L.A. Live, Pinnacle of Modern Design, or Bad Urbanism?

Photo: ##http://www.visualterrain.net/2009/la-live/##Visual Terrain##
Photo: ##http://www.visualterrain.net/2009/la-live/##Visual Terrain##

How do Los Angeles’ residents want their city, and neighborhoods, to develop?  Are big projects that raise a lot of money for developers and provide entertainment and dining for thousands of people better than smaller developments that better serve the communities in which they are placed?

That debate has been a hot one for decades, not just in Los Angeles, but around the country.  Recently, it came up again after the L.A. Live development won a major international award in October for being a “Pinnacle of Modern Design.”  For Angelenos who favor more community-based development, the L.A. Live’s win came as a surprise.

Last month, the Urban Land Institute’s national office announced the five winners of their Global Awards for Excellence.  L.A. Live, the mega-entertainment development in Downtown Los Angeles, was one of the two winners from North America, because of its size and economic benefit to the part of the city just South of central Downtown Los Angeles.

For those of you that are unfamiliar, L.A. Live is a 5 million-square-foot sports, residential and entertainment district developed by the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG.)  AEG is the same developer working on bringing an NFL Stadium to Downtown Los Angeles.  The $2.5 billion project includes restaurants, cafes, hotels and over 200 luxury residences in addition to such attractions as the “Grammy Museum.”

In their announcement, the ULI beamed that,

L.A. LIVE is a large-scale project that breaks the myth of being too big to succeed,” said Global Awards Jury Chairman Joseph E. Brown, Group Chief Executive of AECOM in San Francisco. “This development is a massive achievement that involved enormous participation from the public sector, creating an economically thriving asset for Los Angeles.

But not every Angeleno was thrilled with L.A. Live’s selection.  The California Planning and Development Report takes a completely different take on the development:

…the enormous development literally imposes a wall between itself and busy Figueroa Boulevard. Ostensibly public, LA Live is in fact sequestered from public life. Although nothing like LA Live was planned for in the South Park Specific Plan, LA redevelopment officials were eager to get a convention center hotel, which became the centerpiece of the development.

The main point of the California Planning and Development Report’s point is that just because L.A. Live is big and profitable, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good project for the city.  How can a development that is separate from the community in which it exists be considered a pinnacle of urban development?

As large projects are proposed, study and built around transit nodes in the coming decades as a result of “Transit Oriented Development” plans and the unprecedented growth of rail in Southern California, this debate will occur over and over again.  When it comes to development and urban design, is bigger better?

To AEG’s credit, unlike the outdoor retail/entertainment developments we see at the Grove and the Third Street Promenade, L.A. Live isn’t an inconvenient place to access by transit.  It always seemed odd at The Grove, which I used to be able to walk to, see a place advertise an outdoor trolley when there were only two bus lines that served the mega development.  L.A. Live, because of its location in Downtown Los Angeles has more bus lines running service and is even accessible via the Blue Line.

While accessibility via transit is one of the components that made L.A. Live a banner project for the ULI, it doesn’t mean the development itself is an accessible one.  Back when I lived in Baltimore, I used to joke with a friend (who is now a Baltimore City Councilman) that the city’s light rail line was to get well-to-do white people in and out of  Baltimore’s tourist areas and ballparks without having to see a single minority.  While I’m not saying that was AEG’s goal for L.A. Live, or even that L.A. Live deserves that comparison, the story does help make the point that just having a rail line doesn’t necesarily make a place accessible.

This point was also hammered by the California Planning and Development Report:

Business success is not contemptible, but it‘s not the only criterion for good urban design. A sense of public life, continuity with the surrounding city and increasing the level of pedestrian activity throughout the district are at least equally important. On those latter criteria, LA Live is a 1970s-style monster project in a 21st Century city. I think LA Live detracts from downtown, and deprives downtown of commercial activity and pedestrians-filled sidewalks.

Merchants and pedestrians both could have benefited from a similar development not conceived on the model of absolute control and privatism. But this enormous project seems to benefit itself only, while adding yet another bunker-like condition to downtown LA.

But in the end, I’ll leave it to you to decide, and debate.  Does L.A. Live deserve an award for being a pioneering development?  Or, in the words of CP&DR writer Morris Newman, does the project “stink.”

