Downtown in a Polycentric Region

This Joel Kotkin piece on downtown LA is about a month old, but I missed it and @720thruLA pointed it out recently.

Joel Kotkin’s latest dispatch pitches SoCal’s regional decline as the counternarrative to downtown LA’s renaissance, and posits that the regional story is more important.

To be honest, I agree with some of Kotkin’s writing about LA; my only major point of contention is that I’m much more optimistic about the value of our public transit investments. I’ve never met Kotkin, but in his writing he seems to genuinely care about the success of the LA region, which is obviously a primary concern of this blog. I think he raises interesting points, and want to explore some of the themes of the article in a little more detail.

Regional Decline or Regional Reorganization?

Economically, LA is somewhat unique among US cities – it’s partly coastal “knowledge” city, partly Rust Belt city, and of course partly the prototype Sunbelt city. LA isn’t as big as NYC, but it’s too big for a tech boom to have the same impact as it does in a boutique city like Boston or Seattle. LA’s manufacturing economy has suffered just as badly as any Midwestern city, but LA’s economy is much more diverse. Sunbelt cities have emulated LA’s growth, but none of them have reached the geographic extent where commuting across the entire metro region is impractical.

The result is a befuddling mix of high cost of living despite stubbornly high unemployment. One of the most troubling things about the LA metro area is that there has been zero net job growth for almost 25 years. Now, I’m no economist, but I think the use of 1990 as a benchmark coincidentally makes things look really bad for LA. In 1990, employment had just peaked from the 80s defense boom, and LA was about to take a double body blow from big cuts to defense spending followed by the enactment of NAFTA and other free trade agreements which, whatever you think about their macro impacts, have undeniably eviscerated US manufacturing.

Let’s go to the tape. If we index metro employment to January 1990, LA clearly looks worse than NYC, SF, and Chicago, and was even getting outclassed by the likes of Detroit until the financial crisis.


Ok, but here’s what happens if you net out manufacturing employment.


In that case, LA and NYC are basically on the same track, with SF and Chicago doing only a little better.

Now here’s what happen if you index to January 1994, when LA employment bottomed out from the early 90s recession.


How do you like them apples?

That’s not to excuse us from trying to address our economic problems like high unemployment, but it does provide some perspective. One interpretation is that LA is a region in decline compared to other major US cities. Another interpretation is that LA is dealing with the structural changes that those cities faced a few decades ago, but doing a better job of it than they ever did.

But Back to Downtown

In the context of those regional challenges, Kotkin frames residential growth in downtown LA as a footnote, since thanks to LA’s polycentric nature, the fate of downtown is not very relevant. He notes that despite the increase in people living downtown, surrounding neighborhoods lost more population, and office vacancies remain high. On Twitter, there was some pushback, saying that downtown is only in its infancy, while Kotkin treats it as an adult.

I sort of agree with both points of view. Downtown’s emergence as a desirable neighborhood is very recent, and rising residential rents and the boom of mid-rise and high-rise construction show that there’s still quite a bit of unmet demand. I also think that the “creative office space” market will eventually head east to downtown, where office rents are a little lower than West LA and firms can be in proximity to the urban amenities their young employees want, the same way that Silicon Valley’s boom has swept up the peninsula into San Francisco.

I will also note that while office vacancy downtown is high, it’s not atypical of the current office market in greater LA.


Now who thought Gateway Cities would come out on top!?

On the other hand, even if downtown’s population increases by an order of magnitude, it will still only be about 1% of LA County population. Current mainstays of the downtown office market, like the finance industry, have been reducing headcounts and office lease sizes. The most desirable office space in LA is Avenue of the Stars in Century City and Newport Center Drive in Newport Beach.

So in that sense, I agree with Kotkin that no matter what happens downtown, it won’t matter that much for the region. We already have over 13 million people in LA County and Orange County living and working with our current distribution of housing and employment. If you’re expecting the changes downtown to fundamentally alter the urban geography of Los Angeles, I suspect you’re going to be disappointed.

