Downtown Los Angeles — 1988. Los Angeles has one of the highest crime rates in the country. The average freeway trip takes about 15 minutes. And smog is intolerable.
These are a few of the facts characterizing the city when Nicole Yorkin wrote a 14-page article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine projecting what the city might look like 25 years from then.
Jerry Lockenour, an adjunct professor in USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, saw the article when it was first published. He clipped it and he saved it. Today, he is teaching the article in his class as a way to help students understand how science and technology affect the future of development.
“It’s on-target in many cases and off-target in some, so I use it as a case and point of how hard it is … to predict the future,” Lockenour said.
For example, Lockenour noted how the article predicts smog would be excruciating by 2013. But though air quality needs to improve in Los Angeles, it’s not nearly as bad as the prediction suggests.
“This article predicts that smog in 2013 would be horrible — it would be eye-watering,” he said. “So they missed that one completely.”
And visually, with the exception of a few new buildings, the city’s skyline has not changed much since Yorkin’s article was published.
“To bulldoze Downtown and make it suddenly something different is a major, major undertaking,” Lockenour said.
Yet Lockenour, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1977, said that many things on the ground level have changed dramatically over time. One big example? In the ’70s, Downtown L.A. was a place for work; now it’s increasingly becoming a place to live.
“I think back to when I first came to L.A. [and] there weren’t that many people living in L.A,” he said. “There’s a lot more high-density housing now in Downtown Los Angeles where people are choosing to live.”
In recent years, Downtown L.A. has attracted growing numbers of young, educated and affluent residents, according to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an assistant professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and an expert in municipal development.
“They are also associated with the attraction of lots of businesses and amenities,” Currid-Halkett said. “So what you have is a sort of symbiotic relationship between the increase of amenities and the increase of a young, educated work force and then also the firms and businesses that want to employ them.”
As Currid-Halkett pointed out, one of the biggest changes in Downtown L.A. has been the proliferation of shops and properties geared toward leisure. Walking through Downtown today, this trend is hard to miss: Specialized markets to upscale cafes, all which largely cater to young residents, now scatter the street corners.
“L.A. Live created amenities. The Arts District created interesting social happenings. The whole redevelopment of Downtown has attracted lots of different people to want to live down there, which in turn brings a more diverse residential group,” she said. “It just developed into a much more amenity-rich area with things to do and interesting people who live there.”
In September 2012, the New York Post sparked the interest of talking heads with the publication of a story sporting the headline, “Los Angeles is the future,” and a declaration that “New York, better watch your back.” The article surmised that Los Angeles would become the nation’s premier city by transforming itself into a city with a real transit system and a vibrant food culture.
And in addition to ground-level changes, underground changes have affected the changing demographics of the city. Extensions to the Metro system have made it easier to travel throughout a city that is often cast as extremely stratified.
But with current plans, by 2016, Angelenos should be able to take a train from Downtown to Santa Monica. And by 2036, Angelenos should be able to take a train from Downtown all the way down Wilshire Boulevard into Westwood.
“We are steadily building out our network and with every extension of our service we create new connections — new opportunities — for Angelenos to leave their car to home and commute via transit rather than drive everywhere,” said Dave Sotero, a spokesperson for Metro.
Sotero said this has the potential to dramatically change the landscape of the city, transforming it into something resembling a city like New York or Chicago.
“It creates opportunities to live within close proximity of the transit line and also have various other amenities like shopping and commercial opportunities,” Sotero said. “That changes the profile of the Los Angeles region — it’s not typically known for that sort of environment, like Manhattan or other major American cities that have much more robust transit-oriented development.”
In addition to changes on the ground level and below, the skyline of Los Angeles may be poised to change in the coming years as more developments stream into the city. One anticipated development, slated for completion in early 2017, is a $1 billion renovation of the Wilshire Grand Hotel.
The project is expected to yield 900 hotel rooms, 400,000 square feet of office space and 45,100 square feet of restaurant and retail space. When completed, the 73-story building will surpass the U.S. Bank building as the tallest skyscraper west of Chicago. More importantly, it will be a new crown jewel in the skyline and could inspire more drastic developments in the near future.
Sean Rossall, a spokesman for the Wilshire Grand project, agreed that Downtown L.A. has changed dramatically in the last decade.
“Ten, 15 years ago, Downtown was a place that sort of became a ghost town after 6 p.m. and now there’s a very vibrant culture, food and a nightlife that is really attracting people, especially young professionals, as a place not only to work but a place to live,” Rossall said.
According to Rossall, the renovation of the Wilshire Grand feeds off of the recent changes and trends in Downtown Los Angeles.
“Being an iconic part of the skyline, having the best entertainment and dining venues in Downtown and being situated as the hub between the business district and L.A. Live is really going to make the Wilshire Grand a central part of the Downtown lifestyle and experience,” he said.
And development projects, ranging from hotels to residential housing, are cropping up all over the city.
“Downtown is actually going through really a development boom right now. There are projects proposed all over the area,” Rossall said.
But as an increasing number move into Downtown and as more businesses emerge, many emphasized the importance of creating a long-term plan.
Patti Berman, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, said her group was awarded a $122,000 grant from the Southern California Association of Governments to compile a plan for the neighborhood.
“We are looking at experts in that area to take a look at what will make downtown more livable, more sustainable and what type of mobility we need,” Berman said.
Currently, Berman said many residents come to Downtown L.A. when they are young but leave after having children.
“That is something we want to change drastically,” she said. “We can’t have a community without families and children.”
Rather than addressing sweeping issues, Berman said the emphasis of the plan would be on tackling the “lower-hanging fruit” and coming up with doable projects.
“It doesn’t do any good to put together these plans if you are just going to put them on a book shelf. And there are plenty of them on bookshelves, trust me,” Berman said.