Smart City Logic: Ten Tall Buildings Worth More Than 20,000 Family Homes


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." 


Does anybody who doesn't live in L.A. consider this skyline in any way iconic or distinctive?

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….

Houston: All the buildings, half the zoning.

…considerably less artistic than Philadelphia's… 

Philly: Even more exciting when you know it's America's fattest city.

…and neither as impressive nor as artistic as Abu Dhabi's*…

Abu Dhabi: No real estate bubble going on here, habibi!

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…. 


NEXT: Chip Bok on the GOP Primary

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  1. Intensities in 10 tall buildings. All downtown LA really needs is a high speed monorail, anyway.

    1. My neighbor just met a bisexual man on —datebi*cOMit’s where for men and women looking for bisexual and bi-curious individuals to meet in a friendly and comfortable environment.
      It’s a nice place for the people who have the same sexual orientation.

      1. Why are you telling me this? What have you heard?

  2. Abu Dhabi looks more smoggy than LA.

    1. I was going to comment on that haze. BTW, worst smog I ever saw was in Brazil, especially the city of Brasilia.

      1. That’s not Abu Dhabi, its Dubai. And its not smog its desert haze.

    2. ummm, dust? deserts tend to have it.

      1. Yeah, but in that case, it’s probably dust AND smog. The humidity there is hellacious unless it’s midday January (winter in general), and pretty much everyone drives. The oil- and gas-burning power plants, desalination plants and refineries are…a LOT dirtier than ours, also.

        The air can get nearly unbreathable there from time to time. Nothing like Beijing or Shanghai smog, but still really bad.

        1. still sounds like national-pride-inspired playa-hatin.

          1. Yeah, that’s it. The air probably looks like that from all the sand niggers farting, amirite? USA! USA! USA!

            1. which is not too far off from “those dirty oil-burning arabs, god, can’t they get an EPA or something”

              1. Neither of which was what I was getting at.

          2. Wha…?

            The air is shitty there for a variety of reasons. Who’s “playa-hatin'” and who’s exhibiting “national pride”?

            1. “looks smoggier than LA”, “a LOT dirtier than ours”, “Nothing like Beijing or Shanghai”.

              What IS the point y’all are getting at with these comparisons, then?

              1. Errr…stating reasons why it looks the way it looks.

                Why do you suppose there are nefarious motivations? It is a fact that UAE industry is pretty dirty. The yellow shit coming out of their stacks is pretty sickening. Desert dust and insane humidity make it look worse than it is, though.

                Meanwhile, it’s pretty well accepted fact that the air in Beijing and Shanghai is often unspeakably awful.

                Why does it matter? Maybe the point is to address comments saying “looks smoggy!”. It’s a fucking discussion.

                1. Why do you suppose there are nefarious motivations?

                  General Cynicism?

                  1. Touche.

                    But seriously, I commented mainly because I’m familiar with the place and I was bored. And I have a compulsion to explain shit like that, which is very OCD of me. Sorry.

  3. That picture isn’t exactly fair to Houston…it is (1) raining in that picture and (2) it doesn’t show the Galleria.

    1. Yeah, the angle isn’t the best, either. You can get some decent shots of downtown but that ain’t one of them.

      If we’re talking about downtowns, I don’t see why we need a Galleria picture. Apples to apples and all that, even though the Williams tower is cool.

    2. Houston has like 7 downtowns. and then it has Transco Tower, all alone out there, looking like Lex Luthor is at the top plotting something.

      1. If you took the Houston picture from the south and from as far out, you get downtown, the medical center, Greenway Plaza, and the Galleria. All of which are more impressive looking than L.A.s downtown on their own, but combined are quite a badass skyline.

  4. Just scanned the alt-text; Habibi by Balqis is one of my favorite chillout tunes.

    Oh and yeah, Abu Dhabi may have smog issues, but don’t forget the sandstorms.

    1. I didn’t consider actual sandstorms, but yeah, those too.

  5. Coincidentally, Houston and Abu Dhabi are “sister cities”, at least according to Wikipedia.

  6. Tim, that’s Dubai. To be honest, Abu Dhabi’s skyline is really quite impressive. It’s less “line of really tall shit in the middle of the desert”, which is all Dubai’s major skyline is (though it’s getting more interesting).

