Dress designer Stella Dottir took a stroll around her downtown neighborhood the other day and marveled at the ordinary.
"There were flowers and people sitting in outside cafes. And it was clean," she says, shaking her head in wonder. "When I moved in, you could get crack, heroin, marijuana and pills. But definitely not milk. This was a supermarket in hell."
A change has blown through in the three years since Dottir opened her namesake shop, one of the first commercial (or legal, anyway) enterprises on this formerly bleak stretch of Skid Row. Next door is a cheerful-looking Vietnamese restaurant and a DVD rental store. And across the way, a yoga studio and a doggie day-care place.
"It's busy at night. There are restaurants, clubs, music," she says. "It's like a different city."
Indeed. Downtown Los Angeles was for decades abandoned at quitting time, when thousands of office workers hopped in their cars and headed home via a tangle of freeways. Few people visited; fewer lived here, unless you count a teeming homeless population. The streets were dark and dirty and dangerous.
Now, downtown L.A. is suddenly hot, thanks to a recent influx of residents, which, in turn, has spawned new shops, restaurants and nightspots and given visitors fresh reasons to venture here. Corralled by three freeways and the Los Angeles River to the east, L.A.'s civic center is really a patchwork of at least 15 distinct neighborhoods that occupy a relatively compact area, from the sleek office towers of the Financial District and over-the-top opulence of the Vaudeville-era theaters lining historic Broadway, to the low-slung buildings of Little Tokyo and crowded storefronts of the Fashion District.
But despite major attractions — the collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, performances at the Music Center, the Mexican crafts stalls on historic Olvera Street, and, since 2003, the wondrous sight of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, which has its own guided tours — downtown was lacking the critical mass to be a serious tourist draw.
The largest and latest development fueling the boom is L.A. Live, a $2.5 billion entertainment and sports extravaganza on the southern edge of downtown next to the decade-old Staples Center sports arena. It consists of the year-old 7,000-seat Nokia Theatre, the just-opened and exuberantly interactive Grammy Museum, the 2,300-seat Club Nokia, an ESPN Zone with broadcast facilities, a 1,000-person-capacity nightclub and lots of restaurants. In early 2010, a 54-story J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton will open here. The added 1,000 guestrooms will perk up a sagging convention business, which previously has relied on annual events such as the auto show and a porn convention.
The development surrounds a 40,000-square-foot outdoor plaza that promoters are dubbing the Times Square of the West. It's eliciting raves from civic and business leaders who see it as the lure that will draw people who in the past may have considered making a date in downtown after dark akin to scheduling a mugging.
"A year ago there was almost nothing to do downtown at night," says Mark Liberman, president of LA Inc., the city's tourism promotion agency. "Now we're seeing lines" of people.
In the fledging Gallery Row area, east of L.A. Live, Thursday night art walks are attracting thousands to a once-desolate area. And a few pioneers, such as Gary Cypres, owner of the new Sports Museum of Los Angeles, are pushing the boundaries beyond downtown's borders, betting on spillover from other venues. His cavernous museum houses an eye-popping collection of 10,000-plus sports artifacts.
The Los Angeles Conservancy, which has long offered various downtown architectural walking tours, reports demand is up 30% over last year, thanks to positive buzz about the area.
"We've gotten hundreds of calls from people saying, 'You've got theaters down there?' " says Conservancy spokeswoman Cindy Olnick. "They had no idea. And when you get them out of their cars, they see these amazing buildings that couldn't be built anymore."
The current renaissance began in 1999 with new ordinances that encouraged converting long-empty office buildings into residential lofts. At present, an estimated 39,000 people have moved in.
"Converting old office buildings to housing is what really made the difference," says Carol Schatz, president of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. "It poured life onto the streets. People demanded places to eat and places to shop. That's what created the boom in downtown."
The economic crisis hasn't spared this area, however. Loft conversions and new condos once intended for sale are for rent instead. Judging from the profusion of "For Lease" signs, there's plenty of availability. One ambitious venture, the Grand Avenue Project (touted as the Champs-Elysées of L.A.), which would have added a park, a luxury hotel, housing and retail, is on hold. The number of weedy, fenced-off parking lots indicates other plans are, too.
Nor has downtown lost its grittiness. A 2007 report estimated there were 5,000 homeless on Skid Row alone. A sign warning No Drugs No Dealers is plastered on a down-and-out residential hotel down the street from a pet boutique selling $300 dog carriers. A Pilates studio borders a swap meet hawking $5 shoes. A Latino botanica offering tongue reading for $20 is near a posh day spa offering $220 body polishing.
But that rich diversity is what many residents — and visitors — find so compelling.
Craig Martin, 47, who moved into a loft in the former gas company building eight months ago, says when he heard people were moving here, he wondered, "Where do they get food?" (An upscale Ralphs grocery opened in 2007.) Initially, the seafood importer merely wanted to live near his work to avoid L.A.'s legendary traffic snarls. Now, he wouldn't live elsewhere.
"Culturally, it's a great mix of people. You have old guys who've lived here since the '30s and students and young professionals and tons of dogs," he says. "And yes, there are dangerous areas. I don't know where they are — I just know when to turn around. But things are changing all the time. It just takes one decent store or one new thing to change everything."