For many who shop at Ralphs Fresh Fare in Downtown LA, I’m pretty sure you’ve noticed that some pretty cool aesthetic changes have taken place recently. For those who don’t know, DTLA Rising first reported that Ralphs — the South Park grocery store that opened in July 2007 that helped propel the downtown revitalization forward at the time — wrapped up on a major $2.5 million remodeling job late last month. Old floors were replaced with new ones, more checkout stands were added for speedier service, and new additions like Murray’s cheese shop and a fancy wine bar have given Ralphs a, dare I say, hipper vibe inside. But one thing that excited me the most about their recent upgrade is also the simplest thing Ralphs should be doing whether or not they went through the remodeling job, and that is, keeping those exterior lights turned on outside in front of the store.
The parallels between San Francisco’s Union Square and Los Angeles’ Pershing Square are pretty astounding. On the surface it’s hard to believe, but they are essentially twins living two separate lives 337 miles apart but following almost identical historical paths, faced with similar challenges, and playing similar roles in their respective city centers. SF’s Union Square, however, is about two decades ahead of LA’s Pershing Square. As a result, visiting Union Square is really like looking into a crystal ball and gazing into what the future of Pershing Square could become, which is a much better and prettier version of its current ugly self. Unlocking the immense potential surrounding Pershing Square will depend heavily on the right kind of redevelopment and redesign efforts focused on the square itself. In other words, making Pershing Square into a beautiful public space where everyone wants to be will naturally raise the value of all buildings surrounding the square nearby, and as a result, transform the area into a viable and vibrant commercial district akin to Union Square.
The last several weeks have been filled with really great news (read: a windfall) one after another regarding new retail stores opening or announcing their arrival in Downtown LA. It started with a big bang when we found out that the high-end Swedish retailer Acne Studios would be opening their largest store in the world at 9th and Broadway; then we had LA designer Alejandro Rodriguez’s Beautiful Fül store grand opening; then another grand opening of the national brand Sub_Urban Riot’s first retail store in the US; and then of course Brooks Brothers opened not long after in the Financial District. It culminated last Thursday with the exciting announcement that Urban Outfitters will be coming to Broadway later this year taking over and rehabbing the beautiful but dilapidated Rialto Theatre, including the restoration of the historic theater marquee.
Every time I visit New York, I’m like a kid in a candy store. Why? I’m an urbanist at heart and New York is brimming with urbanism. No, it’s exploding with urbanism! I love walking and being a pedestrian free to roam the city, and whenever I’m here in New York (usually for a week at a time), I feel liberated and empowered as I dart through the energetic streets, slide my MetroCard on my way down into the ubiquitous subway stations, and jaywalk whenever and wherever I please. The way New York and other East Coast cities are built, compact and mixed-use, encourage a thriving pedestrian culture. What are some key ideas that we can bring back from a city like New York that can continue to help Los Angeles (and specifically Downtown LA) develop that wonderful pedestrian urban lifestyle and lessen our dependence (read: handicap) on automobiles?
As Downtown LA continues to evolve and mature into a multi-faceted urban center that’s not only a commercial hub but a bona fide residential community, it becomes even more important that we focus on creating an environment that is pedestrian friendly making it enjoyable and convenient for residents to live, work, and play in. That enhancement to the pedestrian realm — wider sidewalks, narrower streets, more bike lanes, etc. — in Downtown LA is needed to create the strong walkable connections that eventually spawns a walking culture.
Pershing Square has gone through several major overhauls since its inception in 1866 when it was then called La Plaza Abaja, or “The Lower Plaza.” In its current state (another major overhaul designed by Ricardo Legorreta and completed in 1992), purple, yellow and beige walls surround most of the square with giant pink cylinders lining the wall on Hill St, blocking accessibility and visual connections. In addition, long driveways on all four sides of the park — leading cars into an underground parking garage — run parallel to the sidewalk (instead of space saving perpendicular driveways) creating uncrossable rifts between the sidewalk and square. It’s as if the park was designed deliberately to cater to the automobile with the intention of keeping people out of the park.
