Now there's even less 'there there'

With no top corporate headquarters, L.A. may be a prototype of a remote- control city.

From the top floors above 333 ARCO Center, a visitor can clearly see a downtown city landscape dotted with visible signs of corporate largesse:

To the north, Disney Concert Hall rises in postmodern counterpoint to the classic architecture of the Central Library (opened in 1995) just south. To the east is the Museum of Contemporary Art (opened 1986), and to the west are skid-row centers where volunteers serve the homeless and educate poor children year-round.

This week, to the consternation of city officials and residents alike, the global oil giant that lent a monetary hand to all of these dominant fixtures of civic life has vanished overnight. With it, say many, has vanished an era of economic vibrancy within the central business district of the nation's second-largest city.

As of midnight, April 18, when ARCO disappeared into BP AMOCO (headquarters: London, England), the last Fortune 500 corporation also disappeared from downtown Los Angeles. It followed a string of mergers and exits by other Fortune 500 companies, including First Interstate Bank, Security Pacific, and, most recently, Times Mirror Co., purchased by the Chicago Tribune.

In the wake of such changes, Los Angeles is taking a long, introspective look in the millennial mirror and trying to figure out how to reinvent itself. Will the hub of this sprawling metropolis become a successful prototype of the "remote control" economy of tomorrow? Or without the fingers of local, caring businessmen over the controls, will the city become a soulless shell of past greatness?

"This is a very important turning point, both in the sense of the city's identity and its economic infrastructure," says Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at Pepperdine University's Institute for Public Policy in Malibu, Calif.

"The problem is that this was a downtown largely built to accommodate large companies and corporate headquarters, and now a big chunk of that isn't here anymore. The city is going to have to evolve into something it has never been in full - a kind of cultural center from a series of diverse satellite economies," he says.

In one sense, Los Angeles has always been a series of disparate economies that to a large extent are autonomous and self-contained: Beneath the shadow of its corporate headquarters and company high-rises, downtown satellites have included Little Tokyo, Chinatown, a garment district, a jewelry district, and a food marketing sector. Beyond that are the entertainment industry economies of Hollywood, Burbank, and the West Side, and the retail elites of Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive.

Unlike some cities, such as Chicago and Houston, Los Angeles's downtown central business core is immediately adjacent to the poorer ethnic (Korean, African-American, and Hispanic) neighborhoods of East and South Central Los Angeles, Ramparts, and Watts.

That means the viability of the central business district, without the attraction and pull of dominant central corporations, is increasingly in jeopardy. For nearly two decades, the city has tried to attract residents, businesses, retail, and entertainment entities, to make the downtown a 24-hour destination la Manhattan Island. But despite myriad efforts, commercial vacancy rates stand around 20 percent, twice the national average for central business districts of large cities.

"One of the big things missing with all these downtown companies leaving is civic involvement," notes Howard Fine, a writer for the Los Angeles Business Journal. "It used to be the CEOs sat on the boards of all the downtown organizations and contributed to various causes. There's less of that now. Why would a bank headquartered in North Carolina contribute to the downtown library fund?"

But analysts also say there is opportunity in L.A.'s current downtown crisis. Many of the office buildings built during the 1970s are ripe for restructuring into the funkier tastes of techno and e-commerce startup companies. Space is abundant, and prices are low.

On the entertainment and tourism front, three main attractions are afoot. These include the Staples Arena, which has already attracted 2.1 million visitors downtown; the Disney Concert Hall, which will bolster the cultural oasis of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion's Philharmonic home; and a new cathedral, built at a price of nearly $150 million.

"We are a work in progress," says Carol Schotz, president of the Central Business Association. Besides bills in the state legislature to provide income-tax credits to developers willing to convert 1970s buildings into live/work units, Ms. Schotz says revitalization efforts include beautification corridors and retail complexes across from the new Staples Arena, which will host this year's Democratic National Convention.

A host of telecommunications companies are currently locating vast amounts of switching equipment in downtown buildings to create a hub of fiber-optic cables. But concerns abound that such companies bring more money and machinery than people.

"I can feel the slowdown in activity here over time," says Chris Safarian, who runs a shoe repair shop in the heart of downtown. "When these companies move out, there is a vacuum."

For now, much rests with the intangibles of perception, economic need, and trendiness.

"This is something that is hard to gauge but might go either way," says Larry Kosmont, a real-estate analyst. "Once you have high vacancy rates, overall values suffer and exodus ensues. If the city can market itself better, rally some investment in public amenities, it can turn things around.... The next 18 months will tell."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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