Posts tagged Downtown Los Angeles

All photos: Jessica Roberts

It is always eye opening to play tourist in the city you call home. My mom – a long-time lover of all things Art Deco  – came to town and signed us up for an architectural Art Deco walking tour of Downtown organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy. Although I work Downtown, time for exploration and lingering to take in views can be limited, so the opportunity to play urban tourist with my mom was a welcome occasion.

From a landscape designer’s perspective the tour was a lot of looking up at object-oriented architecture. During the 20s and 30s architectural styles were changing in the United States, transitioning from the favored Beaux-Arts neoclassical style to what was then considered a more modern style, Art Deco, a pastiche of many styles from all over the world. Our tour began in Pershing Square, a place of controversial style in and of itself. The historic Biltmore Hotel across the street was used as a Beaux-Art foil to the more modern styles of the surrounding Art Deco buildings.

The former headquarters of the Southern California Edison building is an interesting example of the evolving urban environment. As we stepped in to view its beauty you could tell the workers there took pride in the architecture. Our tour guide showed our group an image of the Victorian homes that once inhabited Bunker Hill, all eventually torn down. Bunker Hill itself had been slightly leveled to accommodate new construction. In the 1980s the interior of the Edison building was “modernized” with drop ceilings and carpets, covering up the ornate details original to the building. Thankfully the current owners are now removing those alterations and taking steps to restore the building to its original glory.

As we continued on our walk, we looked up at the towers that had replaced the Richfield Tower, an Art Deco landmark of 1929 that was demolished in 1969 to make room for the construction of newer and more modern construction. It was interesting to see such strong opinions of style come from the tour group. One woman shouted “What a shame!”.

Other buildings were described as “Disco”. I couldn’t tell if the group reaction was favorable or not. Our tour guide mentioned that she saw some public opinions starting to shift in favor of Disco Era architecture. I myself couldn’t help but feel a certain affection for them.

Some buildings represented a transition in style, such as the Los Angeles Public Library. To get the full story you’ll have to go on the tour, but my favorite takeaway was that architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue had allegedly switched out the neoclassical dome he depicted in his drawings – a style he knew would sell – for the Egyptian-inspired pyramid you see today. Apparently the cultural influence that led to this switch was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

We all struggle to understand the world around us, and these struggles often manifest in what we create. Style is political, personal, reactionary, and unpredictable. Style reveals priorities, views on nature, and technology, and is far from passive or innocent. When we got back to Pershing Square I couldn’t help but feel a certain empathy for the park, with its funky and seemingly outdated style, and wondered how opinions of it might change after it’s gone.

A city could be imagined as the sum of its various architectural pasts. If so, then our city’s historical and evolving urban environment are inherently the roadmap to Los Angeles’ future.

Last month I promised to give an update about my foray into Downtown Los Angeles living. This is my first report.

One of the great benefits to living Downtown is that I also work here.  Even though my former neighborhood of Silver Lake is only about 5 miles away, LA traffic sometimes stretches the distance into an hour long commute.  Now I can just walk up to the Red/Purple Line Civic Center Station, or I can walk the mile and a half to work.  Either way, it takes about 20 minutes from door-to-desk.

Downtown Los Angeles is what we urban design types like to call a “neighborhood in transition” – meaning, development is happening at a breakneck pace, but much of the existing stuff, good and bad, is still very much evident. I snapped the following photos on my morning walk to work, documenting this neighborhood – my neighborhood – in transition.

All photos by Gary Lai

From my new apartment, I walk up a couple of blocks to 2nd and Main.  Our wonderfully funky historic City Hall is framed by the LAPD Headquarters to the left and Caltrans to the right. In many ways, this is the ideal of what new urbanists may view as a modern city: a mixture of new and old, clean streets with bike lanes, residents living in high-density housing.

LA County’s streets are home to 58,000 people homeless. I now live two blocks from the border of Skid Row where the highest concentration of homeless live.  Reminders of this tragedy is everywhere across Downtown.

I’ve never actually seen the Paraiso Restaurant at 3rd and Main open, but I hope at one time it was a happening place. Older, discount-type businesses and restaurants are still the predominant retail-type in DTLA, but it’s changing fast due to skyrocketing rents and development.

On my walking commute I like to cut through the historic Grand Center Market at Broadway and through to Hill street, passing the ridiculous line at the Eggslut booth.

The historical funicular train, Angel’s Flight, is being worked on again. I hope it opens some time before the California High Speed Rail in 2035.

My walk takes me along a diagonal shortcut through Pershing Square Park. The main water feature is now dry – victim of our historic drought and a post-modernism backlash.

One of the major issues afflicting pedestrians in DTLA is the poor conditions of our sidewalks. Cracked, dirty and falling apart, business owners have taken to washing their own sidewalk frontage.  The smell of bleach is common and pervasive as I walk down 6th toward Grand.

Just a half block away from work at 7th and Grand is the new Whole Foods, below the 8th and Grand luxury apartment complex.  I don’t think much needs to be said about DTLA after that sentence.

One thing I find ironic about moving to DTLA is that people originally moved away from Downtown because they thought the suburbs would be a healthier environment. After a month living in Downtown, I agree the downtown environment is not necessarily healthy, but my lifestyle is healthier. Instead of sitting in a car or bus for hours commuting, I now have time to walk and go to the gym despite a heavy workload – this resident as much in transition as the city surrounding him.


All photos: Wendy Chan

Amongst the high rise buildings of Downtown Los Angeles are several hidden oases where one can enjoy their lunch, relax, and escape outdoors. There are many privately owned public spaces in Downtown that are hidden, each tucked in between buildings and terrace levels. Privately owned public spaces are publicly accessible plazas that building owners or developers provide in exchange for modification to the local zoning policy. For example, a developer is allowed to increase their leasable floor areas with higher buildings if they provide an outdoor space for the public. But some of these privately owned public spaces aren’t truly “public” due the plaza being locked from the public after work hours; security personal have the option to escort undesirable individuals from these supposed public spaces.