I just got back to LA after spending a week in New York. Every time I visit America’s largest urban center, I am inspired by the incredible urbanism that defines the city. The infrastructure and built environment, mix of architecture, diversity of businesses, and strong pedestrian culture never ceases to amaze me. For us in LA, as we continue to press for change — improving our own urbanism in a city still dominated by a suburban, car-oriented mentality — it would behoove us to look at successful models and examples from other cities that could be applied to Downtown LA. One of those prime examples is Grand Central Terminal in Midtown at 42nd Street, which has experienced an amazing turnaround from irrelevancy and near demolition in the 1960s to one of the greatest rail stations in the world today.
This past Thanksgiving, I received a very exciting tip from a reader who informed me that Grand Central Market — one of the most precious historic gems in Los Angeles located at 3rd between Broadway and Hill — was planning to be revamped in the near future (early 2013). Then confirmation came yesterday when the LA Times reported that the historic 1917 downtown market is, indeed, getting a major overhaul with some very exciting implications that will add significant momentum to both the urban revitalization happening on Broadway and Downtown LA in general.
Last month, I spent a week in Philadelphia and DC — two great urban cities in the country — and before returning to LA, I stopped by Bethesda, MD (a suburb of DC) because I heard it was a successful example of a TOD (transit oriented development) in the DC metro system. Downtown Bethesda was quaint and walkable from the metro station and reminded me a bit of Old Town Pasadena with its mix of chain and indie businesses like Apple and Georgetown Cupcakes. But one thing that stuck out to me while walking along the main drag, Bethesda Ave, was a red “homeless donation meter” that I thought could be an idea for us here in Downtown LA.
My interest, passion, and involvement with Downtown LA urban redevelopment began in earnest after I graduated from college and moved back down to LA from the Bay Area. Living and studying in Berkeley and traveling to San Francisco quite often, I became fascinated by urban planning and was excited that Los Angeles was truly beginning its own urban renaissance. In 2004, after moving back to LA, I soon became aware of Downtown LA’s Grand Ave Project and realized its incredible potential for rejuvenating LA’s urban heart. However, I was very concerned about the proposed park that was planned to go along with it, so I voiced my concerns then by speaking at Grand Ave Project meetings and continue to voice my concerns to this day.
Watch me walk across La Cañada’s freeway cap park over the 210 freeway
Last week, I attended the Friends of Park 101 meeting in El Pueblo where a panel of city planning experts and an urban conscious audience converged to discuss the exciting future of capping the 101 freeway through Downtown LA with a park.
We all know how scarce good public spaces are in the Los Angeles region. A metropolis that rapidly expanded after the invention and subsequent democratization of the private automobile, Los Angeles is a decade or more behind when it comes to catering our city to pedestrians instead of drivers. Our roads and highways have been congested and clogged, but our sidewalks have been empty for decades, and as a result, it is no wonder why walking in LA is about as enjoyable as a visit to a dentist.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the ARA (AIDS Research Alliance) fundraiser in Downtown LA hosted at Cicada Restaurant on the ground floor of the beautiful historic 1927 Oviatt Building. I met a gentleman from San Francisco named Steve Villano who flew down to LA just for this fundraiser.
I just got back from a week in New York. It was my third time there this year, so I am definitely getting the hang of it. Every time I’m in Manhattan, I am inspired by the urban landscape (the walkability, the parks, the subway system, etc.) and just how well the city is interconnected, and as a result, it’s superior functionality. I also always seem to find myself falling in love again and again with the architecture of historic New York dating back to the early 1800s to the most modern skyscrapers in Midtown.
With the recent news of the Metropolis project being brought back to life, development advocates (myself included) around Downtown are understandably excited. The project is being hailed as a much-needed pedestrian connection between South Park and the Financial district, bridging FIGat7th and L.A. LIVE.