DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Fact No. 1: The economy is a mess, and the developers of plenty of projects throughout the country are waiting for lending markets to thaw so they can begin, or in some cases resume, construction. Fact No. 2: Despite the economy, 2009 was a great year for new projects in Downtown Los Angeles, with the debut of dozens of developments, including several that forever changed the skyline, and others that upgraded the cultural and even the gustatory lives of those who live, work in or visit the Central City.

This may at first strike some as unlikely, but consider the litany of developments that opened: Everything from cultural landmarks to educational institutions to restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs to housing complexes (both market-rate and low-income) to civic projects came online. They were spread all across Downtown, enriching and altering life as they sprouted in Bunker Hill, the Civic Center, the Jewelry District, South Park and other districts.

Amongst the dozens, 13 stood out. These projects are being celebrated by Los Angeles Downtown News as recipients of our annual Downtowners of Distinction awards. In each case, the projects were selected not only for their physical buildings or activities, but for how they benefited their greater districts, and in many cases gave a boost to all of Downtown or even the entire city.

Individual winners were selected by the editorial staff of Downtown News, and the awards will be handed out on Tuesday, Feb. 23 (awardees were not named in every Downtown district). Next week, the Project of the Year, chosen by leaders from each of the districts, will be announced.

Following, in alphabetical order by district, are this year’s Downtowners of Distinction winners.

Bunker Hill
Winner: High School for the Visual and Performing Arts

The $232 million High School for the Visual and Performing Arts is one of the most expensive schools in the nation. It is also one of the most striking. The Grand Avenue campus, orchestrated by the Los Angeles Unified School District and designed by Austrian architect Wolf Prix, is all steel and shimmer, with unexpected angles and swirls that challenge any notion of what a school should look like. The state-of-the-art facilities are equally astounding, from the library in the soaring, slanted cone to the 950-seat theater to the gorgeous dance studios. Ultimately the school will serve 1,700 students from ninth to 12th grades, with curriculums built around dance, music, theater and visual arts. It is appropriate that the next generation of cultural achievers will learn both in the shadow of Downtown’s cultural treasures, and in a campus that itself inspires.

Central City East
Winner: Skid Row 3-on-3 Streetball League

The challenges facing denizens of Skid Row and Central City East are well known. What receives less attention are the positive elements in the neighborhood. One success is the basketball league founded three years ago by Manuel Compito. The Skid Row 3-on-3 Streetball League works on multiple levels: It provides recreational opportunities and a point of pride for men in the community, and the Saturday morning games in Gladys Park function as a neighborhood gathering point, a place where the drugs and demons endemic in the area are largely left behind. Activists including Jeff Page have worked with the city and private sponsors to get players a new court surface and uniforms. The result is an oasis in a tough neighborhood.

Chinatown
Winner: Cirque Berzerk

In 2008, a freakazoid little circus set up its tent in the Los Angeles State Historic Park. It was a surprise success, and last summer Cirque Berzerk returned larger, louder and even stranger. The show was again a hit, thanks to its collection of artists including fire breathers, fishnet-clad dancers and homoerotic acrobats. Yet there was a greater impact, and by erecting a 1,754-person big top in the park, Berzerk founders Kevin Borque and Suzanne Bernel activated the area several nights a week for nearly two months. Suddenly, a locale with little after-dark appeal was abuzz with activity and people were able to hit Chinatown restaurants and bars before and after the show, or use the Gold Line to take in some entertainment. It was another example of something new and untried succeeding in Downtown.

Civic Center
Winner: Police Administration Building

The $440 million price tag for replacing, at a new location, the outdated and earthquake-ravaged Parker Center will make anyone blanche. Fortunately, the new headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department is a stately and worthy home for the entity that has undergone significant change over the past seven years. The 10-story project directly south of City Hall complements both that historic building and the ultra-modern CalTrans headquarters to its east. The PAB offers ample glass, an open courtyard on the First Street side and a small park in the rear of the building. The new structure is not only a landmark, but also a symbol of the change and openness that came to the department during the tenure of former Chief William Bratton. It’s no wonder he decided to stay to see the building opened, though it’s new Chief Charlie Beck who gets the best office in the place.

Figueroa Corridor
Winners (Tie):
ESPN Production Center

ESPN Headquarters: The ESPN Zone may be the first and most obvious sign that the sports giant has arrived in Downtown Los Angeles, but the biggest boom from the Bristol, Conn.-based company comes in the form of the cable network’s West Coast studios and broadcast facilities. In setting up television, radio and Internet news hubs in the complex at L.A. Live, and by broadcasting an installment of the flagship “Sports Center” show from the studios, ESPN has given international attention to Downtown. But it is not only about the community looking good: ESPN’s investment gives Downtown hundreds of new, high-paying jobs. Already, some of those working on site are living in the area.

Regal Cinemas Stadium 14

For decades, those who wanted to catch a first-run movie in a modern theater had to leave Downtown. That changed in October with the debut of the Regal Cinemas Stadium 14. The multiplex provides workers, residents and visitors with a state-of-the-art movie-going experience, and crowds will only increase now that the adjacent Convention Center hotel has opened. But the benefits extend well beyond the opportunity to see popcorn flicks, comedies and serious dramas on the silver screens: The facility includes an 800-seat “premiere theater,” which means Downtown can host the type of large, stylish, red carpet debuts that Hollywood studios drool over. That both draws attention to Downtown and provides a business bounce to surrounding restaurants and bars. The new theaters are a win for the entire community.

