The upcoming election for Los Angeles City Council District 14 presents voters with a stark choice about the future of Downtown LA. The leading candidates, incumbent José Huizar and former County Supervisor Gloria Molina, have very different views of what a downtown is and what it means. To frame the candidates’ positions, it’s necessary to first understand why DTLA, or any large city’s downtown, is important. It’s a lesson most of the country forgot after World War II and has had to painfully relearn, but here it is: a downtown isn’t just a plot of land in the city center, it’s a place of practical and symbolic importance. Downtown matters.
A downtown has practical importance as an employment center, often one of the city’s largest. It’s a commercial district that acts as an incubator for small businesses that keep their money circulating in the neighborhood, support community causes and create opportunities for other compatible businesses. A downtown is an entertainment center, with museums, theaters and restaurants. That activity means a downtown is a major component of a city’s tax base. A downtown helps lower sprawl by concentrating these commercial, retail and residential uses in a compact area that encourages walking, bicycling, transit and other low-impact ways of getting around. In fact, studies show urban residents tend to be healthier than suburbanites when using standard measures of health such as body-mass index and insulin resistance.
If that weren’t enough, a downtown has symbolic importance beyond its practical measures. A downtown is the face of the city, a reflection of the community’s image and pride. It’s a marker of the city’s prosperity and willingness to invest in itself, and of how the residents and business community see the future. A living, breathing, growing downtown reflects optimism, abundance, a can-do attitude and hope for the future. A stagnant or dying downtown reflects pessimism, scarcity and despair. In addition, a downtown is symbolically important as civic space, a place of coming together for celebrations (such as New Year’s Eve or July 4th) and rituals (such as swearing-in). These mass gatherings of people, in a place each person can claim as one’s own, help reinforce a sense of community and common purpose; it helps bring people together, literally and figuratively.
Los Angeles, late to realize these truths, long had a decaying downtown that was the poster child of a dystopian, dysfunctional future. However, over the past 15 years, DTLA has been experiencing a remarkable renaissance with billions of dollars of new investment, tens of thousands of new residents, nationally acclaimed restaurants and entertainment, and a growing sense of confidence and pride. For the first time in decades, it doesn’t raise eyebrows to say DTLA’s best days are ahead.
They say success has many parents, but when it comes to the DTLA renaissance, Councilmember José Huizar is a first among equals. Since joining the City Council in 2005, he has been a tireless champion of DTLA, often advancing unique or cutting-edge ideas to push Downtown to new heights. Among his accomplishments:
- Bringing Back Broadway, a 10-year effort to reignite interest in LA’s once-premier commercial street;
- The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance for commercial space, to revitalize empty office buildings for commercial use the way the earlier Adaptive Reuse Ordinance did for residential use;
- The Downtown Streetcar project linking South Park, the Historic Core, Civic Center and Bunker Hill;
- Promoting the rehabilitation of the historic theaters on Broadway;
- Implementing a robust Downtown bicycle lane network, including the city’s first green bicycle lanes for enhanced safety;
- Shepherding the effort to redesign and redevelop Pershing Square;
- Bringing about the Broadway streetscape plan and roadway redesign;
- Introduced the Sidewalk Dining program to help restaurants expedite the process for obtaining sidewalk dining permits;
- Creating an architectural lighting grant program for historic buildings.
By these accomplishments alone, José Huizar deserves re-election. But what of his main opponent, former County Supervisor Gloria Molina? She has a long and honorable record, including invaluable work bringing Grand Park to fruition.
Sad to say, it seems Gloria Molina confuses DTLA with Murietta—she hasn’t learned the importance of a downtown or what it will take to drive DTLA’s success over the next four years. At a recent candidates’ forum, the L.A. Times reported she said DTLA has “too much density” and it is “regrettable” that new development is replacing many of the surface parking lots, asking, “Where are we all going to park?” Even worse, she proposed the city build new parking lots throughout the district. She also appears to be not very knowledgable about downtown projects such as the streetcar, referring to “…a trolly, or whatever you call it here.” These examples don’t inspire confidence in Molina’s vision or her grasp of the issues. She appears stuck in a 1950s mindset.
DTLA’s renaissance is real but still fragile. It needs a champion to nurture it, someone who understands the practical and symbolic importance of a prosperous, lively, engaging 24/7 downtown. That person is Councilmember José Huizar.
— Mark B., 4-year downtown resident
Register to vote online now if you haven’t already (deadline is Feb 16, 2015)