April 17, 2024 - From the April, 2024 issue

Revitalizing Downtown Los Angeles: A Conversation with Nella McOsker, Central City Association's Visionary Leader

In this illuminating interview with Nella McOsker, we delve into the core mission of the Central City Association (CCA) and its strategic approach to navigating the post-pandemic challenges facing downtown areas across the globe. As the CCA's spokesperson, McOsker discusses the multifaceted initiatives aimed at ensuring a vibrant and resilient future for Downtown Los Angeles. From addressing the impact of remote work on urban centers to outlining the pivotal findings of the RISE Cross-Sector Collaboration report, McOsker provides insights into key strategies encompassing public space revitalization, economic incubation, public safety enhancement, and envisioning the city's future. Additionally, she sheds light on CCA's involvement in the planning for the 2028 Olympics, fostering cultural investments, and addressing pressing issues such as homelessness. Through collaborative efforts and innovative approaches, McOsker and the CCA are spearheading transformative initiatives to shape the future landscape of Downtown LA, fostering a dynamic and inclusive environment for residents, visitors, and businesses alike.

Nella Mcosker

“ We [have] planning and building codes to ensure that we're flexibly using space to adjust to different needs. ... There's a whole host of different uses that people want to experience in the public realm.”

TPR: Nella, let's begin by sharing both the mission and board members who help guide, the Central City Association (CCA).

Nella McOsker: CCA’s mission is to ensure a vibrant Downtown Los Angeles and expand opportunities across the region. Our board and membership is comprised of large employers, businesses, and major institutions involved with education, civic arts, culture, and the nonprofit world – the ecosystem that you would imagine present in a downtown CBD, but also representative of the wider Los Angeles region.

TPR published an exit interview with your predecessor, Jessica Lall on central cities around the country which asked her to comment on WSJ story provocatively titled: Can San Francisco Save Itself From the Doom Loop. Could you address how CCA has responded to what’s become - post pandemic-  a global, national, and local challenge for downtowns and central business districts?

The pandemic brought to light many issues that were already building. One really big trend that persisted is work from home, which has impacted the city center by reducing the number of employees that come regularly.

We still see fluctuations and positive trends toward people being in the office. But this is paired with increases in the number of people experiencing homelessness. There is both real and perceived lack of safety in Downtown, which has contributed to this challenge of trying to recover the city center. Los Angeles is not like other cities, as some of these factors are true for all CBDs across this country. Downtown LA has gone through transformations like this before, and what makes us excited is that as we look at what other cities are trying to do or where they're more successful – like investments in tourism, entertainment, and sports – we have tremendous opportunities in the next few years.

We're also seeing higher education institutions coming in and finding opportunities with gorgeous real estate that is available. We have some of that going for us already. I'll mention that our group of RISE stakeholders who convened for the better part of last year to develop a report is focused on some of these core recovery pillars.

Share the findings of CCA’s RISE Cross-Sector Collaboration report, as it is serving as a roadmap to future planning? (link to full report) https://www.ccala.org/news/2023/12/13/press-release/release-cca-releases-rise-cross-sector-collaboration-to-chart-dtla-s-resilient-future/

RISE stands for…

1) Reinvigorate public space. The public realm is so important to visitors, residents, and tourists that come into Downtown. We have assets that could be better utilized and invested in to ensure that the public realm is active and well-used.

2) Incubate economic opportunities. We have the convention center as a great example of an economic opportunity to ensure that we attract major conventions, many of which are eager to come to Los Angeles but some of which are so large that they're going to our competitors' cities in the region. It is also a host site for the Olympic Games in 2028.

3) Strengthen public safety. We know that safety and wellness in our city centers are so key. This includes a whole host of tactics and tools from traditional law enforcement investments to unarmed response models. We know there are different needs for people experiencing a mental health crisis or those needing to ensure their safety and wellness in our streets.

4) Envisioning Downtown's future. It's going to look different. In the late 90s, largely due to a lot of CCA members’ leadership, the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance came along and truly transformed Downtown from a sleepy office park into a thriving residential community with a collection of different types of neighborhoods.

Indeed, 12,000 units were built in the subsequent years, about a third of all units Downtown. We know that the Downtown Community Plan, by conservative estimates, will help enable the production of about 100,000 new units in Downtown. There's a strong residential population and occupancy, which tells us that people want to live in a city center with great access to transit, amazing amenities, restaurants, entertainment, arts and culture institutions. The Downtown we envision will continue to be this exciting place for residents and students as well. And we would like to attract a combination of visitors and residents who reside in our urban landscape.

Elaborate on what CCA’s board members believe street Life will return to normal. 

There are exciting developments in private sector investments. We're also seeing some of our BIDs and major employers creating those street events, attracting their employees to come to experience them, which then furthers that greater benefit of coming into the office that day.

We explored a partnership on this front with LA Metro, coinciding with the opening of three new regional connector stations last summer. This is exciting from a transit perspective as the stations not only connect the far reaches of the Los Angeles region in a one-seat ride, but also allow people to take micro trips through Downtown from Little Tokyo to Bunker Hill.

When we hosted events to showcase these new stations, we saw a great turnout, with different kinds of people coming to experience that – residents, families, and employees. I think more of that is needed, and it’s an opportunity for partnership across many sectors or across different stakeholder agencies that have a vested interest in reinvigorating the public realm.

The DTLA’s 2040 Plan has been in review process for some time and is still not finalized . CCA Stakeholders clearly have been hampered by not having a city council person who has the respect of the other council members. How now do you now get that plan over the finish line?

It is close and it is currently in review at the City’s Attorney's Office. There are a few components that necessitate report backs to the City Council. Ultimately, the plan will allow another 100,000 units, about a fifth of the city's housing requirements. We're talking about the city leaning on Downtown L.A. to help alleviate the housing crisis.