I also agree with Kotkin that subsidies for downtown hotels and the convention center are foolish – but that’s a general observation, not anything specific to Downtown LA. You can’t walk fifty feet in the halls of US city governance without tripping over someone who wants to dole out public funds to questionable projects like convention centers and stadiums. If you look for lodging downtown, you’ll find reputable places going for $150-$250 a night, with the chains, especially near the convention center, starting at $300 and up. If the market can’t build profitable hotels in a place where a new projects command $300/night with reliable occupancy, there’s bound to be some regulatory impediment in the way that could be removed. In fact, much of downtown’s boom is based on precisely that – eliminating regulatory boundaries through the adaptive reuse ordinance.

About That Transit Network

Unsurprisingly, my biggest disagreement with Kotkin is on transportation. He throws investment in public transit in the same boat as subsidies to private developers, and submits that a downtown-centered rail network is going to be ineffective in a polycentric region like LA.

On the funding side, self-help sales taxes have proven to be the only reliable way to get new infrastructure funded in California. It’s worth noting that over 2/3 of LA County voters have staked themselves to these projects being worthwhile for the future growth of the region. It’s also worth noting that 35% of Measure R funds go to highway infrastructure (20% for freeways and 15% local return to cities, which can use all of it on roads if they want). The major expansions on Kotkin’s beloved freeways, from the 5 in Norwalk Narrows to the 405 carpool lane to improvements on the 710, are all getting subsidized by sales tax money too.

On the rail network side, a downtown-centered system would be ineffective, but fortunately, that’s not what we’re going to get. There are major projects underway that don’t go downtown, like the Crenshaw Line, which will serve other important centers like El Segundo, LAX, and Hollywood (when it is inevitably extended north). Projects that are high priority for “Measure R2”, like a Sepulveda Pass/Westside transit line, will serve major destinations even further from downtown. And you could probably argue that two projects under construction that do go downtown – Expo Line Phase 2 and Westside Subway – bring more employment access benefits at their west ends in Santa Monica, Century City, and Westwood than they do downtown.

Downtown the Redeemer

A final point on which I completely agree with Kotkin is the uselessness of the East Coast journalist redemption narrative, where LA “unlearns the mistakes of its past”, builds a radial transit network, stops turning its back on downtown, and finally becomes a place that they deem worthy of calling a city.

I’m happy to see downtown’s growth, but it makes the lack of growth in other important regional centers that much more apparent. We do, as Kotkin says, need to boost jobs “from Studio City and Sherman Oaks to Boyle Heights, Leimart Park and Silver Lake”, and to do that we need to remove the regulatory barriers like residential downzonings and Prop U that stunted LA’s polycentric growth.

People have always refused to try to understand LA on its own terms, from HL Mencken calling it “Los Angeles the damned” to James Howard Kunstler writing about “its pervasive aura of doom”. Screw them. LA’s land use patterns already work pretty well, and Angelenos should be proud of their city. If we can overcome the challenges on land use, transit and polycentrism are going to work together better than post people expect. The challenges facing us are large, but there is tremendous potential in our region. Let’s get to work so that I can look forward to being able to say that all of LA’s centers, from Warner Center to El Segundo, Glendale to Long Beach, are creating opportunity for everyone.

5 thoughts on “Downtown in a Polycentric Region

  1. Alon Levy

    But how big are those secondary centers compared to downtown, anyway? The LA Times tells me that the daytime population in Century City is 50,000, compared with 200,000 in Downtown (link 1, link 2). It’s a bigger ratio than you’re going to find in Boston or Chicago, but it’s still way, way less than 1.

    1. letsgola Post author

      It’s likely less than 1, though of course depending on your point of view you could change how much by changing the boundaries of the regions. I don’t think anyone would dispute that boundary for Century City, but anything east of Main is a real stretch as far as traditional “CBD” employment goes – that includes the Fashion District, Little Tokyo, a warehouse district, and Skid Row. On the other hand, it may not be what most people would consider CBD employment, but there are a ton of trips to and from the Fashion District, so why shouldn’t they count? On the Westside, it’s obviously a little more spread out, but I think if you take Century City, Westwood, and the office parks of Santa Monica, you’re probably close to the same daytime population (for some reason, the Mapping LA pages don’t have daytime population for Santa Monica).

