California will abolish its despotic, ruinous redevelopment agencies this coming Wednesday, and as VR Day approaches, devourers of the commonweal are beginning to panic.
"The legal foundation of Hollywood's recent revival is about to come apart," Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Miller writes in a jeremiad that details some of the ravages the erstwhile film colony will endure. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences may have to build its outdoor movie theater on only 3.5 acres it owns along Vine Street, without buying an adjacent property. The adjacent property (at the corner of Vine and De Longpre) may be sold to the highest bidder. A theater across from MacArthur Park may not get rehabilitated.
Miller is unusual among supporters of the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) in that he ventures outside Downtown and Hollywood (where hundreds of millions of public dollars have been spent to build large structures) and mentions an abandoned project in Leimert Park – the "ongoing renovation of the Vision Theatre, which was built in 1930 and was used as part of the 1932 Summer Olympics athletes' village."
Other redevelopment defenders focus exclusively on Hollywood (where the CRA spent $31 million in 2010 alone) and Downtown (where it spent $44 million – $6 million more than it collected in property tax increments after more than half a century of supposedly working to raise property values). I have the bad taste to concentrate on Liemert and other areas south of Interstate 10, less tony locations where the CRA creates vacant lots by the baker's dozen.
So what has urban renewal redevelopment actually accomplished? At the Curbed LA blog, one Dando Guerra photoshops a picture of the downtown skyline to show "What the Downtown LA Skyline Would Look Like Without the Community Redevelopment Agency of LA."
I have nothing against Curbed LA, which is a great source of overpriced white elephants designed by fancypants architects, but a "neighborhood and real estate blog" should at least acknowledge that the signature Bunker Hill development in Downtown L.A. was achieved through the uprooting of 20,000 residences. This is not just progress-hating, Mike Davis-type history. Kevin Starr writes about it too. If Downtown is the CRA's most successful project, that's an even sharper indictment of the agency.
Assuming for the sake of argument that none of the buildings in the lower half of that picture would have been built without the helping hand of an unaccountable government agency empowered to destroy people's homes, that would still mean that L.A.'s redevelopment agency exiled tens of thousands of residents and continues to spend millions every year to build a skyline that is exactly as impressive as Houston's….
…considerably less artistic than Philadelphia's…
…and neither as impressive nor as artistic as Abu Dhabi's*…
You will say that I am cherrypicking outrages, damning the CRA for its failed projects and refusing to acknowledge its successful ones.
I say Downtown L.A. is, by any measure of return on public investment, a failure. It has one structure with a memorable exterior (the "Library" building) and one with a memorable interior (the Westin Bonaventure). These buildings have been duly catalogued, respectively, in the movies Independence Day and True Lies. Downtown is a magnet for neither new business nor tourism. It is dominated by large government office buildings. It's no coincidence that Occupy L.A., big labor rallies, the homeless and the L.A. Times all condensed Downtown. The area has only very recently, through events like the well attended monthly "Art Walk," begun to attract anybody who has any other choice of destination. I have never known a traveled person who would rank Downtown L.A. in even the second tier of American downtowns.
This is no knock on the region known around the world as "Los Angeles," a varied and formerly dynamic place that remains attractive because its downtown is such an afterthought. It's just not a really big secret that Downtown L.A. is a national joke. The more redevelopment defenders make their case, the more they show what a failure redevelopment was.
* Thanks to commenters Zuo and Timon19 for pointing out my ignorant Dubai/Abu Dhabi mixup. Just when I'd mastered the Dallas/Fort Worth split and learned the difference between Linden and Rahway….