  • Well, modernism in general sucks for the end user so, yes, LA Live is a pinnacle of modern design. It is also garish, annoying, and the exact opposite of what I love about Downtown LA.

    That and the bike parking SUCKS!

    I do my shopping at locally owned businesses on Los Angeles, Main and Spring – books, food, art, furniture, and clothing. None of the local businesses I buy from received the tax-free incentives, development rights give-aways, loan subsidies, or other perks that LA Live got. They all exist in buildings built last century, with ornamentation and fenestration that is pleasing to the eye and conducive to a positive attitude about civil life.

    LA Live is a building meant to impose its will on you to BUY BUY BUY NOW OR GET OUT YOU LOSER. Screw that.

  • anty

    It’s not bad as far as fortresses go, I suppose.

  • I’ve always like Christopher Hawthorn’s take on it from two years ago:

    The trouble is that the new buildings — designed by RTKL, a Baltimore-based firm that also created the master plan for L.A. Live — have almost nothing to say to or about downtown Los Angeles. Clad in glass and panels of metal and limestone, they are adamant in their sleek placelessness. Their primary concern is matching, in palette and spirit, the Staples Center next door (which, not coincidentally, is also an AEG property).

    When you get right down to it, their architecture is fundamentally not really architecture at all but an extensive series of armatures on which the developer and its tenants can hang logos, video screens and a sophisticated range of lighting effects.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/dec/03/entertainment/et-lalive3

  • Erik G.

    No one who works at L.A. Live can afford to live there.

    It’s always fun what one can do by abusing the eminent-domain laws!

  • MU

    I’d say it’s probably a success in that it attracted a large investment into a generally neglected area that should over time help the broader area develop. But the big failing is that it perfectly demonstrates LA’s general approach to this sort of issue.

    Change small, but influential, rules on development, transport, parking, accessibility that will allow the city to naturally grow into a better environment? NO

    Give rich developers waivers from all sorts of regulation so that they can get even richer building big ego projects but force them to throw a few tiny bones to the accessibility concerns? ABSOLUTELY

    Remember, what rich people do is important. Everyone else, not so much.

  • Good article. I hope that someday, somehow, we go back to building the type of buildings you see on Broadway or Spring. Anty definitely nailed it with his description of LA Live, perhaps those weird scaffolding towers are actually designed to hold vats of boiling oil.

    But it’s still better than the Grove.

  • Heh. I’m going to be the one contrarian who says he actually LIKES L.A. Live. Sure, it’s big and flashy, but look at its location. Big, modern and flashy is appropriate for the area.

    The hotel was always badly needed, and the restaurants and shops make for a good addition to the Los Angeles Convention Center and Staples Center. That area was dead before L.A. Live came along.

    It works best during one of the big conventions when they close Chick Hearn Court, like they did for Anime Expo. During Anime Expo, they used the theater for some of the big events and Nokia Plaza had a couple of outdoor concerts as well.

    Sure, none of the hardcore anime fans could afford the restaurants, but the free laser light show in the plaza was a big hit.

  • I think overall, LA Live is a big positive to Downtown but I wouldn’t go as far as saying a pinnacle of anything. I think some of your criticism is really missing the forest for the tree. Without AEG’s investment, what do you suppose South Park would look like? My guess is what it used to look like… empty lots and abandon warehouses. And calling LA Live “inaccessible” (let’s not beat around the bush… you are basically saying only white people are interested in going to LA Live) assumes minorities have no interests in attending events at Nokia Center, do not hang out after Lakers or Kings game, do not like watching games at ESPN Zone, and have no use or employment opportunities at a major hotel. As a person that would be classified as a minority, I find all of these assumptions to false and pretty condescending.

    The architecture design and aesthetic element of LA Live probably leave much to be desired but from a user perspective, it sure as hell is an upgrade from what was there before. If you want to criticize AEG for making LA Live an “island”, you must also acknowledge that island is not an artificial one created by AEG. The 110 freeway is not going away so it could never connect with Pico Union to the west. The 10 freeway is also not going to move so it will always be cut off from Washington Blvd. AEG still has the option to re-develop the surface parking to the East and maybe one day, the entire La Live-Staples-Convention Center complex will be right next to Blue line Pico station. The point is that it’s difficult to design something that blends in with the community and local landscape when that community and landscape consists of freeways and vast empty lots. It’s not like there is a thriving retail and residential community at Figueroa and Olympic before AEG broke ground on LA Live.

