The Downtown Agenda for 2017

While Downtown Los Angeles is enjoying plenty of investment and new projects, it also faces challenges such as homelessness and traffic.

DTLA - Downtown Los Angeles is an amazing community enjoying amazing growth with an amazing mix of people. Yes, that’s three uses of “amazing” in one sentence, and it’s intentional and appropriate.

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There simply is no community in California, and possibly the nation, seeing as much positive change, as billions of dollars are being invested in the residential sector, and the office, retail, restaurant and nightlife scenes continue to blossom. Sure, you expect Los Angeles Downtown News to say this, but look at the stories and features that have appeared in international media outlets and you’ll realize we’re not just being an unabashed booster. 

The cascade of new high-rises slated to open this year — projects include the Wilshire Grand replacement, the first phase of the Metropolis complex and the Ten50 condominium building — will add to the momentum. However, those tell only one side of the story.

Downtown in the new year faces more challenges than it has in decades. Myriad trouble points demand the attention and resources of elected leaders, business groups, nonprofit organizations and a bevy of community stakeholders, including but not limited to neighborhood councils and small business owners. Critical thinking and creativity are necessary if Downtown is to continue to develop in a positive manner. 

Here are some of the issues that must be on the Downtown agenda for 2017.

Homelessness: City and county leaders have improved their work and cooperation on this most vexing of problems — credit goes to individuals including Mayor Eric Garcetti, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, City Council members José Huizar, Curren Price and Mike Bonin, County Health guru Dr. Mitchell Katz, and outgoing City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana. However, it will mean nothing without coordinated, long-term work, including convincing people across the region that all communities must be part of the solution, and that homeless services facilities must appear in many new neighborhoods. 

While city voters passed the $1.2 billion housing property tax bond Proposition HHH last November, there are still more than 46,000 homeless individuals in L.A. County, with over 28,000 of them residing in the city. They need apartments, along with a variety of supportive services. City leaders have been stifled in efforts to create more storage spaces for homeless peoples’ belongings. Job training, and improved health and mental healthcare, are a must. While there has been success in helping certain sub-groups such as homeless veterans, last year brought a shocking spike in the number of homeless women. The problem of homelessness will endure for the foreseeable future.

Infrastructure: More than 100 projects are under construction or in the planning stage in Downtown, and at least half of them contain a residential component. We can expect tens of thousands of new residents in the coming decades, putting additional strain on local infrastructure. Projects can no longer be looked at individually, but must be considered in the context of what is happening on surrounding blocks. The new inhabitants will demand smooth roads and efficient water and energy delivery. Aged pipes and utilities must be upgraded, and all this comes at a cost in both money and convenience. Local leaders and planning authorities must ensure that the infrastructure can handle the load.

Navigation: Related to the above is the issue of getting around Downtown. This is evolving, as more people leave their cars in the garage and walk or ride bicycles; projects such as dedicated bike lanes and Metro’s Bike Share program, launched last July, have helped.

Still, navigating Downtown can be a royal pain. Traffic is thicker than ever due to more cars and a bevy of projects that result in the loss of street lanes. Past promises to ensure that sidewalks stay open near large projects seem to have produced only sporadic success.

Again, this is where a community-wide outlook is mandatory. The impacts on navigating Downtown from one project — whether housing or something like the Regional Connector — must be viewed in the context of the dozens of other projects underway. We’re not saying a solution is easy or that people are not trying, but gridlock from the Historic Core to South Park to Little Tokyo to the Arts District is impacting quality of life.  

And where’s that improved and expanded DASH bus system we’ve been waiting for?

Family Needs: Every year brings more dogs and strollers to the sidewalks of Downtown. These are signs of an evolving community. However, there remains a shortage of amenities for families.

Although the network of Downtown green spaces is expanding, we still have too few dog parks and children’s playgrounds. The Los Angeles State Historic Park near Chinatown, scheduled to reopen soon, will be instantly embraced, but it is not a panacea. People need parks they can walk to, places they where they can recreate and meet their neighbors. 

Downtown also must have more elementary school options. There has long been a shortage, and the stalwart Metro Charter Elementary has struggled to find a permanent home. As this page has stated before, if there are not high-quality educational choices for children, parents will leave. That would be bad for the future of Downtown.

Hotels: Finally, something where a problem is being solved. Downtown has long had a shortage of hotel rooms, particularly within walking distance of the Convention Center. This has made it difficult for the city to secure the biggest trade shows and business meetings, which can have economic impacts in the tens of millions of dollars. The debut of the Wilshire Grand replacement will create 900 hotel rooms, and the nearby Hotel Indigo at Metropolis will provide another 350 rooms. The 270-room Hotel Figueroa will also reopen early this year.

 Still, Downtown could use even more hotels, and these can and should help fill city coffers through the transit occupancy tax charged to guests. In recent years many hotel developers have been allowed to keep some or all of the tax, arguing that their projects would not be profitable without them. It’s time to re-examine that practice. The hotel developers are coming because they smell money in a resurgent Downtown. Local leaders should woo the projects, and figure out just how much of an incentive to offer in this lucrative, modern market.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2017