Follow the blue line…

One such terrace plaza space is located between The California Bank and Trust & KPMG building on the corner of 6th and Hope Street. The entrance is located on Hope Street and is accessible by a stairway with a blue line going through the center, leading visitors up to the terrace plaza and Sun Disk.

This plaza is enhanced with a public art component, part of the Public Art Program, organized by the Community Redevelopment Agency, and commissioned by Obayashi America Corporation with the Koll Company. The public art piece is called “Site /Memory / Reflection”. The plaque at the entrance reads, “A single work of art, “Site / Memory / Reflection consists of a numerous sculptural and architectural elements in alignment with each other. These elements draw a site together, relate it to the imagery of the Central Library, and suggest a spiritual universal whole.”

The art pieces were conceived by Lita Albuquerque in collobration with Kohn/Pederson/Fox, Langdon Wilson Architects, The SWA Group, Lonny Gans Associates, and Peter Carlson Enterprise.

The plaza is a great lunch spot, offering a shaded refuge from the sun and surrounding urban sounds of Downtown, mostly drowned out by a water feature named the Hemisphere Fountain. I often observe office workers enjoying their lunches here, conversing with their co-workers, with other Downtown denizens reading or lounging by themselves. The plaza does not appear to be gated from the Hope Street entrance, but there is a gate where the terrace plaza connects to the Central Library. The plaza is fairly quiet with ample seating, and a recommended escape during the summer heat (but it can be a bit chilly during the colder months).

Check out this public plaza oasis the next time you are looking for a spot to eat your lunch in Downtown Los Angeles!


Looking at City Hall with Weller Court in the foreground. All photos by Gary Lai.

Fifty-one years ago my parents chose to move their infant son and 9 year old daughter to a brand new neighborhood away from the urban core of San Francisco.

While not exactly a suburb, Diamond Heights was a neighborhood almost completely devoid of typical San Francisco-style amenities: an absence of corner markets below flats, no rows of restaurants lining major transportation corridors, and no Muni streetcars or electric buses rumbling along streets on their way to Downtown. Diamond Heights was a suburban-style neighborhood with large swaths of detached single family homes with two car garages. The planners had every intention for Diamond Heights residents to get into their cars and drive the few miles into Downtown for work.

My parents were not alone. In fact, for the next 40 years, most middle class Americans moved away from the centers of cities and into suburbs. Today, a lot of us are moving back.

My wife and I just moved into Little Tokyo, just down the street from Los Angeles City Hall, and a block and a half away from Police Headquarters. We don’t have any kids, but the maintenance costs of our vintage 1921 Silver Lake house finally got the best of us. We are planning to vacate the house, do some minimal repairs, and sell it. In the meantime, we decided to move to within walking distance of my work in Downtown Los Angeles to see if we like it. For children of the 1960s-1970s, the experience can be more than a little weird. For us, downtowns have always been for work and play, but not for living. As Chinese Americans, my parents purposefully moved away from San Francisco Chinatown in search of a better life for their children. When my wife’s grandparents immigrated to United States from Japan, they ended up in Little Tokyo, but moved away as soon as they could afford to do so. The irony is not lost on us, as we walked down historic 1st Street looking for a table in one of many over-crowded restaurants this holiday weekend.

New apartments in Little Tokyo.

Suffice to say, all the reasons that post-war families chose to move to suburbs is too complex and multi-faceted to cover in one post. But it is undeniable that the suburbs represented a “better” life for that generation. Owning a single-family home with land was out of reach for most Americans in the early part of the 20th century. The West Coast – specifically Southern California, with it’s seemingly endless supply of developable land – represented an unique opportunity to achieve the fabled “American Dream”. While the idea every family should own a single family home seems admirable, and even egalitarian, there are unintended consequences to trying to achieve this goal:

  • Running out of land – As our population rises, the space for single-family homes dimishes.  Vast areas of fertile farmland or natural landscapes are gobbled up to accommodate homes farther and farther away from the economic centers; many Southern Californians commute over 2 hours one way from home to job.
  • Pollution – With Southern California transportation infrastructure centered around cars and freeways, the city’s air pollution is the worst in the country. Idle engines stuck in traffic for hours on end is a primary cause. The problem is exacerbated with more people commuting farther distances in heavy traffic.
  • Social isolation – As we spend more time in our cars and live farther from the economic activity, we spend less time with the people who live around us. Real communities cannot thrive if we barely know our neighbors and our social circles are scattered throughout the region (causing us to drive even more!).

Japanese Village shops and restaurants on historic 1st Street in Little Tokyo.

The Millennial generation seems to have intuitively sensed these problems and are now seeking to be closer to their jobs. They aim to spend less time in cars and have their goods, services, and entertainment within walking distance.  All of these desires have guided developers to build sleek new dense housing, restauranteurs to open cafes and shops in the Downtown districts, and supermarkets to return to areas long abandoned. The demand for these amenities has been fueling a revival of Downtown Los Angeles for the last decade, with development only accelerating every passing day.

So, with that all in mind, my wife and I have moved Downtown last weekend.  I’ll tell you how it goes…

Angel City Brewery – a local hot spot – in the adjacent Art’s District.



All photos: Jennifer Salazar

What are the requirements for a city’s public transit system to operate successfully? We want connections between the city’s main train station and the local sports stadiums, lines between residential cores into areas of entertainment, and connections between different modes of transportation such as main stations for rail, air, and bus travel. But we also benefit from smaller, smart connections too – ones of shorter length offering more direct routes on existing transit systems to shopping and places of work. (more…)