  • I offer a microcosm of the LA Live experience, found at it’s movie theaters. While waiting in line for popcorn, you might wonder how much different snacks cost, to help make an informed purchasing decision. The menu is visible on video displays, but only for a fraction of a second, and then replaced by a barrage of endless advertising. But don’t look away, you might miss the menu, oh there it is, popcorn is… flash back to advertising, and repeat and repeat, until you surrender to both the advertising and the price gouge. But you walk away the winner, because you got the popped corn.

    Clearly a static printed menu would be functionally superior, but that’s not the point is it. The point is to rob the fools who step foot near the place. Of course LA Live makes money, like all thieves and scam artists, making money is not the problem, the question is only how long you can get away with it. Given the obvious corruption in the city government that allowed this ‘development’ in the first place, I see AEG continuing to get away with it for quite some time.

  • Sam Hill

    LA live… it’s perfect for a bunch of obese couch potatoes loathe to stand around a courtyard without their TV blasting ads into their faces.

  • Chris L

    ^This. What a waste of a potentially cool urban space. The courtyard is interesting to walk through to see all the “pretty lights”, but its certainly not somewhere where you’d want to linger…not that you could if you wanted to- there’s nowhere to sit down.

  • And now short break for an example of a truly great public space.

    Place Kleber

    Now back to your regularly scheduled Toyota ad…

    LA Live

  • Yuri

    Los Angeles needs a true public space instead of yet another mall. My vote is to expand Plazita Olvera into a genuine plaza.

  • I didn’t know you could insert pictures into a comments thread until just now.

    Yuri,

    Funny you should mention Plazita Olvera. Sammy and I were hanging out there before the BRU rally at the Taj. We both love it.

    Bzcat,

    By “inaccessible” I don’t mean anything about race, I mean the people that live in the surrounding community, i.e. those that were there before, don’t utilize it. Say what you want about “The Grove,” but when I used to walk there on a near daily basis (we would cut through PanPacPark and the Grove to get our dinner ingredients) we saw plenty of people doing the same thing. I.E. people that live there go there. Heck, if we went through the Grove in the morning there was a yoga group that met there (meets there?) that wasn’t paying rent or anything, just meeting in an open space.

    The couple of times I’ve subjected myself to Lakers games, I saw plenty of racial diversity at L.A. Live, and the game itself. When I didn’t see a lot of people walking there, actually I don’t think I saw any.

    Thus: inaccessible.

    Back in 2007, I had the person who did the transportation planning for the new Mets Stadium in Queens write about what they thought of the Transportation planning for Staples. Not the same thing, but related.

    http://la.streetsblog.org/2007/12/31/socal-voices-3-former-mets-transportation-engineer-marybeth-miceli-looks-at-staples-center/

  • I didn’t know about posting photos either. I had to post it and then hit “edit” and make the changes in wordpress. I suspect that’s a mods-only privilege.

    You can always try this formula:

    img src=”LINK” alt=”PICTURE TITLE” /

    With the text above in <> brackets

  • Too many ads?

  • Hmm. The Times Square photo link didn’t seem to work. Oh well.

    I’m amused by the complaints against modernist styling. If you rebuilt L.A. Live in “old brick downtown Broadway” style or in Spanish mission “Olvera Street Plaza” style, it would look completely FAKE. We have too much of that already.

  • LA Live needs more diversity. I once attended a Pac-10 Tournament event that let out at 10 and there was no restaurants available that weren’t also bars. We had to walk all the way to Pete’s on Main to get decent, reasonable food. I agree with Damien – the faux places like The Grove, Americana, Victoria Gardens, etc. are more people friendly than LA Live.

  • My main problem with L.A. Live, and I live less than a 10 minute walk from the place, is not the boring architecture or the video screens – it’s the fact that is offers little of interest to anyone who actually lives in the area.

    Despite my proximity to the beast, until the cinemas opened I had literally no reason to go to L.A. Live. The restaurants are all incredibly overpriced, and other than them and the movie theater there’s nothing that would attract anyone there on any sort of regular basis.

