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Downtown LA: Past, Present and Future

Downtown LA: Past, Present and Future

In the last few years, Downtown LA has undergone a radical transformation. With the addition of the Staples Center and Asian investors pouring billions into prime real estate, the district's seeing a renaissance it hasn’t experienced since the 1920s. Back then, Downtown LA experienced aggressive development and a flood of new residents and became the center and financial hub for a metropolis—with HQs for several banks like Bank of America, Farmers and Merchants Bank and California Bank & Trust, among others. Some even called the district the “Wall Street of the West.” Hotels also flooded the district, as well as an impressive series shopping and entertainment venues.

Downtown LA: Past, Present and Future

However, the growth hit a snag with the suburbanization movement and the construction of the LA freeway after WWII, and many of the HQs fled. The neighborhood began to decline and many of the historic buildings (such as the Richfield Tower, pictured, which was an Art Deco novelty in 1929 but demolished in 1969) were either demolished for parking lots or fell into disrepair. To make matters worse, LA's Community Redevelopment Agency started upzoning Bunker Hill, adding several Class-A office spaces. With the new and improved spaces, Downtown LA’s last office tenants and department stores on Broadway headed to Bunker.

Many developers tried to find ways to bring more population and visitors into the district, but many of them failed due to a lack of understanding of how to work with the district's community fabric. For example, it was during this period of decline that Macy’s Plaza was constructed, then known as the Broadway Plaza. Trying to replicate the success of suburban malls by bringing it into the big city, the Plaza’s architects failed to realize that the development—with its brutal and foreboding brick exterior, inward-facing design and nooks and crannies that turned its face away from the community—failed to translate to the street-life of Los Angeles. Despite being next to one of the busiest LA metro stations, the Plaza deadened the area around it and even the Plaza’s 500-room hotel and 800k SF of office failed to impress, since it never felt integrated and cohesive with the shopping center.

“It had all these resources and advantages,” Studio One Eleven founder Alan Pullman says, “but it was disconnected to the street. And with its brutal homogenous design and lack of integration, it only enjoyed moderate success and a lack of continued investment.”

Downtown LA: Past, Present and Future

Although the offices’ exodus to Bunker Hill seemed like a curse, it actually worked in the district’s favor. In 1999, the LA City Council passed an ordinance that would make the redevelopment of historic buildings quicker and easier. Although many of these had been turned into storage, they found new life as lofts, luxury apartments and condo complexes. In only a decade, more than 14,500 residential units were built and more than 40,000 new residents flooded the area. Many developers, such as LA icon Wayne Ratkovich, used adaptive reuse on historic buildings to create more livable and sustainable cities, while maintaining the patterns and precedents of the original construction.  

Probably the finest example of this trend is Macy’s Plaza, which is seeing new life in a mixed-use development known as The Bloc (pictured). Developed by The Ratkovich Co and National Real Estate Advisors and designed by Studio One Eleven, the Bloc reutilizes the Macy’s Plaza to create a 32-story, 750k SF office building, a 240k SF Macy’s department store and a 40-year-old Sheraton Hotel. Alan says the Studio is turning the plaza inside out, which will change the perception of the property, fix many of the past design errors and take advantage of all that the property—and Downtown LA—has to offer. The office, hotel and retail space will be connected via an open public plaza—which is not only connected to the street but provides direct metro access—and will become a hub for LA residents and visitors. Occupying an entire city block, The Bloc will be SoCal’s largest single-asset, mixed-use development and features a carefully curated mix of tenants, outdoor promenades, terraces and plazas. 

Downtown LA has quickly become "a neighborhood with an increasingly hip and well-heeled residential population.” With an improving nightlife, more shops and a convenient public transit system, the neighborhood has become a hot spot for Millennials who want to experience retail, entertainment and restaurants without having to commute from the suburbs. 

In addition, some impressive developments have made the district the place to be, including Staples Center, the L.A. Live complex (which includes Microsoft Theatre and the Grammy Museum), the LA County Metro Rail, the Broad contemporary art museum (which opened last month), the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Brockman Building on Grand Avenue, which created a row of restaurants and retail shops. 

Downtown LA: Past, Present and Future

With Asian investors pouring billions into lavish developments like the Metropolis and the Figueroa Central and commercial spending expected to hit more than $7B by the end of this fiscal year, Downtown LA’s revitalization is only getting started. WeWork has even announced a new lease in the district, meaning we could see the return of office tenants.

“Downtown hasn’t reached its potential yet, but I think it’s on a great trajectory,” Alan says. “It needs to continue to be purposefully revitalized, bringing even more residents and jobs to the city center.  In particular, retrofitting buildings that are otherwise marked as obsolete and reintegrating them into the fabric of downtown will allow for downtown to flourish in the future.”

To learn more about Studio One Eleven and their Bloc project, click here.