Urban Land Institute, it's time you and me had a serious chat about your awards criteria.
As the foremost trade group of real estate developers, I find value in many of your publications and programs. And I find it understandable that you would laud large-scale development projects. Making projects is your businesses.
But when you give a national award to a very questionable project like LA Live, the entertainment-and hotel complex that covers nearly 20 acres of downtown Los Angeles, it shows that your regard for urban quality comes second place to your round-eyed puppy love for big developers and big plans.
LA Live is bad urbanism. This mega-project of retail, restaurants, night clubs and a 53-story hotel-cum-condo tower is a self-contained, inward-looking island. And that's in a major downtown area that has been seeking to promote public life for half a century. LA Live, as I have written before, is a tourist capturing machine. Located near the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Staples Center basketball arena, LA Live also adds a 7,000-seat Nokia Theater for live concerts. (There's a national chain of Nokia Theaters; think of buying naming rights for a national chain!). The developers, Anschutz Entertainment Group, already owns the sports arena. Anschutz is also the second-largest sellers of concert tickets in the nation, and a major promoter of concert tours by big name artists, who can play umpteen Nokia theaters in a row. AEG also manages many of the acts. Talk about vertical integration!
But LA Live does not fit inside the existing city in a positive away. Instead, 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. City officials used redevelopment bonds, to be paid off by the developer, to help assemble the enormous site for the $2.5 billion entertainment-anchored leviathan. For planning purposes, city officials simply went back and amended the general plan. What are plans for, if not to be amended whenever a billionaire unfurls the plans to the latest megaproject?
Tourists to Los Angeles, finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, will naturally gather in the spectacular courtyard, with its laser lights shows, etc. They will have a drink in a club, maybe catch a show or a game, and turn around, go back to their hotel and text the missus or the boyfriend on what a swell place is Los Angeles. All this, without venturing outside the gilded cage of LA Live.
In its statement accompanying the award, ULI mentions that LA Live brings development to a part of downtown that was underdeveloped. In fact, a half-dozen residential towers in the immediate neighborhood. In other words, LA Live does not represent urban pioneering. It's more like a blue whale that opens its jaws, waiting for all the krill (here meaning tourists and concert goers) to swim in. Yum!
Phil Anschutz is a business genius who has yet to make a serious misstep. True to form, LA Live appears to be a big success, as I predicted it would be years ago. 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. In short, ladies and gentlemen of ULI, LA Live does not deserve an award. In fact, it stinks.