It's important to note: that's something that a whole host of city leaders are getting behind. Understanding the need for a fifth of the city’s housing is not going to rest in a single council office, based on the significance of its importance. We're all trying to help accomplish this goal of creating more housing units so that people can live in Los Angeles.

Regarding the City and CCA’s housing agenda, the LA Planning Department’s leadership seems to be myopically focused on housing supply, and less in placemaking. With commercial space and downtown street life is suffering, wouldn’t the absence of placemaking impact the quality of life in LA’s business district? What assures you that the plans being considered today will encourage healthier placemaking that attracts younger residents & businesses?

Planning has put out a city-wide Adaptive Reuse Ordinance. This allows for a greater range of uses for any type of building – thinking about rooftops as a component of placemaking.

We make those planning and building codes to ensure that we're flexibly using space to adjust to different needs. As our city center continues to evolve, we would then apply that throughout the city. It is important for Downtown especially, but also for other sections of Los Angeles that have a similarly rich and dense urban feel. There's a whole host of different uses that people want to experience in the public realm.

Recently MUSE/IQUE, a Los Angeles-based organization that produces live musical experiences performed at the Taper Forum, drawing capacity audiences over a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday weekend.  Given that the Taper Forum, like DTLA, is in the process of reinventing itself, what are you hearing about efforts to do just that?

All of our members and cultural institutions along Grand Avenue are coordinating efforts and figuring out how to create cultural investments or designations to help spur that attraction. There's a lot of creativity and focus on this. I think of our members like the Center Theatre Group or the American Contemporary Ballet exploring ways to bring an art or performative experience to the company or organization of downtown.

It has to be stitched together and connected to this idea of benefiting anyone’s trip downtown, considering residents who may be outside of the downtown boundary. I think it all sort of snowballs into a series of benefits for our residents, and more people would be compelled to come if they remember what an exciting place it is to grab dinner and watch a show. There is so much to experience within this section of our city that needs that kind of attention, love, and support.

The Mayor, in preparation for 2028 Olympics, recently returned from Paris after observing the planning of their 2024 Games. Share CCA’s input and involvement in Olympics’ planning?

We were recently able to speak with Councilwoman Traci Park who was part of that delegation. She shared her learnings from that trip to Paris and Tokyo, mostly about timelines and how to work backward from challenges faced in the final six months to a year before the event. She emphasized the different buckets of major infrastructure investments. She also discussed the more important efforts of leveraging needed volunteer support, as well as necessary street-level improvements. 

Next week, we are convening our members with the deputy mayor who is responsible for coordinating the city's efforts on the Games. Our members are ready to roll up their sleeves and leverage this as an opportunity for Downtown recovery.

These games will be truly regional, in terms of the locations of the different events, like the Coliseum, Downtown, Sofi Stadium, and the villages at UCLA. How does Central City compete for attention?

People will be in Downtown. They will be attending events at the convention center, and international travelers will be in the Central Business District. I think about it as ensuring we use these as opportunities for visitors to take transit rides, experience events, and visit Downtown. We want to make sure our businesses, cultural institutions, and restaurants are part of that experience and are part of the continued recovery.

Some city & community stakeholders assert that the LA 2028 Olympic Committees are the least transparent planning organizations in Los Angeles. How have CCA’s conversations been going?

They have been going well, and there are more to come. After the Paris Games are over, there will be a continued focus on Los Angeles. We have been having good dialogue, and always welcome more.

Given who the Dodgers acquired this off-season, there is an increased international interest with the team and Dodgers Stadium, Is the city prepared for the influx coming from Japan and the far east in the next months to come?

Of course, and we welcome it. It is another good reminder that there is a balance between focusing on the Downtown geography and that it is connected to Dodger Stadium. That connection via transit access or other opportunities. We realize and appreciate this amazing asset and opportunities that come from people who visit Dodger Stadium.

Is Little Tokyo considered as part of CCA?

Totally and we are excited for it. I'm part of the Ohtani craze. Any influx of travelers is another huge opportunity. I was just speaking with an artist in partnership with a BID to find a site for a mural. There are ripple effect benefits. This takes us back to the public realm and placemaking as we welcome this exciting new player. And new demographic to our games into our city.

We can’t conclude without addressing homelessness… which challenges the entire west coast. A recent CNN homeless report focused on Los Angeles, starting with the Mayor Bass. How does CCA define the problem and address the challenge? 

Downtown Los Angeles is home to probably the largest concentration of people experiencing homelessness in the country, if not the globe. There needs to be a different approach to Skid Row and to the entire population experiencing homelessness within Downtown and Los Angeles broadly. We are very encouraged and supportive of the mayor’s efforts. Her singular focus on this issue and how she has created different conversations and collaborations with all levels of government is tremendous. Some within our CCA membership are the very service providers working with that population every single day, doing tremendous work building new permanent supportive housing and other housing solutions. We just need much more continued effort. We need all hands on deck, from every type of business and organization, because everybody plays a role in solving this challenge.

There's no doubt the mayor has taken leadership here and put the target on her back. However, no one has done autopsy of the Skid Row Development Corporation and the model we use to fund and build this housing. Have you had your members because it seems to have collapsed?

There are some structural challenges we have become increasingly aware of. I think asking these types of hard questions about ourselves, our institutions, and our approaches is part of this process. I continue to stay optimistic because I think there is alignment around those questions, the data, and a commitment by everybody to do it in the most impactful, comprehensive way.

Last question: When USC plays Notre Dame, who do you personally root for?

Go Irish! Although I have many friends, colleagues, and mentors who are Trojans. The CCA Centennial this year is at the Coliseum, and I will have one day that I break from focusing on the Irish.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.