Contrary to dire predictions of the demise of urban centers in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Downtown Los Angeles has weathered the storms of 2020 and 2021 with characteristic grit and passion.
Credit goes to the Downtowners who didn’t give up — the residential community, local businesses, property owners, and civic and cultural organizations who responded to the crisis with the kind of innovation and creativity that have become part of DTLA’s identity. In the unprecedented absence of office workers, tourists and shoppers, Downtowners doubled down on their commitment to a place which has seen its share of tough times over the years — but always come back better than ever.
“In Downtown LA, you can see that the same entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity that has carried it through the pandemic is emerging as the driving force behind its recovery,” Councilmember Kevin De Leon said.
Rising to the challenge
From Bunker Hill to South Park, the Fashion and Arts districts, Historic Core, Little Tokyo, Chinatown and Central City East, the Downtown community rose to the challenges of 2020 and into 2021 with the kind of spirit you need in a crisis.
This was particularly true for the residential community — which has grown from under 18,000 to over 85,000 in the past 20 years and now constitutes a critical mass of diverse, engaged and passionate people who love their neighborhood. When the coronavirus hit, instead of abandoning the city center as some predicted, they stepped up to help carry it through what seemed like interminable waves of shutdowns and reopenings — punctuated by demonstrations and civil unrest.
“At the height of the pandemic, we saw firsthand how the DTLA community pulled together — in sparkly nights paying tribute to first responders, neighbors donating and even sewing masks, and younger residents shopping for elders. Our tight-knit community has come through this smarter, closer and stronger,” said Richard Clement, Downtown resident.
When it came to cleanups and tending to those impacted by the crisis, Downtowners joined hands and got to work. Local business improvement districts redoubled their efforts to keep their neighborhoods safe and clean, while also supporting residents and businesses with recovery resources.
The Downtown Center BID’s Clean Teams worked overtime with neighbors to help safely clear the streets and sidewalks of broken glass and debris; the South Park BID organized community cleanups with resident and stakeholder volunteers; in the Fashion District, vandalized murals were brought back to life within hours; the Historic Core BID worked with property owners to place art installations in vacant retail spaces; and in Little Tokyo, a GoFundMe campaign raised $90,000 to repair damages to the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple.
DTLA businesses jumped in, too, innovating both to sustain their own operations and to support their community. Fashion designers, such as haute couturier Michael Costello, began producing face masks for local health care facilities; Spirit Guild Distillery pivoted from making gin to hand sanitizer; LA Cleantech Incubator manufactured 200,000 face shields; Pizza Sociale was among the many restaurants that donated free food to front-line workers at hospitals and police stations, while Nickel Diner shifted its business model by providing thousands of meals each week to local nonprofits supporting those in need.
Like many cities, Downtown LA lost a number of its small businesses — but most persevered. Through a mix of determination and ingenuity, adapting to shifting conditions, and doing whatever it took to retain their employees and serve their customers, their efforts were rewarded by loyal patrons who heeded calls to shop local.
Pez Cantina started a residential appreciation program that helped landlords feed its tenants and helped the restaurant keep as many of its staff on as possible.
“The Downtown community has been extremely supportive throughout the pandemic. We discovered an entirely new community of DTLA residents who live near Pez and soon became regulars,” said Bret Thompson, chef/owner of Pez Cantina.
The Historic Downtown Farmers Market kept operating throughout the shutdowns, supporting growers and other small businesses while continuing to serve the needs of the local community.
In the Jewelry District, the tight-knit community of property owners and retail tenants banded together to stay open while addressing challenges ranging from public health restrictions to security considerations. Jewelers expanded into e-commerce on the internet, and restaurateurs expanded into al fresco dining on historic St. Vincent Alley.
Amazingly, there were audacious newcomers who saw opportunity in DTLA’s loyal local community and against all odds opened their doors in the middle of the pandemic.
Small-business success stories like Petite Peso, which launched its authentic, approachable Filipino eatery in a tiny storefront on Seventh Street; Donut Man, which brought its crowd-pleasing handmade inspirations to a high-profile spot in Grand Central Market; and Cha Cha Cha, which arrived — via Mexico City — to set up shop in a midcentury modern Acapulco-and-Palm Springs-inspired space in the Arts District. In the spirit of Downtown’s diverse and dynamic food scene, these businesses are independent and BIPOC owned.
