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The Imperfect Revitalization of Downtown L.A.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, President Bush is about to beat the modern record for presidential vacation time. We'll check in with the man who keeps tabs on how much downtime the president takes.

But first, to downtown Los Angeles. For decades, the streets of downtown LA have been home to businesspeople by day and homeless people by night. But that's beginning to change. There's a plan to give a city famous for not really being a city a real downtown. Alex Cohen of member station KQED reports.

ALEX COHEN reporting:

As a kid, Brady Westwater used to play in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Back in the early half of the last century, he says, downtown was the place to be. There were big bank buildings, ornate theaters and fancy department stores.

Mr. BRADY WESTWATER (Resident of Downtown Los Angeles): I used to get my hair cut at the Broadway. I had a horse. They had little horses, merry-go-round horses for the kids to sit on when they were getting their hair cut.

COHEN: We're standing on the corner of Fourth and Spring Street, where trolleys know as Red Cars once ferried people in and out of downtown. But in the '50s, Westwater says, automobiles became more popular, and the Red Cars disappeared. It wasn't long after that LA became known what it's best known as today, a sprawling metropolis filled with freeways and clogged with traffic. Businesses started moving away from downtown for more modern facilities in tonier areas like LA's West Side.

Mr. WESTWATER: Gradually all the--every building in Spring Street became abandoned, literally abandoned; the upper floors just closed.

COHEN: By the early 1990s, downtown LA looked like a ghost town. Some areas became known as the city's Skid Row. Carol Schatz is president of the Central City Association. She says over the years there were several attempts to revitalize downtown as a commercial hub, but they were all unsuccessful.

Ms. CAROL SCHATZ (President, Central City Association): When we realized that we were not going to be able to fill these buildings again with Fortune 500 companies, to really bring them back to life, and knowing that no area comes back to life without people who live there, we knew this had to be the focus.

COHEN: So in 1999, Schatz says, the city of LA introduced a concept called adaptive reuse, which provided developers with incentive to convert historic buildings into lofts, apartments and condominiums. Since then, 4,000 residential units have been built, and thousands more are in the pipeline.

Downtown LA has also seen the addition of cultural attractions like the Staples Center, Walt Disney Hall and free concerts like this one, held in an outdoor plaza.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Attorney Melissa Fuller(ph) works in downtown.

Ms. MELISSA FULLER (Attorney): I love summertime because of the concerts. That's why Fridays I'm always out here at noon, take my lunch a little early, so that I can come and catch the shows.

COHEN: According to one survey done by a downtown business group, the area now attracts more than 14 million visitors a year and generates more than $191 million in sales tax. Downtown LA has definitely improved over recent years, Fuller says. She even considered moving into a loft here, but she had concerns the area wasn't quite livable and lacked basic amenities.

Ms. FULLER: Shopping, grocery store shopping--just your day to day was not really appealing.

COHEN: In fact, there are no grocery stores in downtown, parking is limited and often expensive. And there's the drug dealers. Walking down Main Street, the smell of marijuana hangs thick in the air. Men huddle in small groups exchanging wads of money for small glass vials. Downtown resident Brady Westwater points to a woman asleep on the sidewalk. Next to her, small kids play on a suitcase.

Mr. WESTWATER: Here you see women drug dealers with school-age children out of school sitting there, and they operate them as carriers for their drugs.

COHEN: According to the LA Police Department, more drug arrests occur in downtown than in any other part of the city. Over the next few months, police cameras will go up in this section. Westwater hopes this will cut down on the number of drug deals.

The problem of downtown's homeless is much trickier to solve. There are approximately 91,000 homeless people in LA, and many of them wind up in downtown, where most of the city's homeless services are located. Proponents of downtown redevelopment, like Carol Schatz, say downtown LA may not be perfect, but its resuscitation is necessary.

Ms. SCHATZ: It's important to foster that sense of pride in Angelenos for their center, for their government center, for their employment center, for their historic center, for their cultural center. And that's what we're doing.

COHEN: Schatz says when it comes to revitalization, downtown has only just begun. Billions of dollars are being invested in several extensive high-profile projects, and finally, by the end of next year, a new grocery store will open in downtown LA. For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.