A plan to invest big bucks in a big dream for downtown L.A.

Downtown Los Angeles appears headed for a skyline makeover.

A $2 billion plan to build a mini- complex of office and residential towers at the city's center – approved Tuesday in a rare act of collaboration by the Los Angeles City Council and the County Board of Supervisors – would be the largest single development in city history.

But whether the plan will bring to sprawling L.A. a "destination" equivalent of a Times Square or a Champs Elysées – as many residents and urban planners hope – depends upon whom you ask.

At least five new high-rise buildings – two of them dedicated to 1,000 units of housing for people all income levels – are at the center of the so-called L.A. Grand Avenue Project. It aims to create dense housing in areas next to rail lines, the new concert hall, the downtown Music Center, and shopping areas. The approved plan also calls for a 16-acre park.

"L.A. is trying to restore the texture of the downtown it once had but sterilized when it went on a skyscraper building boom from the 1950s to the 1980s," says John Norquist, president of Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago, which promotes land-use alternatives to sprawl.

The plan's strength is its mix of residences, offices, and shops, he says. But such a large development, if poorly handled, could misfire. "I'd feel better if there were a spread of smaller, diverse projects, so that if one goes wrong, other creative alternatives could offset it," says Mr. Norquist.

Supporters see the plan as a turning point after years of struggle over how to give Los Angeles a cultural hub. They credit local backers, led by billionaire Eli Broad, with a bold attempt to put Los Angeles in a league with cities like New York, Paris, and London.

Detractors cite $40 million to $60 million in tax breaks for developers over the next 20 years, and suggest taxpayers may be the losers if the makeover fizzles.

"The trouble with subsidized projects like this is that developers and politicians benefit, [and] the taxpayer gets shafted," says Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History." "The city often ends up with something market forces don't support."

Some lament, too, that the new high-rises might clutter the downtown and further diminish open space, obscuring crosstown views and vistas of the district's new visual centerpiece, Disney Concert Hall.

But L.A.'s giant plan has more promise than failed projects in the past, say some observers, because it includes a long- missing link: housing for all income levels.

"So far downtown Los Angeles has followed a corporate- center strategy of creating skyscrapers and islands of sports and culture where people come to visit and leave," says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chair of the Urban Planning Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Other cities have tried to revitalize their downtowns by creating housing aimed at just one income level. Or they have created shopping and office space that is not connected to the region in which it is built. The many-decade struggle of Detroit's Renaissance Center fell into this trap, says Dr. Loukaitou-Sideris.

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