And it wasn’t just restaurants. Buru Fashion opened during the initial lockdown and continued making clothes throughout the pandemic; Throw Clay LA opened its pottery studio right before the virus hit, and still managed to build up a strong following, fill its classes and expand its offerings; DTLA Fitness and John Reed Fitness both opened mid-crisis, while Orangetheory moved its classes into the park; and HiDef Brewing started making and serving its “mighty fine beers” in a brand-new tap room and beer garden.
Community organizations sprang into action as well. The Downtown YMCA, which has been supporting residents and workers for more than 130 years, leveraged donations from major companies, foundations and individuals to help neighbors in need: families facing food insecurity, students for whom “safer at home” wasn’t true, and first responders needing child care.
“DTLA was not empty, it was full — full of heart and full of commitment. Full of neighbors who became friends at the dog park, became allies in support of Black Lives Matter, became family at socially distanced rooftop dinners,” said Carol Pfannkuche, executive director of the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA.
The city of LA provided essential emergency services throughout the pandemic, but it also took advantage of the unique moment to advance much-needed public realm improvement projects. New bike and bus lanes, made possible by empty streets during the shutdowns, will improve traffic flow and safety as we open back up. A temporary alfresco dining program allowing restaurants to expand onto sidewalks provided a lifeline to businesses struggling with public health restrictions. That crisis innovation will become a permanent fixture of the city as it looks to the future.
Arts and culture are the lifeblood of Downtown, and its venues were hit especially hard by the shutdowns. They too met the challenge with commitment and imagination. Both MOCA and The Broad launched inventive and interactive online programming to keep their audiences engaged.
The Broad’s social media-based family workshops featured playful at-home arts-and-crafts projects, while MOCA launched MOCA Mornings, a series of Instagram Live conversations between museum Director Klaus Biesenbach and various artists. Efforts such as these affirmed their deep connection to the community, which, in return, supported them throughout. This mutual appreciation was clear during recent reopening weekends when museums welcomed back eager crowds of in-person visitors for the first time in more than a year.
“We have been thrilled to see the enthusiasm of visitors returning to engage with arts and culture at The Broad and our neighboring cultural institutions,” said Stacey Lieberman, The Broad’s deputy director.
“You can feel the Downtown community poised to once again be a hub of innovative energy and opportunity, and that’s very exciting for all of us.”
Cultural innovation took place offline as well, with projects like NOW Art’s LUMINEX, featuring the work of six internationally acclaimed Los Angeles artists projected across a series of parking lot facades, all within walking distance in South Park.
The event struck a perfect balance between IRL interactivity and socially distancing, attracting over 16,000 attendees and providing a glimpse of what the future of public art activations might look like in DTLA. The Arts District got into the act with its own groundbreaking “cult-ural” experience: a drive-thru “Stranger Things” activation. Series-obsessed fans traveled back in time to 1985 and lived the excitement and terror of everything from the “Upside Down” to Hawkin’s Starcourt Mall — all from the safety of their car. The innovative event became an instant success and made headlines across the country.
“The crowd that turned out to experience LUMINEX proved that Angelenos from all over the city are more than ready to return to the cultural mecca that is our city’s center — and Downtown is ready to welcome them back,” said Ellen Riotto of the South Park Business Improvement District.
Community, culture and creativity sustained DTLA through the pandemic and will be the defining forces in its revitalization as the city reopens. Those three Cs help attract two more — commerce and capital — that have fueled its growth for the past two decades.
Betting on Downtown
Investors bet big on Downtown’s renaissance, and the pandemic hasn’t scared them away any more than it has many of our residents. With apartment occupancy rates already exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels, that optimism seems to be well-founded. Throughout the shutdown periods of the last year, developers continued construction on a host of major projects across DTLA while business and property owners took the opportunity to renovate their retail spaces and upgrade existing office buildings in preparation for reopening.
On Bunker Hill alone, The Related Companies’ $1 billion The Grand LA continues the transformation of the venerable cultural and business center into a true mixed-use neighborhood, introducing a Frank Gehry-designed hotel, residential tower, and much-needed retail and restaurant space.
Last year, Brookfield Properties introduced Halo at Wells Fargo Center, jump-starting the evolution with a curated mix of dining and retail options, public art installations and special event programming to meet the needs of the growing district. Patrons of Grand Performances recently celebrated the opening of The Yard at the California Plaza complex bringing back the popular free outdoor concert series, which recently kicked off its 35th season.
