Monday, December 08, 2008

Food Disneylands; or Why LA Live will be a Disaster

That massive grey behemoth adjacent to the Staples Center has finally opened its doors, kinda.

For those of you unfamiliar, it's LA Live, a massive dining and entertainment complex developed by AEG, the operator of the Staples Center.

LA Times architecture critic Christpher Hawthorne savaged the design and concept in a recent review. His disdain is justifiable: while paying lip service to downtown revitalization the complex is in fact just another destination shopping center, blocked off from the surrounding community. You drive there, you park your car, you stay inside the complex, and you leave. You don't integrate yourself with the surrounding community. You don't patronize businesses in the neighborhood. Drive. Park. Shop. Leave. That's it.

The financial backing for LA Live is enormous. It will become ESPN's de facto HQ as every SportsCenter will be broadcast from its new studios there, though it will keep its official offices in Bristol. The Ritz-Carlton is putting a hotel in and there will be apartments and extensive convention space.

LA Live could indeed be a success as a destination, akin to the Anaheim Convention Center/Disneyland megasprawl in Orange County. But that's just it, it'll be a place that people go to for whatever business/pleasure purpose they might have and then leave. It won't "revitalize downtown" anymore than Disneyland "revitalized" Anaheim. Disneyland created jobs and provided tax revenue, but it didn't turn Anaheim into a new San Francisco, or even a new Long Beach.

Revitalization is a process that is largely organic. All that cities can do is provide good soil and enough water and sunshine, everything else will grow out on its own. When commercial monoliths get into the revitalization business you get terrariums, not gardens.

Downtown Culver City became a revitalized restaurant mecca in a largely organic way. The city renovated the buildings, made sure to build lots of parking, and provided incentives to businesses to relocate, but it didn't allow for any large scale redevelopment by any one particular group. It also mostly maintained the basic integrity of its street layouts, keeping the area open and vibrant with a sense that you're still in a city.

The Culver City restaurants are primarily independent operations and are set in the midst of a community of retailers, production companies, city offices, Sony Pictures, and Culver Studios with architecture firms and art galleries on its eastern fringe. People often patronizing three or four different businesses in the course of an evening out. Most importantly, this downtown core is surrounded by housing, whether it's the single-family bungalows of Culver City to the south or the working class (but gentrifying) multi-family dwellings of Los Angeles along Venice Blvd. to the north. In short, it's a downtown the way downtowns used to be and Culver City deserves credit for providing a welcoming environment for developers without letting them crap all over the community (c.f. 3rd St. Promenade, The Grove).

This is what makes for revitalization: a reason for people to get out of their house and be in the community. The Culver City resident can walk to Trader Joe's, Albertson's, a dozen great restaurants, dry cleaners, printers, two movie theatres, two houses of the legitimate stage, a post office, City Hall, hospitals, schools, and several parks. The same can't yet be said for the Downtown resident and LA Live isn't going to change that.

A quick look at LA Live's tenants reveals a who's who of major chains and restaurant groups: Fleming's Steakhouse, Wolfgang Puck, ESPNZone, Trader Vic's, Yardhouse, and Katsuya. With LA Live's no doubt skyhigh rents these are the only businesses that can afford to move in. These aren't businesses that are going to attract foodies or culinary tourists. They aren't businesses that will attract LA residents on any regular basis. These are businesses that will be patronized by out of towners who are at LA Live for conferences, concerts, or sporting events. If I live in Beverly Hills and want to eat dinner before a Lakers game, why would I do it at LA Live instead of at one of the scores of better restaurants between my house and downtown? And if I live in Beverly Hills, why would I go to Wolfgang Puck in LA Live when I could go to a Wolfgang Puck down the street?

The revitalization of downtown by LA Live is either a lip service lie or a pipe dream. True revitalization of downtown means more art walks, more grocery stores, and more businesses open after 9PM, not a mini-Vegas destination bubble for Lakers fans from Torrance and out of town conventioneers.

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