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L.A.'s lofts lure what downtown has lacked: residents

The city is beginning to see a population boom at its center.

By Sara B. MillerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 2005


It is the hub of the world's movie industry. It boasts Bel Air and Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and the Sunset Strip.

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But for all the decades it has beckoned and seduced, Los Angeles has never had one place to call "downtown" in a traditional sense.

Now, in a city whose skyline was long dominated by the 28-story city hall, where "downtown" has conjured images of skid row and drugs while the beat of the city has thumped farther away, many say L.A. is finally finding its heart. The latest evidence: An influx of people moving downtown.

The transformation is visible in the area's historic core - the upper floors of vacant, century-old banks and Art Deco headquarters morphing into luxury lofts and condominiums. Experts say the arrival of what could be called SoHo West may bring per- manent change, and plenty of challenges, to a place that has never had the community feel of the quaint promenade at Santa Monica or the lush enclaves of Pasadena.

According to the Los Angeles Downtown Center Business Improvement District (BID), 12,000 units of housing in downtown existed prior to 1999; that number has since risen to 16,000. The BID expects the downtown population of an estimated 24,000 to double by 2008 if current housing trends continue.

"Downtown LA has finally reached critical mass," says Ken Bernstein, the director of preservation issues at the Los Angeles Conservancy. "This is not an isolated project here, a mega project there. It's the real creation of a true downtown community."

The transformation of a downtown once ridiculed for having "no there there" has been long and episodic. Urban planners set out to try to focus on a multicentered urban core after the widespread urban flight of the 1950s.

During his 20-year tenure as mayor starting in 1973, Tom Bradley envisioned a cluster of glassy skyscrapers that would serve as the center of the Pacific Rim and bring back some of the vitality of old downtown. In one sense, he was fighting the rise of what many considered America's first postindustrial city: A metropolitan area, defined by the automobile, that had no dominant core but instead was made up of a series of commercial and community "nodes" spread across the landscape.

The Bradley experiment certainly had an effect. Suddenly L.A. had a vertical skyline, anchored by the US Bank Tower - the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

More recently, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into cultural icons that have become part of the downtown landscape. This includes Frank Gehry's winged Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels - the Catholic diocese's signature church - as well as other nearby amenities like the Staples Center.

Now the arrival of more urban dwellers may bring the final - and most significant - change. Large parts of downtown L.A. remain a work-in-progress, of course, as the area undergoes a demographic shift that has brought luxury living right up to what is known as "skid row."

After work one recent evening, a cavernous cafe buzzed with local residents - artists, musicians, students. Blocks away hundreds of homeless men and women set up cardboard boxes on the sidewalks.