    Despite Josef’s assertion that L.A. Live’s message is “buy buy buy!” my biggest issue with L.A. Live is that there is nothing to buy! There’s no retail!

    The Grove and other such places have been brought up as examples of these types of places that are somehow more people friendly than L.A. Live, and the obvious difference is that The Grove, Americana, Hollywood & Highland, etc. are retail developments first.

    Like it or not, shopping – even the vilified big chains – would probably make L.A. Live a better fit in the neighborhood. Offering nothing but big venues for events and a few pricey restaurants for event goers just seems like a really… incomplete vision.

    As a Downtown/South Park resident, when I go to the movie theater at L.A. Live I find myself wishing there was something else for me there. A Borders bookstore, an Apple Store… hell, how about a flagship McDonalds. You can just go to The Grove with a date and window shop, at L.A. Live you have to have some sort of final destination in mind because there’s nothing else to see.

    If you’re going to make a loud, bright, flashy corporate shrine to mindless consumption… please, give me something to consume!

    I’ve also discovered that despite how inward facing it seems, in person it’s not as bad. In fact, standing on the corner if Olympic and Fig you can almost see what they were going for.

    TL;DR: Without a retail component L.A. Live is more a pinnacle of incomplete design more than anything else.

  • Chris L

    @James

    I love contemporary. I have no problem with that. And you’re right, faux historic is terrible.

    I don’t even have a problem with LA Live’s lack of authenticity. That’s a problem that all built-at-once mixed use problems share. No one’s figured out how to build one and make it look like it evolved organically over time yet.

    Really, my problem with LA Live is just the advertisements. Video ads. Billboard ads. Ads on buildings. Ads on towers. Its repulsive.

  • Chris L

    Haha, that’s “mixed-use developments” not “mixed-use problems”.

  • Chris L

    “TL;DR: Without a retail component L.A. Live is more a pinnacle of incomplete design more than anything else.”

    Excellent point. Also, hellooo Reddit.

  • Fred, the fact that we now have this center drawing people but not meeting all demands is a GOOD thing. Maybe in a couple of years retail will open across the street.

    I’ve only been to LA Live once, but it was full. And it was quite racially diverse, although part of that was the act in the Nokia theater.

  • Density near transit doesn’t work so well at supporting transit when it’s all upscale and unaffordable to mere mortals. On the other hand at least you have to pay to park.

    I think it’s an interesting place. It manages to generate a decent amount of foot traffic.

    The electronic billboards, searchlights and supergraphics are really annoying. I’m almost ashamed to call myself an urbanist when I see that crap going up on so many new high-profile developments.

    I don’t know as much about the history of this development as I should, but I heard once that it displaced a bunch of older apartment buildings that were probably affordable. That’s too bad, if true.

  • It’d be interesting to analyze it from an economic development perspective. The City dropped a lot of subsidy money on it, and it has obviously created some jobs and tax revenue, but I wonder what kind of return on investment the public is getting.

  • The “Hellooo Reddit” thing is stupid, really stupid.

  • RobertC

    I live in the Historic District and rarely go to LA Live. That said, other than the ugly bases holding up the video screens, I believe LA Live serves its purpose for entertainment. What the area could use is a huge garden to bring people in when they are not attending a game or concert…maybe the Huntington could buy up some land. A bakery, small cafe and some retail help. What do I like? Boca is a cool place…the Starbucks is very busy…the lobby of the JW Marrott is fitting and the Christmas lights along Fig and Olympic are nice. It needs to connect more into the heart of Downtown….including the emerging restaurant row (Seventh Street).

  • Jass, Hollywood & Highland met all demands (entertainment, dining, retail) and it only encouraged further development outside of its boundaries. As far as I know, across the street from H&H – instead of tourist t-shirt shops and abandoned buildings – there’s now an American Apparel, H&M, Zara. In other words, retail wasn’t cannibalized. Same goes for dining in the area.

    I suppose I’m speaking from a very selfish perspective, but it’s definitely not a good thing for me that L.A. Live’s focus is almost exclusively big event entertainment. I’m sure my sentiment applies to many Downtown and surrounding area residents.

    When a $2.5 billion, 27-acre hyped-up development moves in next door, you hope it has something to offer to you.

