STRAPHANGER: The Trouble with Downtown Los Angeles

This week, Spacing presents five excerpts from Straphanger, the new book by Montreal-based author Taras Grescoe. The book examines the success stories, challenges, and future hurdles of 14 transit systems from across the world, including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

 

TODAY: Los Angeles

In spite of heroic efforts at revival, downtown Los Angeles can be a pretty forlorn place, filled as it is with polo-shirted security guards on Smith & Wesson mountain bikes fruitlessly trying to herd panhandlers back to the “Nickel,” the city’s skid row. If you know where to look, though, you can catch glimpses of the future Los Angeles once imagined for itself, of enduring architecture and walkable public places, stitched together by rail rather than roads. My favorite piece of Southern California retro-tech is Angel’s Flight, a funicular railway whose two slant-floored cars still haul passengers 300 or so feet up to Bunker Hill, the skyscraper, museum, and concert hall — topped incline that is traditionally considered the heart of Downtown. On Broadway, a plaque in the sumptuously restored Bradbury Building, whose sky-lit interior is all lacquered filigree and exposed cog-works, informs visitors that its architecture was inspired by the 1888 novel Looking Backward, whose author imagined a future in which densely settled American cities would be full of colossal public buildings. One block away, on Hill Street, the words Subway Terminal Building are engraved in the pavement outside an old commercial building that has been converted into upscale condos and lofts. This was where the now-condemned Hollywood subway used to emerge from underground, a mile of tunnel completed in the 1920s in an attempt to solve the congestion problem once and for all by channeling streetcars beneath the pavement and out of the way of cars.

It is a reminder that Los Angeles was supposed to turn out a lot differently. Even as engineers were planning the freeway system that would blow the metropolis apart, ambitious rail schemes were being devised to reassert the hegemony of downtown. After the war, hundreds of business owners campaigned under the slogan “Rail Rapid Transit — Now!” to have mass transit rights-of-way built alongside freeways. In 1963, the Alweg Monorail company of Germany even offered to build Los Angeles a 43-mile monorail operation, for free. “Between 1948 and 1980,” writes transportation historian Martin Wachs, “at least six different plans that included some form of rail transit were placed before the citizens, and all failed to be enacted.”

Given the competition between streetcars and automobiles downtown, something new had to emerge. It took the form of the Miracle Mile, a rhizome of commerce projecting from Downtown, and the first significant mutation of urban structure directly attributable to the automobile. Realizing that affluent motorists from Westwood and Beverly Hills no longer wanted to brave downtown traffic, department store owners built branches in the bean fields along Wilshire Boulevard. The first, Bullock’s-Wilshire (1929), a block-sized, terra-cotta sheathed behemoth two and a half miles west of Bunker Hill, still stands, and its innovation is obvious: by building porte cocheres that provide access to huge parking lots in the rear, the department store’s owners made it as easy for clients to get to their store by car as by streetcar. The result was America’s first linear downtown, a boulevard of two-story “taxpayer blocks” — the ancestors of modern strip malls — punctuated by fifteen-story buildings stretching from Fairfax to La Brea.

To many, it was an abomination. Unlike downtown, whose gridwork encouraged strolling, the Miracle Mile was not built to serve pedestrians. To his horror, science-fiction writer and lifelong non-driver Ray Bradbury was stopped by a police car on Wilshire Boulevard because he was on foot, an incident he turned into the 1951 short story “The Pedestrian.” (Though the cop involved didn’t write a ticket, he advised Bradbury not to walk anymore.) The Miracle Mile successfully competed with Downtown and Hollywood, until, in its turn, it was made uncompetitive by the definitive Motor Age retail innovation: the freeway-supported shopping mall.

The Greater Los Angeles that has emerged is what urbanists call a “polynucleated” metropolis, with at least eight distinct centers of employment and commerce. Periodic attempts have been made to connect the scattered nodes. In Magnetic Los Angeles, historian Greg Hise details the postwar efforts to create a string of small industrial suburbs — places like Torrance and Whittier — each with its own adjoining bedroom community, and within a two-mile walking distance of a commercial core. In the 1980s, visionary city planning director Calvin Hamilton came up with the “centers strategy,” which would have concentrated high-density commercial and apartment development in thirty-five nodes in the city, to be linked by mass transit. But the region has resisted rationalization. The economy of Orange County, for example, has for most of its history been a slow-motion Ponzi scheme based on the conversion of vast tracts of former ranch lands into a centerless edge city of endless suburbia, with minimal provision for culture or public space. While a city like New York or Chicago can bank on commuters riding trains to a central business district to sustain public transport, Los Angeles’s freeway system has dispersed employment centers to office parks alongside interchanges.

In spite of the geographic realities of modern Los Angeles, faith in downtown never died. The potential for a livable downtown was always there: compared to eastern cities, Los Angeles developed late, and its central business district was never home to noisy, polluting factories. At least 200,000 people work downtown every weekday, and 40,000 now live there, a number that has doubled in a decade. (Nonetheless, its population is still smaller than the tiny slice of Manhattan that is the East Village). Many historic buildings, converted into swank condos during the boom years, are now filled with half-vacant rental properties. Though a supermarket opened in 2007, there are still no public schools, making it a hard sell for parents. Spring Street has a decent stretch of hip bars, but few lights seem to be on in residential buildings in the evening, and it is difficult to find a café open on a Saturday. For now, the gridwork of downtown L.A. mostly seems to serve as a stunt double for eastern cities in Hollywood action films.

Many believe the real trouble with Downtown, and all of Southern California, is the glut of parking. According to law, new development in downtown Los Angeles has to be built with a minimum amount of off-street parking spaces. Frank Gehry’s soaring, silver-skinned Disney Hall is considered a world-class contribution to the urbanity of Los Angeles, but a concert goer can drop her car off at one of the six levels of parking, ride interlinked escalators to the show, and leave without ever setting foot on a sidewalk. Downtown Los Angeles requires, at minimum, fifty times more parking than downtown San Francisco allows at maximum. Which means that while most San Franciscans ride transit to get to work, in Los Angeles land is gobbled up for the needs of the car, creating pedestrian-repelling dead zones.

“What sets downtown L.A. apart from other cities is not its sprawl,” writes UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, “or its human density, but its high human density combined with its high parking density.” The math is simple: an office worker requires, on average, 250 square feet of space, whereas his car requires 400 square feet. A downtown where most people commute by automobile needs to set aside one and a half times as much land for cars as for people. If all the parking spaces in downtown Los Angeles were spread out in a single surface lot, they would cover 81 percent of the central business district’s land area (versus 31 percent in San Francisco) — the highest parking coverage ratio on earth. Free parking, as Shoup puts it, “is a fertility drug for cars.” He and his followers, the self-styled “Shoupistas,” believe that many urban congestion problems stem from civically mandated parking minimums. An enterprising mayor who wanted to permanently revolutionize the city’s form, and force a huge spike in transit ridership, would have to enact one simple policy change: limiting, or eliminating, off-street parking requirements in new developments.

It would also be a good way to get tossed out of office. A fundamental — and self-fulfilling — belief among developers is that the average American will not walk more than 600 feet to get to a parked car.

Excerpt taken from Straphanger © 2012 by Taras Grescoe.  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

photos from Los Angeles Metro Transportation Library and Archives on Flickr