  7. I always thought of the drive to build skyscrapers as a civic dick measuring contest.

  8. Here’s a better one, but it’s only a small part.

    This is a more typical one, though it’s older and doesn’t show the newer shit to either side of the picture.

    1. Seriously, Tim, that’s not Abu Dhabi.

  9. Why exactly should all CA taxpayers contribute to a “Tall Buildings on Wilshire Blvd fund”?

    I could see the logic of a project to modernize the Long Beach port or some such thing – but tall buildings? Why? Are they trying to increase traffic and air pollution? I’d rather work in a low-rise in Pasadena or Torrance.

    1. Why exactly should all CA taxpayers contribute

      Because Shutthefuckup and hand over your money, that’s why.

      Fucking peasants.

      1. (also to set the precedent for the rest of the nation bailing out california when the time comes)

      2. You answered the wrong question. That’s the answer to “Why don’t I live in CA any more?”

        1. Even in Canada?

  10. British food and culture critic Jonathan Meades has a wonderful screed on “Redevelopment” in one of his TV programs. If I can find the title I’ll pass it along. It should be required viewing for all city planning fanboys.

    There must, somewhere, be an example of redevelopment, city planning, etc. that isn’t a huge, expensive, unlovely clusterf*ck. But I don’t know of one.

  11. “The legal foundation of Hollywood’s recent revival is about to come apart…” A theater across from MacArthur Park may not get rehabilitated.

    MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
    All the sweet, green icing flowing down…
    Someone left the cake out in the rain
    I don’t think that I can take it
    ’cause it took so long to bake it
    And I’ll never have that recipe again
    Oh, no!

  12. The illegal foundation of Hollywood’s recent revival is about to come apart

    Fixed that typo for ya, Hollywood Reporter. It must be hard to proofread when you’re giving handjobs to the local cronies, so I don’t mind.

  13. Downtown LA is a shithole.

    1. It ain’t that bad. My wife was getting her hair done in DTLA last Saturday. I had a few hours to kill, so I went to Bottega Louie for breakfast, beer and people watching (the hostess’ at this place are mega-cuties). I was sitting at the bar, and I scooted over a seat to make room for a couple that were waiting for a table. The dude was Norv Turner. True story.

      1. It would be even better if the city would just get the hell out and allow the kind of retail that thrives there ? botanica/bridal/trinket/army-navy/odd lot ? to thrive at even higher levels of enthrivenment.

        1. So why does the city intervene? I mean, what is the political philosophy that motivated LA politicians to start tinkering around Downtown. I am no fan of CRA’s, but in this particular example the outcomes seem satisfactory. It certainly isn’t the spontaneous order that would have created the enthrivement of botanica/bridal/trinket shops. On the other hand, there are a multitude of new ventures, offering quality services and products Downtown.

          I guess I am opposed to redevelopment, until it benefits me in some way.

          1. I mean, what is the political philosophy that motivated LA politicians to start tinkering around Downtown.

            “You know, tinkering with downtown will be a great source of graft for me and my cronies.”

        2. Tim, you posted a picture of Dubai, not Abu Dhabi.

    2. There’s a downtown?

  14. That final picture is Dubai.

    LA skyline is very distinctive. Unlike most cities the 700-800 foot monoliths just rise up out of low buildings. Most cities have a dozen 10 story buildings for every tall scraper, LA almost has a much tighter ratio.

  15. Chicago has the best skyline of any US city. Discus.

    1. What’s to discuss? You already spoke the truth.

    2. Nothing can hold a candle to Denver from the East. Beautiful, non-master-planned buildings backed by the Rockies, and you can see about 5 different 14ers from the city.

  16. LA is a tragic story of bulldozing old buildings and neighborhoods to build freeways – freeways that pretty much enslave LA’s residents inside their cars.

  17. Linden/Rahway, ha!
    I grew up about 2 miles from Rahway Prison — which is actually in Woodbridge (Twp)

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