    But even as a tourist trap I think it’s a let down. I’m kind of a big fan of tourists traps. If you’re going to point an out of town guest to a tourist experience in L.A., do you think they’d rather go to Hollywood & Highland or L.A. Live?

    This review from Yelp pretty much sums it up for me:

    “All I saw was a Lawry’s Cutlery and an ESPN Zone. What else is there to see? Did I miss it?”

    I did hit up the Grammy Museum, and it was actually cooler than I expected. But my girlfriend and I were quite literally the only people in there… and it’s a one trick pony – don’t really have much of a desire to return. It’s not like it’s the Louvre.

  • Chewie, I believe the L.A. Live area was nothing more than a parking lot. Don’t think any apartments were displaced.

    Here’s an image of the beautiful parking lot from 2005: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bringo/7103428/

  • Mr. Fred Camino – what do you think was there before the parking lots??? It was housing.

  • Chris L

    @Josef

    “The “Hellooo Reddit” thing is stupid, really stupid.”

    What, he did the TL;DR abbreviation, a telltale sign of a Redditor. I can’t be pleased that the writer for the Source frequents the website that I spend half my life on?

    I suppose we can’t all be as cool as you Josef.

  • Ryan Lehman

    @Chris L “I don’t even have a problem with LA Live’s lack of authenticity. That’s a problem that all built-at-once mixed use developments share. No one’s figured out how to build one and make it look like it evolved organically over time yet.”

    Well, sometimes you can create an interesting large project without having to make it look like it evolved over time, which no matter how well done is inauthentic. This video by the architecture firm BIG explains their thinking in designing 8-House, a large mixed-use project near Copenhagen. The design is based on the existing urban context as well as the optimal placement for each of the uses. Then they garnish it with their great design sensibility.

  • Eric B

    This whole conversation on design, layout, and use is interesting, but the parking lots east of Figueroa have a far greater impact on pedestrian and transit accessibility than anything AEG did or could have done with LA Live. It’s hard to fit into an urban context that is so visibly broken. The Fig & Olympic corner has the wide sidewalks, good lighting, and visibility into restaurants any urbanist could love. But its lack of connectivity has more to do with what’s across the street (or not).

    The modernist architecture will appeal to some and turn off others. But criticism of it misses the forest for the trees. LA Live, Staples, and the Convention Center are surrounded by a moat of freeways and surface parking. At least LA Live located its parking in a back garage with minimal impact on the street environment. Now if we could just develop those surface parking lots and improve the pedestrian experience from transit stations, then LA Live might actually become the center of an urban neighborhood.

  • Well for a few weeks you can go ice skating for $4 more than Pershing square. That is a big draw right?

    I agree the retail component is missing. I only have visited the place a few times. One of which was an expensive movie experience. I miss the Laemele theater that was in the basement of the Marriott on Fig and 3rd.

    As a complement to a Sports event or concert I guess it serves its purpose but leaves one wanting more.

  • Rich Alossi

    My views on LA Live have evolved over time. At first it didn’t offer much for me, but I do see many benefits to Downtown now. Yes, a big chunk of the people attending events get there by car, but the whole pedestrian connection via Figueroa to 7th/Metro is now full of people walking to and from LA Live/Staples. The hotel obviously was needed. The restaurants were definitely needed, and there are a few good places in the mix. I’ve been to almost all of them. My favorites are Trader Vic’s and the Farm.

    I think the fact that it is so successful is good for Downtown because now it shows that lots across the street can be developed into, yes, retail. I’m with Fred – we need retail. It’s just not LA Live’s mission to solve that problem. They are there to provide entertainment, and food/drink options for those who are attending those events. That’s it. I happen to like the vibe down there when I go every few weeks.

  • @ Fred

    You made very good points. Some retail stores will make LA Live a lot more useful.

    @ Eric B

    Exactly my points too… AEG did the best job in terms of being pedestrian friendly as they could. Nothing could be done about the 2 freeways roaring right by the parcel. And the parking lot on the east side of Figueroa holds the key to the ultimate success or failure of the entire Staples-LA Live-Convention Center-Football Stadium development – If they put in some good retail stores there and offer good pedestrian connection (open plazas, green space etc) to the Pico station, I think it will ultimately be judged as successful urban development.

  • Anonymous

    Photoshopped.

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