Friday, July 27, 2007

Unasked Questions About Downtown, Transportation, Housing and Grand Avenue!

Westwater’s Downtown - The Unasked Questions

By Brady Westwater

I have been asked – repeatedly - about recent LA Times and LA Weekly articles saying transit villages increase rather than reduce traffic, about increasing the housing density in Downtown, about the new Ralph's Downtown and one person asked what I thought about the LA Weekly piece on Grand Avenue.

What no one ever asks me, though: do these issues have a major impact on all other Los Angeles neighborhoods? Had they asked, my answer would have been yes. What happens in downtown does not stay in downtown.

The only way to reduce traffic in Los Angeles is to create a greater connection between work and housing and shopping and recreation. And the most effective way to do that is to create large communities where people can walk - or drive/take transit within a very short distance to their jobs – and to then link these housing/job rich neighborhoods with other housing/job rich communities by fixed rail transit.

Nothing else is going to get sizeable number of commuters out of their cars during rush hour.

And Downtown is not just willing, but eager to provide an urban environment that is already convincing people who work here to move here. And convincing people who live here – to move their jobs here. And no single event will help increase those numbers than the opening of downtown’s first real supermarket in over half-a-century.

I can easily imagine a quarter million people one day living within the larger downtown area – most of whom will never get on the freeway to get to work.

Every day, fewer people in Northridge or Mar Vista or San Pedro get on the freeway at rush hour because they are now living in lofts Downtown.

Soon other similar communities will develop along the fixed rail lines – including parts of Hollywood, North Hollywood and Koreatown – creating fewer car-dependent neighborhoods.

Since most people realize - and I certainly do – that the vast majority of residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles are either built-out – or close to it. New development needs to go in appropriate places.

Another answer is the current proposal to allow for, among other reforms, smaller condo units Downtown, making it possible for people with lower incomes to live near their jobs – and to allow people who commute from the suburbs to have a place to live and sleep during the week – and then use their suburban homes on weekends, as is the case in other cities.

These are a few of the changes happening that will have an increasingly favorable impact on the rest of the city. The press, alas, never seems to understand the larger real world issues, but remains fixated on sound bites and one-liners, which brings us to the LA Weekly Story on Grand Avenue.

It was a typical article in that a handful of the usual suspects were asked the same questions already asked a hundred times. They responded with their usual speeches.

Unfortunately, not a one of the many questions that still need to be asked – was ever asked. This was somewhat surprising since the story comes long after the project was approved, so one would have expected either a discussion about the process of all projects like this – or a look forward at the monitoring of what still needs to be done on this project, instead of just more of the same.

This, though, illustrates the problem all the press has in covering this story. When a reporter comes into a story without a long term understanding of the players or their relationships with each other - and no first hand knowledge of how the events have unfolded – they are at the mercy of their sources, and it becomes all too easy for them to be misled.

One example is the single biggest factual error in the article - that the park land aspect of the project is being leased by the developer.

That is totally false.

The developer does, though, have a 99 year lease on the land under the condos, apartments and the hotels. The article totally misses that point. And it never mentions that all the land under the buildings reverts back to the City and County of Los Angeles in 99 years.

Unfortunately, getting all this so wrong has made it impossible to understand what really happened. For if the CRA had just sold the land outright to a developer – with no restrictions tacked on to it – no subsidies would have been required. But that is not how the government operates.
The government has dozens of different – and often conflicting - agendas they want any developer to service in a project like this. That is how these types of projects become so complicated – and why so many subsidies end up being attached to them.

Ironically, now that the deal is done – now would have been the perfect time for an article examining how these special interest oriented agendas work – and how they shape deals like this. Then, the definition of what is the 'public good' could have been debated and challenged to see what works – and what does not work.

The article has Paul Johnson of the Sierra Club saying " it is still public land with restraints on it by a for-profit development' – even though the park will be operated by a non-profit that will control the park's operations and restraints, not the developer. Even more surprising, it has Paul Novack, Supervisor Antonovich's planning director, supposedly saying the "the developers…pay the city and county rent for the park space". Again, the developer, The Related Companies, does not in any way lease or pay rent for the park. They lease and pay rent for the land under their buildings, only.

Another point briefly mentioned, but not at all explained in the article, was the unprecedented way in which the developer listened to and responded to the public, not just in Downtown, but in public meetings throughout the city.

As an example, at the corner of 2nd and Olive, the original plan called for one of those megalomaniac gestures that only an architect can love – a steep staircase coming down from Grand to Olive, ending not at a huge public plaza - but at a crosswalk with a signal on a sidewalk, with no place to go after you got there

But when the public saw that, everyone made it clear they wanted shops and restaurants and places for people to do things – and not walls and massive staircases. People and not concrete.

And Related Companies listened . That is why in the redesign, that barren corner now has a bookstore at street level and a café with outdoor seating, making Olive a friendly, walkable street.

So how does the story treat this people's victory? Well, it quotes Nicolai Ouroussoff's statement in the New York Times that Related 'forced Mr. Gehry to remove the cascading staircase that was the project's main link to the life at the bottom ‘of isolated Bunker Hill'.

