Metropolitan Los Angeles has long been composed of multiple centers and downtowns. Cities like Santa Monica, Pasadena, Long Beach, Riverside, Anaheim and Santa Ana have existed as independent towns and centers with unique cultural and civic identities almost as long as the Pueblo de Los Angeles itself. As the region developed, it did not expand concentrically from downtown L.A., but in a mosaic of subdivision that were incorporated as cities independent of L.A., each with their own localized downtown – the proverbial “sixty suburbs in search of a city.”
Today, most of these sixty suburbs have found their city. The past fifteen years has seen the rediscovery of these historic town centers, many of which have good “bones,” walkable streets and blocks that were laid out in the heyday of the streetcars. The preservation, revival and continued development of these downtowns and neighborhood centers is without question one of the most stunningly successful and impressive trends in the region.
A variety of factors have contributed to this trend. The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 – which set property tax rates and 1 percent of assessed value and capped increases at 2 percent a year (until a property is sold and reassessed) – caused cities to search for other revenue, particularly from sales taxes. In the worst-case scenario this has led cities to mortgage their futures on high-volume big box retail stores or auto dealerships – which isn’t good for the pedestrian environment or civic identity. But in the best-case scenario, Prop 13 has prompted cities to revitalize their downtowns by bringing back retail and creating lively, walkable shopping districts with sidewalk cafes and nightlife.
Moreover, traffic is causing people to live in smaller and smaller geographies – working at home when possible, shopping in the neighborhood – rather than having to buck traffic at every intersection across town. (Two thirds of those working in central Pasadena reportedly live in Pasadena as well.) While this region has always prized mobility, it turns out that living locally isn’t such a bad thing after all and town centers are becoming desirable places to live, with attractive and relatively affordable “new” real estate products – the loft, live-work space, condo, row house, courtyard housing.
Suburban sprawl continues lapping at the far edges of the metropolis, but at the same time the center of the city – the centers of L.A.’s many cities – is contracting and densifying as people move back to the urban core. Not just in downtown Los Angeles, where 10,000 new housing units are in the pipeline, but also in downtown Pasadena (2500 housing units in the pipeline) and downtown Santa Monica (1500 units). And people are moving into downtown Culver City, downtown Hollywood, West Hollywood, San Fernando, Santa Ana, and even Anaheim. Nine thousand people registered for the Central City Association’s downtown L.A. loft tour in March 2005, and the Downtown News counted 122 projects underway, declaring “What was a murmur and then a buzz is now nothing less than a roar.”