4 Downtown News
April 18, 2011
EDITORIALS Signs of A Market Comeback
Urban Scrawl by Doug Davis
o matter where you look across the United States, there are still plenty of indicators of a down market. Economists may declare that the recession officially ended months ago, but that is little solace for those dealing with high unemployment, tight lending markets and too many home foreclosures. Downtown Los Angeles still shows ample signs of the tough economy. At the same time, we are seeing glimmers of progress; a patchwork of large and small projects, and the involvement of notable business players behind them, gives evidence that the rebound has begun. In just the past few weeks, fencing went up around the plot where Eli Broad’s $100 million art museum will rise; Hanjin International and its development partner Thomas Properties Group secured city approvals to build a $1 billion replacement for the Wilshire Grand hotel at Seventh and Figueroa streets; the 325,000-square-foot Chinatown Gateway broke ground; and CanyonJohnson Urban Funds announced that it has taken over and will begin sales this month on the Arts District’s Barn Lofts. These are not the only signs of progress. Construction began recently on both the renovation of the shopping center on the southwest corner of Seventh and Figueroa streets (home to a Target in fall 2012) and the Hope Street Family Center, a community project from Abode Communities and California Hospital Medical Center. The most intriguing thing about this collection of developments is the names involved. Thomas Properties Group, Eli Broad, Target and Can yon-Johnson are all shrewd business players with significant track records. They represent different fields (real estate, philanthropy, retail), and the fact that they are all putting money into the community indicates confidence in Downtown’s potential. We acknowledge that this could be interpreted as looking at Downtown through rose-colored glasses. Naysayers will point at stalled developments such as Concerto, the Grand Avenue plan (one tower is on the front burner for a 2012 groundbreaking, but funds have not been secured) and the Brockman Building on Seventh Street. They’ll point to the lack of construction cranes on the skyline compared to a few years back. They’re right about the stalled projects. However, we think those say less about the community right now than do these new developments. This does not herald a construction wave like the one that occurred around 2004, but it looks like a sign of a comeback.
Good Project, Bad Process
owntown Los Angeles has a winning new addition in the $27 million LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. Unfortunately, there is, at least for the moment and possibly well into the future, a taint on the project that provides important educational opportunities about the city’s past. On Saturday, April 16 (after Los Angeles Downtown News went to press), officials with the part museum, part Mexican-American cultural center were set to hold a public opening for the project at 501 N. Main St., adjacent to the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. That same day, several Native American tribes and other organizations were planning to organize protests near the facility over the way project officials handled the discovery of human bones during construction. This has been a troubling process, and the controversy raises questions of whether political expediency superseded professional standards. It has also caused some to question whether the County of Los Angeles has put itself at legal risk. That questions need to be asked is a shame, because this is a state-of-the-art development that focuses attention and resources on something that many Angelenos know little about — the city’s founding and the importance of Mexican Americans in its past. It chronicles the settling of the puebla of Los Angeles in 1781, not far from where LA Plaza sits. Its exhibits include a re-creation of Main Street in the 1920s, providing a look at how the city functioned nearly a century ago. It marks the Chicano movement of the 1960s and much more. In short, LA Plaza provides a history lesson, for children and adults, in two historic build-
ings. The county, and in particular First District Supervisor Gloria Molina, the key backer of the project, deserve credit for activating the 1888 Vickey-Brunswig Building and the 1883 Plaza House, both of which had long been derelict eyesores, and which representatives of other cultural institutions looked at and then ran from once they saw the challenges and costs of an upgrade. In a difficult economy, Molina showed follow-through by securing funds, establishing a foundation to build the project, and getting community and political buy-in. These developments don’t happen without a champion, and Molina’s work has helped give Los Angeles a jewel, another lure for visitors from afar as well as from the farther corners of the city and county. This is wonderful, but it is also scarred by what happened after human remains were discovered on the site in October. It turned out that part of the project was rising on the old cemetery of the nearby La Placita church. This led to requests and then vociferous calls to halt construction. Those were downplayed and/or ignored until January, when media coverage of the bones generated intense public pressure. Finally LA Plaza officials stopped digging on part of the project’s garden, where the remains had been found, though work continued on the rest of the development. Bones and historic artifacts have been uncovered in numerous other places in Los Angeles, including Downtown, during work on highprofile projects. In the best cases, work is halted for a short time as archeologists and other officials study the findings and determine what had been there, how much of the past is left, and if any human, structural or other remains
are at risk by continued construction. When the best practices are followed, leaders err on the side of caution and cultural respect. It does not mean the project is canceled, just that it is temporarily delayed until the situation can be properly assessed. Native American groups feel that did not occur at LA Plaza, and the fact that the remains of 118 individuals were ultimately discovered indicates that this site merits further study. The bones and other artifacts have been taken to the Natural History Museum and the tribes are still trying to figure out if the remains of their ancestors have been disturbed. If that occurred, then they want to follow customs and find an appropriate resting place. The county now needs to operate with an abundance of caution and respect. Although LA Plaza officials and Molina have met with representatives of the Native American community, they must continue to talk and do whatever is necessary to ensure that tribal customs and practices are followed. The onus is on the county to make this right. The recent happenings have raised a troubling question: Did LA Plaza and county representatives intentionally underplay the discovery of the bones so they could hit what seemed a more important April opening date? There is an ironic and disturbing possibility that a facility dedicated to the city’s history is showing that same history insufficient respect. LA Plaza is a very good project, one that will benefit Los Angeles for decades, but its arrival comes with a flawed process. The county needs to do right regarding the bones of the people who were once buried where the attraction now stands.
Los Angeles Downtown News is a free weekly newspaper distributed in and around downtown Los Angeles.