Financial District
Winner: Pershing Square Programming

Pershing Square has a huge strike against it with the fortress-like design that makes the park difficult to see from the street. Despite this, the staff that oversees the attraction at 532 S. Olive St. lures thousands with a constant lineup of concerts, films, ice skating, a farmers market, family events and neighborhood celebrations. Under the auspices of city Department of Recreation and Parks staff including Louise Capone, Pershing Square provides a summer lineup that features big name bands playing on weekend nights and smaller acts that entertain lunchtime crowds. There are outdoor movies on Fridays in the fall, and the winter is highlighted by the Downtown On Ice skating rink, which offers the unlikely opportunity to glide on ice in the shadow of skyscrapers. At night, the skating is enhanced by indie rock and other bands. As the Downtown residential community grows, so do the opportunities for free fun at Pershing Square.

Historic Core
Winner: The Rowan

Like many area developers, Downtown Properties was hit hard by the recession, and the prospects for The Rowan, a 206-condominium development at 460 S. Spring St., were put into question. But when the situation was bleakest, the development team took a risk: Last February, they put 79 units in the $50 million project up for auction. More than 60 sold, laying the groundwork to open the building. It also set a precedent, as after the Rowan’s success, auctions have been tried at several other Downtown buildings. These may not provide the profits anticipated before the market soured, but they enable the buildings to be active, viable parts of the community. In The Rowan’s case, this means adding hundreds of stakeholders to the area and giving new life to a 1912 former office tower. Although other developers might have declared bankruptcy and sealed off their projects, Downtown Properties found a successful way to utilize the 13-story building.

Jewelry District
Winner: Haas Building and Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles

The Jewelry District has seen relatively little growth during Downtown’s boom period, but that changed in May with developer Zuri Barnes’ $10 million, self-funded transformation of the Haas Building. The project created 68 apartments in the edifice at 219 W. Seventh St., and architect Lucas Rios Giordano focused on preserving the 1915 structure’s historic character. What also sets the building apart is the second floor Jewish Community Center-Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles. Downtown’s first new full-time synagogue in more than 60 years was founded by Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, and already it has celebrated the High Holy Days and the creation of a new Torah. Barnes provides the 1,300-square-foot space rent free, and the result is that the community’s growing Jewish population now has a place to gather and to worship.

Little Tokyo
Winner: Sakura Crossing

The Little Tokyo residential revolution continued in June, when Related Cos. opened the 230-apartment Sakura Crossing. Within a few months, the neighborhood had hundreds of new inhabitants eager to give up their cars and walk to area restaurants, bars and businesses. The $78 million development at 235 S. San Pedro St. feeds off the energy of other area housing complexes, including Hikari, which Related opened in 2006. Sakura Crossing pays heed to the community, both with its name (“Sakura” refers to the cherry trees on the project site) and through design and landscaping elements. The project, designed by Thomas P. Cox Architects, offers a surprising 34 layouts, and woos residents with upscale amenities including a pool, two roof decks and a screening room.

Seventh Street Corridor
Winner: Bottega Louie Restaurant and Market

When it opened at the base of the bankrupt Brockman Building in April, people naturally wondered whether Bottega Louie would survive. It took only about six minutes to realize that the restaurant and market had hit the sweet spot in terms of price, cuisine and ambience. The establishment in a high-ceilinged, 10,000-square-foot space at 530 W. Seventh St. is packed all the time, whether a weeknight, a weekend or for lunch or happy hour. The mostly Italian menu, including the shareable pizzas, lures the crowds and sparks foot traffic on the block. There are other benefits too, including the 250 jobs created by the bustling business. No one knows when the Brockman will get through its muddle, but whenever it does, residents will have one of the city’s best new restaurants at their doorstep.

South Park
Winner: Rivera Restaurant

The opening of Rivera restaurant in January 2009 resonated not just in Downtown, but throughout the country. The “comeback” project of chef John Rivera Sedlar, a pioneer in the fusion food movement, has earned raves everywhere from Los Angeles to Esquire magazines. Inside a sleek, stylish space at 1050 S. Flower St., Sedlar offers an attractive, Latin-inspired menu. He has fun with the ingredients, cooking methods, spices and presentation. Although there is a bar, don’t come in expecting a quick drink — the “mixologists” take their time delivering new and inventive beverages, even squeezing their own juices, for concoctions that should be savored. Rivera was not just Downtown’s best new restaurant of 2009 — it was one of the best in the country.

Union Station/El Pueblo
Winner: Gold Line Eastside Extension

On one hand, the Gold Line Eastside Extension, which opened in November, is exactly what it is intended to be: a way to get people from Boyle Heights and other East Los Angeles neighborhoods to Downtown. But the $898 million project is also much more: The six-mile light rail line connects two communities that though physically close sometimes seem worlds apart. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent years studying, preparing, designing, building and testing the line that now takes cars off the streets and makes it easy to head to a new neighborhood. The eight stations also feature thoughtful design, and the Arts District/Little Tokyo stop is an instant benefit for that neighborhood. With the Gold Line Extension, the transit agency is helping bring a disparate region together.

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