      According to Wendell Cox, DTLA employment is 137k, while Century City is 34k. In their rankings, comparable employment centers would be Anaheim-Orange (118k), Burbank-Van Nuys (105k), “Central & I-5 South Corridor” (216k), South Bay (203k), City of Industry (83k), Irvine (119k), LAX/El Segundo (135k), Santa Ana-Costa Mesa (164k). Warner Center is 56k. Of course… consider the source. And none of those areas are as concentrated as downtown LA.

      If we go by office space (using same source as the vacancy rates) DTLA is 34m SF out of a total of 165m SF in LA County (ex Lancaster/Palmdale). Century City has 9.3m SF, Santa Monica has 6.8m SF, Beverly Hills 5.7m SF, Marina del Rey/Venice 4.3m, Brentwood 3.4m, Culver City 3.2m. So taking the first three combined, you’re at about two thirds of downtown. Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena is 17.5m. El Segundo & LAX is 9.5m. Warner Center is 6.5m. (Note that this is just LA County; it doesn’t include Irvine, etc.)

      If we go anecdotal, Downtown LA is certainly the most urban-feeling part of the city. It’s got the biggest collection of skyscrapers, and blocks and blocks of zero-setback development. This is really just an artifact of zoning, and Century City is bounded by two golf courses that would probably redevelop overnight if given the green light to do whatever they want.

      Despite all of that, I think current development trends in LA are trending towards more polycentrism, not less. The booming office markets are on the Westside (especially Santa Monica and Venice, JMB wants to cater to “creative” office space with their proposed tower in Century City), while downtown’s boom is all about residential (all the construction in downtown is residential or hotels). Traffic on the 10 really does peak in the reverse direction (towards SM in the AM, towards downtown in PM), which is why I think Expo Line & Purple Line will serve “reverse commute” just as much, if not more, than downtown-oriented trips.

      1. Alon Levy

        The ACS has numbers for number of jobs in each city. Burbank has 96,000, Pasadena 116,000, Glendale 93,000. (And they’ll probably still not send the Orange Line east to Pasadena.) It seems pretty close to the Demographia numbers… but then you have El Segundo with 58,000. LAX adds more, but it’s not really the same as the El Segundo office cluster.

        Re the Purple Line, Downtown LA is probably going to maintain higher transit mode share as a job center than the Westside. (It already has a decent mode share, for one.) It’s a lot easier to walk from the subway to downtown office towers than to Century City towers. The Olympic/Stars intersection looks very blah-y to me.

      2. letsgola Post author

        True, it always cracks me up that they decided it was necessary to build an interchange between Olympic & Ave of the Stars. The station itself will be at the corner of Ave of the Stars & Constellation – the vacant lot on the northeast corner of that intersection is where the entrance will be (along with JMB’s NIMBY-infuriating office tower).

        Ave of the Stars, and the whole site in general, is very 60s/70s-ish. Three lanes each way, big median, no connection between the buildings and streets/sidewalks. In my dreams we change the zoning to fix all that. Despite that, the office towers of Century city are all within a half-mile walk of Ave of the Stars/Constellation, so who knows? Could do ok on mode share. (Though the real bugaboo of Westside is north-south traffic.)

        UCLA already does very well on non-driving mode share, as college campuses often do, so I think that will be a strong Purple Line stop as well.

  2. Ian Mitchell

    “none of them have reached the geographic extent where commuting across the entire metro region is impractical.”

    I’d say that’s true for of south Florida. It’s about as far from Brickell to West Palm Beach as it is from Sylmar to San Bernadino. South Florida is unique that its east-west extent is very limited (as narrow as 5 miles between atlantic and everglades), but it’s to that point where there really isn’t any “new” (undeveloped) land that is within a practicable commuting distance of any business center.

    Houston is pretty big- going between sugar land or baytown to each other or the woodlands, for instance- would definitely suck. But unlike LA or South Florida- it doesn’t really have a geographical limit. None of the big Texas cities do, nor does Atlanta, nor does Charlotte- plenty of farmland to swallow up in every direction. Other sunbelt cities- Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix sort of have limits- mountains, national parks, reservations- though they aren’t built out to and beyond them to the extent that L.A. is at all.

    I personally wonder how much Southern California will change when Camp Pendleton gets decomissioned and and all that land gets sold off…


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