Elements of Urbanism: Los Angeles

September 20, 2011 45 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville shares sights and scenes from the downtown of America's second largest city: Los Angeles

Tale of the Tape:

Los Angeles Pop. 2010: 3,792,621 (City); 12,828,837 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1850)

Jacksonville Pop. 2010: 821,784 (City); 1,345,596 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Los Angeles (1,970,358)

Metropolitan Area Growth Rate (2000-2010)

Los Angeles: +3.75%
Jacksonville: +19.85%

Urban Area Population Density (2000 census)

Los Angeles: 7,068.3 people per square mile
Jacksonville: 2,149.2 people per square mile

City Population Growth from 2000 to 2010

Los Angeles: +97,801
Jacksonville: +86,281

Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Los Angeles: Los Angeles Convention Center (1971)  - 720,000 square feet
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1986) - 78,500 square feet

Attached to Convention Center:

Los Angeles: Ritz-Carlton (123 rooms), JW Marriott (878 rooms)
Jacksonville: N/A

Tallest Building:

Los Angeles: U.S. Bank Tower - 1,018 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet

Fortune 500 companies:

Los Angeles: Northrop Grumman (72), Occidental Petroleum (129), AECOM Technology (353), Reliance Steel & Aluminum (367), CB Richard Ellis Group (440)
Jacksonville: CSX (230), Winn-Dixie Stores (324), Fidelity National Financial (398), Fidelity National Information Services (426)

Urban infill obstacles:

Los Angeles: Downtown is completely surrounded by a network of freeways.
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.

Downtown Nightlife:

Los Angeles: Historic Downtown Core
Jacksonville: East Bay Street

Common Downtown Albatross:

A large number of homeless residents.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

Los Angeles: 92 out of 100, according to walkscore.com
Jacksonville: 78 out of 100, according to walkscore.com

About Downtown Los Angeles

Early Years

The earliest known settlements in the area of what is now Downtown Los Angeles was by the Tongva, a Native American people. Later European settlement arrived after Father Juan Crespí, a Spanish missionary charged with exploring sites for Catholic missions in California, noted in 1769 that the region had "all the requisites for a large settlement." On September 4, 1781, the city was founded on the site that currently holds La Placita Olvera.

Land speculation increased in the 1880s, which saw the population of the city explode from 11,000 in 1880 to nearly 100,000 by 1896.

Infrastructure enhancements and the laying of a street grid eventually brought development south of the original settlement into what is today the Civic Center and Historic Core neighborhoods.

Downtown's Golden Age

By 1920, the city's private and municipal rail lines were among the most far-flung and most comprehensive in the world in mileage, rivaling that of New York City, as shown (and parodied) in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. By that year, a steady influx of residents and aggressive land developers had transformed the city into a large metropolitan area, with Downtown at its center. Rail lines connected four counties with over 1,100 miles of track.

During the early part of the 20th century, banking institutions clustered around South Spring Street, forming the Spring Street Financial District. Sometimes referred to as the "Wall Street of the West," the district held corporate headquarters for financial institutions including Bank of America, Farmers and Merchants Bank, the Crocker National Bank, California Bank & Trust, and International Savings & Exchange Bank. The Los Angeles Stock Exchange was also located on the corridor from 1929 until 1986 before moving into a new building across the Harbor (I-110) Freeway.

Commercial growth brought with it hotel construction—during this time period several grand hotels, the Alexandria (1906), the Rosslyn (1911), and the Biltmore (1923), were erected—and also the need for venues to entertain the growing population of Los Angeles. Broadway became the nightlife, shopping and entertainment district of the city, with over a dozen movie houses built before 1932.

Department stores also opened flagship stores in Downtown, including The Broadway, Hamburger & Sons, May Company, JW Robinson's and Bullock's, serving a wealthy residential population in the Bunker Hill neighborhood. Numerous specialty stores also flourished including those in the jewelry business which gave rise to the Downtown Jewelry District. Among these early Jewelers included the Laykin Diamond Company (later becoming Laykin et Cie) and Harry Winston & Co. both of which found their beginnings in the Alexandria Hotel at 5th and Spring Streets.

The Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (Union Station) opened in May, 1939, unifying passenger service among various local, regional and long-distance passenger trains.

