Science & Technology

Downtown Wars


Downtown Los Angeles is primarily a grimy economic ghost town, with a few fancy corporate headquarters, some government buildings, and thousands of homeless and poor. It doesn't attract too many new businesses—not legitimate ones, anyway. So you'd expect the area's stewards to be pleased to find paying tenants for its many vacant buildings.

Not if those customers are telecommunications companies. For about three years, telecoms have been taking over decrepit buildings and filling them with switching equipment and skeleton work crews to keep things running smoothly. At present, they occupy 3.4 million square feet of space, about 8 percent of downtown's total commercial real estate.

Urban enthusiasts like Tom Gilmore, a developer who has converted several downtown buildings into loft apartments, have lobbied hard for an ordinance to limit telecom space, particularly in the five-block swath of streets designated the neighborhood's "historic core." Because these companies fill buildings with more machinery than people, Gilmore and others see them as anathema to their vision of downtown as a mini-Manhattan, with latté shops, restaurants, trendy apartments, and 24-hour bustle.

But whether or not downtown L.A. becomes Tribeca West, telecoms may not deliver the kiss of death that their detractors imagine. According to a study published by the consulting firm Jones Lang LaSalle, telecoms could in fact provide the seeds for real economic growth. So far they've brought 3,700 jobs to the area. Their presence has also prompted high-tech companies like SnapDragonFX to rent offices downtown, drawing thousands more potential mochaccino drinkers.

In late December, the telecoms' enemies and advocates joined city council members to hammer out a compromise ordinance. If it passes, no more than 25 percent of space in a building in the historic core could be rented to telecoms. In the rest of downtown, they could occupy up to 80 percent. And in no part of downtown could they operate on the first floor, which would be left open for retail space.

Currently, the motion for the ordinance is sitting in City Hall; while it collects dust, partisans on both sides have withdrawn their support from the agreement. Meanwhile, with the economy slowing down, "telecom interest is drying up," says Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Association, a group that represents downtown businesses. By the time any ordinance is passed, the issue may have disappeared, along with the prospect of any downtown revitalization.

That's too bad, but it's no tremendous tragedy. Los Angeles doesn't lack for bustling, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods: There's Koreatown, Santa Monica, Westwood, Melrose, and more. Stand in the middle of most of them, and you'll think you're in an urban downtown—even if the word "downtown" has historically been assigned to a different part of L.A.