“Downtown LA has always been a place where people come together to experience the best in arts and culture, to be at the forefront of what is new and innovative,” said Rick Vogel, senior vice president of The Related Companies.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, we have found even more interest in urban destinations that offer entertainment, hospitality, restaurants and retail like The Grand LA due to a reinvigorated appreciation for in-person experiences and human connection.”
In Downtown Center’s Figueroa Financial Corridor, Brookfield Properties’ 64-story residential tower adds the final piece of the FIGat7th superblock, and Mitsui Fudosan’s 41-story apartment tower across the street at Eighth & Figueroa completes what will be one of the most dynamic mixed-use corridors in the city.
In South Park’s sports and entertainment district, work on the Fig+Pico project, featuring Moxy and AC Hotels serving the LA Convention Center and LA Live, made rapid progress. Condo sales began at Perla, a newly opened residential property in the Historic Core, near where construction was also completed on the new CitizenM hotel.
Progress on numerous other projects across Downtown affirm the continued appeal of the market: new office buildings and a creative retrofit in the Arts District, a major reinvention of CMC (the California Market Center) in the Fashion District, multiple affordable housing developments in Central City East, and new residential projects in both Little Tokyo and Chinatown. These projects represent billions of dollars of investment and a huge vote of confidence for Downtown’s future.
Force to be reckoned with
Cities are shaped by their intersections, not just of streets but of sectors and forces, ideas and trends — the capital and commerce that drive their development, the culture and creativity that define their character, and the communities that connect and give them meaning. As we attempt to divine the future of Downtown post-pandemic, it is at those intersections that we will find the most dynamic energy and some of the most impactful new projects in DTLA. Two of those projects — the new ASU DTLA campus and the new Apple Tower Theater — embody that dynamism in their reinvention of historic properties for forward-looking uses.
Drawn to Downtown as a global hub of innovation and creativity, Arizona State University is converting the iconic Herald Examiner building on Broadway and 11th Street — directly across from hip hotel newcomers the Hoxton and the Proper — as the future home of its Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and its Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. These programs feature partnerships with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Zocalo Public Square, with a vision of the mini campus as a cutting-edge “ideas exchange.”
And just a few blocks north at Broadway and Eighth Street, Apple has completed its much-anticipated restoration and reimagining of the landmark Tower Theater — not just as its newest flagship retail location but as a center for the creative community of DTLA and home to Today at Apple Creative Studios, a global initiative supporting under-represented young creatives.
“At every corner, Los Angeles bursts with creativity across the arts, music and entertainment, and we are thrilled to build on our relationship with this special city,” said Deirdre O’Brien, Apple senior vice president of retail + people.
Other recent DTLA openings, including Paul Smith on Broadway, Lululemon at The Bloc, and Sephora at FIGat7th, suggest that while the pandemic may have been a boon to e-commerce, it did not crush the appeal of in-person shopping.
Busy tables at lunch favorite Joey, elusive reservations at iconic Redbird, long lines outside the Exchange nightclub, and huge crowds at the much-anticipated reopening of Smorgasburg at RowDTLA make it clear that the crisis did not dampen enthusiasm for Downtown’s dining and nightlife scene either.
And while Downtown’s huge office population has yet to return en masse, the owners of its Class A towers have made significant investments in upgrading and reconfiguring their properties to accommodate the evolving needs of their tenants as they prepare to welcome them back.
“We’re now seeing office occupancies steadily rising as our tenants reinforce the power of in-person collaboration,” said Bert Dezzutti, executive vice president, Western region, U.S. office division, Brookfield Properties.
“The office is reemerging as the center of gravity for companies and their employees — especially in dynamic urban places like DTLA.”
Downtown LA has shown great resilience and resourcefulness in the face of COVID-19 and the myriad challenges over the past year and a half. It also proved itself a place that people care deeply about — a community of residents, workers, and business and property owners who defied the conventional wisdom that urban environments are not safe in a crisis.
They proved, once again, that these environments are in fact among the strongest, most agile and adaptable of places. People, businesses and investors are attracted to great cities for exactly the kind of energy and creativity that propelled Downtown through the crisis. Those fundamental qualities not only haven’t changed but were underscored by the pandemic. And as the city turns to recovery and revitalization and begins to blossom anew, those same qualities are helping DTLA reimagine and reinvent its future yet again. We got this.
This article was written by Nick Griffin of the Downtown Center BID, with support from the BIDs of Fashion District, South Park, Historic Core, Little Tokyo, Arts District, Central City East and Chinatown.