Decline and Redevelopment

Following World War II, suburbanization, the development of the Los Angeles freeway network and, subsequently, increased automobile ownership, led to decreased investment in Downtown. Many corporate headquarters slowly dispersed to new suburbs or fell to mergers and acquisitions. The once-wealthy Bunker Hill neighborhood became a haven for low-income renters, its stately Victorian mansions turned into flophouses. From about 1930 to the 1960s, numerous very old and historic buildings in the Plaza area were demolished to make way for street-level parking lots, the high demand for parking making this more profitable than any other option that might have allowed preservation. The drastic reduction in the number of residents in the area further reduced the viability of streetfront businesses that would be able to attract pedestrians. For most Angelenos, Downtown became a drive-in-drive-out destination as they would come into the area for a particular objective, and then leave immediately once their business was completed.

In an effort to combat blight and lure businesses back to Downtown, the Community Redevelopment Agency of the city of Los Angeles undertook the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project in 1955, a massive clearance project that leveled homes and cleared land for future commercial skyscraper development. This period saw the clearing and upzoning of the entire neighborhood as well as the shuttering of the Angels Flight funicular railway in 1969. Angels Flight resumed operation in 1996 for a period of five years, shutting down once again after a fatal accident in 2001. On March 15, 2010, the railway once again opened for passenger service following extensive upgrades to brake and safety systems.

With Class A office space becoming available on Bunker Hill, many of Downtown's remaining financial corporations moved to the newer buildings, leaving the former Spring Street Financial District devoid of tenants above ground floor. Following the corporate headquarters' moving six blocks west, the large department stores on Broadway shuttered, culminating in the 1980s.

However, the Broadway theaters saw much use as Spanish-language movie houses during this time, beginning with the conversion of the Million Dollar Theater in the 1950s to Spanish-language film.

Recent Years

Because of the Downtown office market's migration west to Bunker Hill and the Financial District, many historic office buildings were left intact, simply used for storage or remaining empty during recent decades. In 1999, the Los Angeles City Council passed an adaptive reuse ordinance, making it easier for developers to convert outmoded, vacant office and commercial buildings into renovated lofts and luxury apartment and condo complexes.

As of early 2009, 14,561 residential units have been created under the adaptive reuse ordinance, leading to an increase in the residential population. With 28,878 residents in 2006 and 39,537 in 2008, a 36.9% increase, Downtown Los Angeles is seeing new life and investment.

Staples Center, which opened in 1999, has contributed immensely to the revitalization plans, adding 250 events and nearly 4,000,000 visitors per year to the neighborhood.
A growing rail transit network centered in Downtown has increased mobility and access to jobs throughout the region.
On August 7, 2007, the Los Angeles City Council approved sweeping changes in zoning and development rules for the Downtown area. Strongly advocated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the changes allow larger and denser developments Downtown; developers who reserve 15% of their units for low-income residents are now exempt from some open-space requirements and can make their buildings 35% larger than current zoning codes allow.
Projects along the Figueroa Corridor such as Wilshire Grand Tower I are also being approved that will further the progressive revitalization of downtown; attracting businesses, tourists and new residents. With the addition of new skyscrapers such as the Wilshire Towers, Downtown is slated to have a skyline in prominence rivaling those ranked among the top in the world.

Pueblo (Union Station and Olvera Street)

On the northeastern edge of Downtown Los Angeles, the bustling Los Angeles Union Station (known as the "Last of the Great Railway Stations") serves as the region's main transportation hub, with the convergence of six commuter rail lines, two subway lines, a light rail line, Amtrak service and multiple local and regional bus services. The station, opened May 1939, is a massive building in the Art Deco, Moorish and Spanish Mission styles, that serves a growing rail and bus passenger market. Station grounds include soaring ceilings, deep leather-and-wood chairs, and two adjoining greenspaces and fountains flanking the main passenger concourse. The Los Angeles Conservancy offers guided tours of Union Station for a small fee.

Across Alameda Street from Union Station is the historic center of the city, El Pueblo de Los Angeles, enshrined as Olvera Street, a collection of historic shops, restaurants and several museums, as well as La Placita Olvera and Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church.


North and west of Union Station lies Chinatown, a mixed-use district of restaurants, nightlife, art galleries, trinket shops, a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library system and residences. The neighborhood is accessible via the Metro Gold Line Chinatown Station.

Little Tokyo

Despite the suburbanization of Southern California's Japanese Americans over the past several decades, Little Tokyo remains the cultural heart of the Japanese American community. The neighborhood is home to several Buddhist temples, dozens of shops, restaurants and taverns, two museums, and a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library system.

Little Tokyo is accessible via the nearby Metro Red/Purple Line Civic Center Station, and the Little Tokyo light-rail station on the Metro Gold Line.

