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

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.”