Los Angeles has long been a city associated with the common ills of urban excess: sprawl, homelessness, and congestion. More charitable descriptions paint it as West Coast paradise, boasting sunshine and celebrities in equal measure.
A three-day visit to downtown Los Angeles exposed the nuances behind these stereotypes. Hosted by the Los Angeles Downtown Center Business Improvement District, which is focused on strengthening downtown as an innovation district, our visit began as a real estate tour but quickly revealed regeneration and innovation activity that confounded our expectations.
Downtown LA (DTLA)’s innovation district focuses not just on tech firms but also on historic LA industry strengths like fashion, design, and real estate. LA may have sat in the shadow of the Silicon Valley tech boom, but it appears to be revitalizing in time for the convergence economy, in which tech is no longer a separate sector but ingrained in all forms of economic and creative activity.
And at a time where firms are revaluing proximity, vibrancy, and authenticity, DTLA could not be in a better place. While a number of U.S. cities subjected their downtowns to a range of urban renewal initiatives, the urban fabric of DTLA is largely intact. Vibrant areas like South Broadway feature boutique hotels, a dozen theatres, and clothing stores and bars that exist in historic infrastructure like reclaimed theatres. There is an urban feel that is authentically LA.
The initial renaissance of DTLA began in the late 1990s, after the residential units within its 65 blocks had dwindled to just 10,000.
Along with transportation improvements, permissive planning policies such as adaptive reuse—which allowed commercial buildings to be converted into residential use—were instrumental in increasing DTLA’s residential population. Since 1999, the residential population and housing units have tripled. With new bars and restaurants springing up on every corner, it is no surprise that three-quarters of DTLA’s current residents are aged between 23 and 44.
Building on this residential surge, an increasing number of businesses are now setting up or relocating downtown.
DTLA office space has not always been an easy sell. Employers balk at the prospect of subjecting their workforce to the punishing commute. And Bunker Hill and the adjacent Financial District, the epicenter of the central business district, offers little more than unpopulated plazas and cubicled office space.
DTLA has worked to serve its newfound residential population and attract more workers and companies by retrofitting buildings to modern aesthetic standards. The exposed brickwork and ceiling equipment of many DTLA offices like those of Nationbuilder, an online platform used for political and civic campaigns, is not just a statement of style but a conscious decision to make downtown office buildings feel hospitable to creative firms. The BLOC, a 1.9 million square foot retail development, is essentially a mall that has been turned inside out, with the roof removed to reveal an open air plaza, unrecognizable from the fortress-style building that once sat in the same spot.
While downtown’s office blocks are a fantastic asset in attracting innovation activity, the area also boasts a vast amount of warehouse space. These larger footprints, most often used for textile or food production, are attracting a range of activities that require space or, in the case of Tesla’s Hyperloop, secrecy. Such industrial firms are interspersed with new art galleries and a historic knitting mill, proof of the area’s artistic heritage.
The individuals leading the drive for a DTLA innovation district, such as Nick Griffin, director of Economic Development for the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, are realistic about challenges, such as the lack of quality public space, and proactive in leveraging existing assets, such as the large supply of creative office space.
These efforts and LA’s distinctive industry strengths are combatting one of the biggest challenges to attracting businesses downtown: the strength of competing areas like Silicon Beach, which includes Santa Monica and Playa del Rey and offers an established tech ecosystem alongside an attractive location.
Another challenge? Like many U.S. cities, LA bears the scars of suburban sprawl and a legacy of under investment in public transportation. Congestion is a constant complaint.
But here too LA is making progress.
In November, Angelinos will vote on an extension of Measure R—a 2008 ballot initiative raising the sales tax to fund core transportation projects—to provide sustainable funding for transportation infrastructure and improve access to the city center through the metro system.
Other ambitious projects, such as the Regional Connector, a light rail subway through the middle of downtown, will have a profound effect on the area’s connectivity. This project is not just about getting people to and from downtown—it will also have a transformative effect on public space. The city is working with Project for Public Spaces to redesign one of the Connector’s hubs, Pershing Square, with the aim of providing a public space where employees and residents can convene and collaborate.
Connectivity will play a vital role in the continuing success of DTLA’s resurgence. But the DTLA innovation district’s main opportunity lies in better serving and connecting the people who make it work. With hometown authenticity and civic commitment, DTLA is on its way to creating a city center that is greater than the sum of its parts.
DOWNTOWN LA IN NUMBERS
Size: Approx 8.6 sq. miles
Major districts: Civic Center, Bunker Hill, Financial District, South Park, Fashion District, Jewelry District, Historic Core, Little Tokyo, Exposition Park, Toy District, Central City East, Arts District, City West, Chinatown, and Central Industrial District
Residential population: 60,600
66% of residents are between the ages of 23 and 44
Average median household income: $98,000
Education status: 79% of residents hold a college degree
Average workday population: 500,000
Photo Credit: Hunter Kerhart