Civic Center

Los Angeles's Civic Center is the government center of the city and is home to several federal, state, county and municipal administrative buildings. The main office of the Los Angeles Times is located in the district. The neighborhood is accessible via the Metro Red/Purple Line Civic Center Station.

Bunker Hill

Bunker Hill is the cultural heart of Los Angeles, with several arts schools, theaters and performance venues along Grand Avenue. Guided tours of the neighborhood are provided by the Los Angeles Conservancy for a small fee. The neighborhood is accessible via the Metro Red/Purple Line Civic Center Station.

Historic Core

The Historic Core neighborhood is a heavily residential neighborhood of Downtown Los Angeles, and many of those residences are adaptive reuse loft units created from formerly vacant historic commercial and office buildings. Guided tours of the Historic Core are offered by the Los Angeles Conservancy for a small fee.

Jewelry District

Downtown Los Angeles boasts the largest Jewelry District in the world with over 5,000 wholesale and retail jewelry shops in the 30 or so multi-story buildings throughout the district. The Jewelry district is renowned for wholesale prices on precious gems, watches, platinum, gold, silver, diamonds, pearls and all types of fine jewelry.

Fashion District

The Fashion District is a design, warehouse, and distribution center of the clothing industry in Downtown LA. It spans 90 blocks and is well known to be one of the best places to shop for clothing, accessories, cosmetics and shoes for low prices.

Financial District

South of Bunker Hill is the Financial District of Downtown Los Angeles, the center for corporate headquarters and skyscrapers in Los Angeles. The neighborhood is accessible via the Metro Red/Purple/Blue Line 7th Street/Metro Center Station.

South Park

South Park is a growing residential and entertainment neighborhood consisting of the Los Angeles Convention Center, Staples Center and the mixed-use L.A. Live entertainment campus. The area has seen a revival due to an increase in new residential buildings and restaurants. The neighborhood is accessible via the Metro Blue Line Pico/Chick Hearn Station.

Arts District

The Downtown Los Angeles Arts District, previously known as the Warehouse District, occupies the eastern side of Downtown Los Angeles. Its borders are roughly Alameda Street on the west, the 101 freeway on the north, the LA River on the east, and 7th Street on the south. The area is sometimes referred to as the "Artist" or "Artists District" on official City of Los Angeles signs.

The Arts District is filled with older industrial and former railroad buildings. In 1981, the City of Los Angeles passed its "Artist in Residence" or "AIR" ordinance, which allowed residential use of formerly industrial buildings (artists had long used such spaces as living quarters illegally, and the AIR law sought to bring this practice into legality and regulation).

Anime-style graffiti art in the L.A. Arts DistrictIn the 1970s, these buildings started to became popular with the L.A. Art Community, and artists began buying and renting the buildings for use as art lofts. By the turn of the 21st Century, the popularity of the neighborhood started attracting more affluent residents looking for the "artist lifestyle." However, many of the new residential developments have been undertaken by real estate developers, as opposed to artists themselves.

Recent gentrification has swelled the population, bringing new residents, many of whom are young professionals, to the area. They reside alongside the veteran resident artists and still-functioning industrial and manufacturing businesses.

In 2005, a group of long-time Arts District property owners worked with the Central City East Association (CCEA) to form the Arts District Business Improvement District (BID) that would provide much-needed services in the area: security, maintenance, marketing and advocacy. Neighborhood stakeholders voted overwhelmingly in favor of the BID and it was established in September, 2006. Today, CCEA manages the 60-block BID, providing essential services that are continuing to aid in the area's growth and development.

Loft-style apartments and condos in restored industrial buildings now dot the landscape, but the Arts District is still home to a major rail yard, cold storage, warehouses, food processing, furniture and fashion design/manufacturing, personal storage, government facilities and film locations. It is also home to thousands of resident artists in live/work spaces that support creative entrepreneurial businesses and non-profits. In addition, the district is home to the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), a prominent school of architecture, and the Los Angeles offices of the Daily Journal, California's legal daily newspaper. Well-known restaurants, such as Wurstkuche, Church & State, Urth Caffe, Villains Tavern and Tony's Saloon are located in the Arts District, along with a variety of eclectic shops and galleries.

Coming in 2012, the Arts District will soon be the home of the new La Kretz CleanTech Innovation Campus, along with it's first public park called "Arts District Public Park".

Article by Ennis Davis. Photos by Ennis Davis and Daniel Herbin.