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Grand Plans All Over Again

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The funny thing about reading The “Grand Avenue Plan,” preliminarily approved last week, is pondering how often in the last century developers have felt the need to shift the functions of various districts, as though downtown LA were one of those party-favor puzzles in which you slide the little tiles around the board until a picture comes into focus. Certainly something needs to be done with the area — what ought to be a pleasantly walkable few blocks between the Music Center and City Hall has been an exhaust-filled concrete canyon for the last 50 years — but the classic Angeleno urge to keep building brings a sense of déjà vu.

Bunker Hill was once covered with Victorian residential mansions that declined into slums after World War II and were torn down and replaced in the 1980s with shiny office towers. The photograph above is of the last few houses being moved off the hill in 1969. Meanwhile, the Beaux-Arts era bank offices in the old Central Business District on Main and Spring Streets also declined into slums, but many have recently been bought up, earthquake-retrofitted and refurbished, and turned into residential lofts.

A pedestrian-friendly, glamorous shopping and entertainment district like the one described in the plan has been developed before — down the hill a few blocks, on Broadway. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, "In 1931...With an unprecedented 12 major theaters, the famed Broadway district contained the highest concentration of movie palaces in the world. It was the city's most popular gathering place, home to movie premieres, ticker-tape parades and shopping at the region's top department stores."

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Now many of the theaters have filled in with shops, or stand empty except when used as film locations, often for works with a noir tone, such as Mulholland Drive or the television show "Angel." The shops on Broadway still thrive, but they've become an international bazaar vending salsa music, wedding dresses (and actual storefront weddings), diamonds, tacos, electronics and blue jeans. The general opinion is that the goal for the Grand Avenue retail development is to attract people who might otherwise depart LA proper for Old Town Pasadena or the Santa Monica Promenade.

When this project is finished, what happens to the rest of downtown? With proposed entertainment districts clustered on the top of Bunker Hill and around the Staples Center, are the hotels near Figueroa and Fifth Streets too far away from either? Do they end up torn down, reconfigured into offices, or used as housing? What buildings that seem like dated monstrosities now will future generations sighs over as lost relics from a bygone era? (Could anyone ever wax nostalgic over the 1980s glass-and-concrete atrium that is the Bonaventure hotel? Quite probably.)

There's a certain thrill to buildings with a past, a sense of being part of history that comes from walking on steps that have indentations from generations of feet. As many times as Los Angeles has served as the setting for works of literary and cinematic art, there's a delight in the ability to drive through the Second Street Tunnel and pretend that you are Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, to lunch in the café in the Pacific Mutual Building at Sixth and Olive Streets and know that it may have been where Fred MacMurray hatched his schemes in Double Indemnity, to stare up at the wrought-iron skylights in the Bradbury Building and feel like Harrison Ford or Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner.

Downtown LA's importance comes not from being the city's center — if you want a city with a center, you don't choose LA — but in being the oldest part of what is still a young town. Some developers, such as those converting the old bank buildings into housing or searching for relevant uses for the old Broadway theaters, understand that the appeal of downtown is the opportunity to reconcile past and future. There is nothing to adapt now on Grand Avenue, as the sites slated for development have been occupied by nothing more than blank concrete parking lots since the Victorian mansions were moved, but we hope that when the project is finally built, it has enough character to last in one role or another for generations — if those generations don't tear it back down.