I recently sat down with Downtown LA blogger and advocate Brigham Yen to talk about his neighborhood. The subject was Downtown and how even as it makes an amazing comeback with an unprecedented influx of stores, restaurants, offices, and apartments, there are still some people who don’t seem to get what it means to be urban.
For every storefront welcoming pedestrians, there still seems to be a chain store that wants to keep things the way they’ve always been. Yen told me that In-N-Out Burgers had been interested in moving Downtown but couldn’t understand why it couldn’t install a drive-through. He noted that other establishments, from drug stores to fast food restaurants, still insist on building strip-mall-style parking in heavily pedestrianized precincts, ruining any sense of street front or walkability.
Such businesses need to get over it and realize that the whole city does not need to be a bastion of surburban-ity. With its immense population, density, and energy, LA can no longer pretend to be a suburb. A city has got to be a city. That doesn’t mean ruining LA’s peaceful neighborhoods. It means densifying its urban commercial and retail corridors in an intelligent fashion. And Downtown is a prime example of one of these corridors. Its urbanity is a prime reason why it’s becoming so popular again.
This is becoming even more important as the city begins to shift its policies more aggressively toward mass transit and related density. By the time the funds for Measure R, the city sales tax paying for $30 to $40 billion worth of projects, run out, the city will have increased its rail lines from about 60 miles to 120 miles.
A major test of Downtown’s continued development will come when Walmart moves its newest Neighborhood Market, a smaller version of its superstores (though still pretty big at 33,000 square feet) into Chinatown, on the north edge of Downtown. LA’s citizens, who have already engaged in a major protest against the retail giant’s plans, need to be vigilant to make sure that Walmart doesn’t further decay the fabric of a neighborhood, and the city, at a vital turning point.
Of course, every area needs business and jobs, and Walmart will certainly help serve a niche for those looking for goods and groceries. But the company needs to be sensitive; even though, so far, it hasn’t substantially proven its desire to do so. I’ve seen a few Neighborhood Markets, and a few seem to fit well into the urban grid with street front presences, transparent facades, and even some contemporary detailing. But most have suburban-style strip parking in front and blank facades that seem to tell pedestrians they’re in the wrong place.
Walmart isn’t the only giant chain store to reach Downtown LA. Target, for instance, is opening a CityTarget inside the three-story 7th and Figueroa mall, on the west edge of downtown. The store will be much bigger, at 100,000 square feet. But unlike Walmart, Target consistently creates permeable, street-side entrances, and contextual, contemporary-style frontages. Granted there’s still tons of parking, but at least it’s underground or in a large structure behind the building. Most Walmart stores—whether they are Supercenters or Neighborhood Markets—basically look like giant industrial boxes or McMansions on steroids, clad with cheap Spanish tiles or Italianate cornices. This isn’t acceptable for Walmart or any business that comes Downtown.
As the economy continues to turn around and development makes its way into Downtown LA and other dense urban areas, we need to maintain the urbanity, albeit an urbanity tempered with amenities like parks, public spaces and bike-lanes, that makes our cities more viable, exciting, and livable. What happens now, as the recovery is in its infancy, will set the stage for future development. This is a turning point. Let’s take advantage.