December 10, 2000 - From the December, 2000 issue

Whither L.A.'s 24-Hour Downtown? Central City Association's Carol Schatz

Resembling the Greek god Themis, Carol Schatz, President & CEO of the Central City Association, has long balanced her vision for a vibrant Downtown L.A. with the reality that the core has been on the decline for more than a decade. Yet, as we enter the new millennium, the scales just might be starting to tip in her favor. TPR was pleased to have Carol share her insights on Downtown, the STAPLES expansion, and the vision necessary to access this increasingly nascent urban renaissance.


Carol Schatz

Let's start by asking you to bring our readers up to speed on the revitalization of Downtown's core. How is the effort progressing? Are your constituents seeing tangible results?

The Downtown neighborhood is very pleased with where we are in our revitalization efforts. The early ‘90s weren't particularly kind to Downtown, but we've seen extraordinary changes since then. The obvious improvements are the megaprojects-STAPLES Center, the Cathedral, the Disney Concert Hall and STAPLES Phase 2. The latter, in particular, provides an enormous opportunity to bring new life to Downtown and really ‘turn the lights on.'

However, there are other elements critical to a successful revitalization campaign that aren't quite as sexy-like building a new economy, making the streets safe and clean, and increasing the housing stock-and those projects are happening as well. Residential projects, such as the Old Bank District and the Medici, are underway, along with related constituent components like the Bank of California conversion to a trendy upscale hotel and new nightclubs like SOHO. We even have a Ralph's Supermarket just waiting for the right site.

STAPLES Center was able to transform Downtown Los Angeles from a 9:00 am to 5:00 pm community to a 9:00 am to 10:00 pm community, but we need these final pieces to move us to a 24/7 Downtown.

With the critical mass that you just described, some have argued that the plan to create STAPLES Phase 2 would draw investment too far south of the Downtown core. How is your organization, in conjunction with the Downtown BID, addressing the concern that this development might push the revitalization dynamic too far from the Central City?

We never saw it as too far south; STAPLES works where it is. However, we do need a stronger connection between the arena, the planned retail and entertainment phase, and the Downtown core. The plan has to address the transformation of Figueroa into a critical, pedestrian-oriented avenue.

One of the ways STAPLES has agreed to enhance their master plan in order to achieve that synergy is to limit the number of parking spaces in the parking structure. Why? First, because you can't get people in and out fast enough. And second, if you disperse parking so that people can walk to Phase 2 or the arena from different parts of Downtown, you draw the energy and life of STAPLES to the Central Business District and south along the Figueroa Corridor.

You mentioned housing as a key element of the core's revitalization. Most of the press around STAPLES Phase 2 has been the tourist element. Is there anything in the works right now to bring additional housing to that section of Downtown Los Angeles?

One of the most exciting features of Phase 2 is the housing component. They're currently planning to build 800 units of housing-80% market-rate and 20% low-income-along the eastern side of Figueroa between Pico and Olympic. That will be key to filling in the area and creating a residential base that can live, work, shop and be entertained in Downtown. There's no better way to fill in the vacant lots.

Another component is transportation. The Red, Green and Blue Lines' connection to Downtown have made it much easier to access the core, but unfortunately, those systems close rather early for an entertainment district trying to create a 24/7 community. Is the CCA or the L.A. Arena Company, in conjunction with Caltrans or MTA, trying to make these systems run later into the night?

STAPLES' ownership has begun those conversations, and CCA will be a strong advocate of lengthening the hours of service of those systems.

But CCA has been supporting another idea: the reintroduction of the old Red Car trolley system. The Red Car absolutely cements the historic nature of Downtown L.A. And we think it's extremely important to provide this kind of fun and historic transportation linkage between our Downtown neighborhoods.

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A concept now floating amongst our members is to use the 1% public art fee to build linkages, especially if they can be completed artistically. Those of us who are working passionately to create a 24-hour Downtown see the connection of all the districts as critical. And if the system could be a historic trolley, incorporating a whimsical design or an artistic element, that's a great use for the 1% set-aside.

We're close to presenting this idea, but aren't quite there yet.

You've been involved with Downtown and the CCA for quite some time, and you witnessed the urban core's reaction to the recession of the early '90s and the subsequent reinvestment and renewed interest in the Central City. With this current interest, can Downtown finally turn the corner and return to the glory it once possessed?

That's the bottom line. As someone who's pragmatic and must balance vision with reality, the short and sweet answer is: YES.

The difference between the current situation and years past is the amount of investment. The megaprojects mentioned earlier represent an enormous investment of private capital into Downtown. STAPLES alone is a billion-dollar investment.

Another aspect is that the private sector is now organized to create the change it believes must take place. Through organizations like the CCA and the Downtown BIDs, the private sector is taking the lead in creating the neighborhood it has always wanted. We're stepping forward and making a statement-and that's what makes the current situation very different from anything previous.

It's apparent there's synergy within the private sector--they want to see Downtown succeed. But how can we translate that into civic support, and at the same time end the myth that Downtown is unsafe and unclean?

To a certain degree, we've already done that, and we're continuing to do so with the BID. In fact, Downtown has become the safest precinct in the City. It's safe to walk around in the morning, at night, and in the middle of the day.

Certainly, it would be great if there were a public or political will to make Downtown revitalization a key priority. But other suburban and sprawl metropolises-Houston, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, San Jose, San Diego-have all reclaimed their urban centers despite considerable public sector skepticism. And once those downtowns were successfully rehabilitated, their communities realized their charm and wanted to come back. So we'll be bucking every nationwide trend if our Downtown doesn't realize a similar goal.

Every downtown in the country has gone through tough times; yet every single one has come back with a bang. And that's what Los Angeles is on the brink of doing. It's perhaps tougher here than any other place in the country--but it is happening.

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