The other is a set of demonstration projects which will depend on public/private cooperation.

We’ve already looked at a set of demonstration projects which the consultants have proposed, but we haven’t had the opportunity to discuss them and identify whether they’re the right ones. It is very important to have built demonstrations in the city to clarify what’s possible and to test the propositions behind the policies.

Levin: One of the most well-resolved portions of the plan has been the transportation recommendations (because the transportation consultants worked during the down time when the contract was being negotiated).

The Strategic Plan is unique because issues of urban design, open space, and conservation have been integrated with an overall transportation plan. Interestingly, they are more compatible than discordant in achieving both occupancy capacity and pedestrian quality.

What, in reviewing this plan five or ten years from now, would constitute success for the DSPAC Committee?

Yellin: I would consider the effort successful if we achieve the three themes Bob identified, together with the completion of one or more demonstration projects. Of the three issues, I think safe and clean streets is probably priority number one: nothing else will work downtown until there is both the reality and perception of safety and cleanliness, and we need a massive public-private undertaking — perhaps a “WPA”-like undertaking — to make this happen.

Part of the sophistication in the work of the third DSPAC charrette was in the consultants’ approach to dealing with the homeless and indigent communities, building a real sense of community for that area and its residents. Dealing with our “Skid Row” in an honest, comprehensive, and humane manner is an essential early step.

Also, my five-year plan would include the completion of the first phase or two of the long-needed downtown transportation system. The consultants identified what they called the downtown connector, with a central spine of an electric trolley down Broadway, connecting Chinatown to the Plaza and Union Station, to Little Tokyo, all the way to the Convention Center.

C. Woo: Success would come if a citizen of Los Angeles or a visitor came downtown and found the streets more interesting and enjoyable and less fearful; if businesses found it more profitable to do business in downtown; and if employees found a better, more convenient work environment. That’s all we’re trying to do.

What obstacles do you see that could prevent your achieving the success you’ve outlined?

Harris: There may be several obvious obstacles. One is the question of whether we can reverse decades of actions being taken unrelated to each other, both in the public and private sector. We need to assure, for example, that significant government investments would be in concert and build on each other.

On the private side, there’s the question of whether individuals and entrepreneurs will reassess the possibility of downtown. If people withhold investing waiting for a bonanza period that won’t come, then we won’t have any financing.

The other issue is the raising of the CBD cap. We’ve developed one side of downtown and used that to develop a whole set of social programs. To do that and then say, “That’s enough of that” and forget about the other side of downtown would be foolish. We’ve got a lot of work to do and it’s of enormous significance to the city. So if we fail to raise the cap, it would diminish a lot of the important activities of the Strategic Plan that relate to the unattended part of downtown.

Yellin: The ultimate obstacle will be our ability or inability to articulate why downtown is vital to everyone’s future in this region. Until and unless we can convince every City Councilperson, from San Pedro, from Chatsworth, from Westwood and from everywhere, that downtown is vital to their areas and their constituents, we will not succeed. This will be the most difficult and artful part of the whole task.

C. Woo: Other cities like Vernon, Commerce, Ontario, and Glendale are aggressively trying to get a piece of the economic pie. For a business person looking for a location, it would be so much easier in terms of regulations to go elsewhere. We have an obligation to provide those people with a reason to stay downtown and to provide for our citizens the economic opportunity and tax base in Los Angeles.

What lies ahead for the Strategic Plan process in the next few months?

Harris: We’ve had an unusual process because the consultants and DSPAC have worked quite interactively. The result is that we don’t have a draft Specific Plan document yet. But we’re about to see a dramatic leap in the form and detail of the plan, after which it will qualitatively change even further. The timetable for the draft plan is for October, though we’re already seeing partial drafts. The next month or two will be crucial and dramatic in shaping the plan.

C. Woo: We have entered the most challenging part of the whole process. We have received a set of recommendations: now is the time to come to a consensus. It’s not going to be easy, with difficult problems to tackle such as homelessness. And after we agree on a plan we have to go out and talk to our elected officials, our neighbors and business associates. But the ball is in our court — it’s up to the members of DSPAC.

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