Of course, all the complex political reasons behind that story were not known by the writer, so he had no reason to question it – but if he had at least looked at the plans, he would have seen how bizarrely wrong that statement was.

The proposed staircase was nowhere near the bottom of Bunker Hill. It did not even reach the downhill side of Olive – which is in the middle, and not at the bottom of Bunker Hill.

The direct connection from the bottom of Bunker Hill is – and was - always going be on Hill Street, the (surprise, surprise) bottom of Bunker Hill, and it will be built in the third part of the project. And that's not been changed. Nicky just got used by Gehry who was upset that the developer gave the people of Los Angeles a pedestrian friendly, walkable sidewalk instead of a massive cascade of concrete.

Now there are a number other points that don't fully make sense in the way they presented – particularly when the article examines the taxes that are generated by the project in a rather contradictory fashion and gives examples that have zero relevance, but, again, this is a complex subject and it is hard to understand, much less, explain how it all works, which, again is worth an article in itself, if anyone ever wants to tell the real story of what happened.

Then there are a number of logical inconsistencies such apples and oranges types of comparisons that make no sense – such as comparing a privately financed and built project – with no public guarantees to it being finished – to public financed and built projects such as Belmont High and the Red Line, when the type of public liability has absolutely nothing in common.

And everyone Downtown got a serious laugh about the description of the much hated civic mall 'park' as some kind of wonderland that was going to be 'wiped out'. In the real world, it is shunned by everyone the second the adjoining offices are closed.

Every single speaker at the public meetings agreed on the need replace the oppressive, Pershing Square type concrete of the mall with greenery. The only thing even one person at any meeting ever asked to be saved, in the present mall, was the fountain. Someone at the Conservancy at some point raised some preservation issues – but no one who uses the park had any complaints about totally rebuilding the park. Of course, one would have had to attended one of many public meetings to have known this

The one really bizarre statement – and closing line - in the article, is the supposedly differing reasons given by Bill Witte of Related and Eli Broad – former Chair of the Grand Avenue Committee – on why this project is being built … since anyone who has watched this process knows no such difference exists between them.

The whole misunderstanding is created when the article quotes Broad on the importance of Grand Avenue, by which he means, MOCA, the five theaters of the Music Center, the Colburn School with its new concert spaces, the new park, the Cathedral and other projects still in the planning stage, including this project. And Bill Witte fully agrees with all of that – which is why Related is building on Bunker Hill.

The reporter then asked Witte about the limited number parking spaces in his project. Witte stated that his project’s condos, hotel and shops were not the tourist attraction in and of themselves. They are an amenity for those people coming to enjoy the cultural attractions of Grand Avenue. And, though he did not state this, that is also exactly why Eli Broad has pushed for this project, too. Bill Witte confirmed that with me when I spoke with him. Eli Broad has often publicly said the same thing.

People are already coming from all over the world to experience the art and the culture along Grand Avenue, but once they do that, there is almost no street life during the day – and even less life at night. Too often you see tour buses stop, people get out and take pictures, and then leave.

So after one leaves the concert hall or the art museum – there is little to do. That is the missing need of Grand Avenue, which needs to be filled for the street to be successful as both a neighborhood for residents and as a tourist attraction. And this project's restaurants, shops, cafes, art galleries and full time residents and hotel guests will both accomplish that and create the much needed pedestrian link with the historic parts of Downtown.

So if there had been a simple follow up question from the writer to Mr. Witte asking him if what he was saying differed in any way from what Mr. Broad was saying – the reporter would have quickly learned no such difference existed. But then, of course, he wouldn't have had a story.

Lastly, does this mean everything is perfect on Grand Avenue? That the press should go to sleep and wait for the ribbon cutting? Hell, no.

There are plenty of questions that need to be asked – and should be asked by the press. To give just one of many examples; a non-profit is to run the park and raise funds to build additional attractions for the park to make it the great public space it needs to be. Except – no one has yet bothered to set it up. And I have brought this up at least the last six Grand Avenue Committee Meetings.

But no one in the press ever reports that.
And who will be on the committee, what will its goals be, what kind of final plan is it going to develop? And how will the maintenance be funded? All of this is long overdue – but you would never know that from reading the press

And how will the park be able to accommodate demonstrations and civic events without shutting down the dozens of bus lines that pass through this area? And can this be done without having people missing bus connections all over the city? And can the proposed civic plaza from City Hall steps over Spring to the park be the answer to this problem? And what is happening with that proposal?

And what is happening with the plan to design and build the underground parking under the park west of City Hall to replace all the public parking that is being lost in the area?

And why are not a single one of these – or any of a dozen other questions about soon to be made decisions – ever asked by LA Weekly – or by any other member of the main-stream-media?

Right now, the Neighborhood Councils are the only ones asking these questions. The issues are too complex and multifaceted for a press that prefers the quick-bite shallow story with the glossy headline requiring limited background knowledge or prep time. Anyone can ask the gotcha questions. It takes an investment in a story to ask the right questions. (Brady Westwater is a long-time downtown community activist. He is also a writer and a regular contributor to CityWatch.) _

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