Promise, Fears in Revitalizing Downtown L.A.

In the past two decades, urban redevelopment has helped revitalize long-neglected downtowns from San Diego to Harlem. The loft and condo conversions that transformed other urban "cores" are just catching on in Los Angeles. The building boom holds promise, but it also creates new pressures.

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ED GORDON, host:

From San Diego to Harlem, urban redevelopment has revitalized long-neglected downtowns. The loft and condo conversions that transformed other urban cores during the last 20 years are just catching on in Los Angeles. Jeremy Freed reports that the building boom holds promise, but it also creates new pressures.

JEREMY FREED reporting:

Until the 1950s, Los Angeles' downtown core was the city's commercial, financial and entertainment center. Its buildings were showpieces of West Coast prosperity and modernity. With the rise of freeways and the decline of public transportation, businesses began to move to the suburbs. As the years passed, many of the buildings were left vacant above street level. Now, due to an aggressive urban renewal campaign, some historic buildings are regaining their former glory.

(Soundbite of rail cars)

Ms. KATE BARTOLO (Kor Realty Group): Well, welcome to Eastern Columbia building, 849 Broadway, downtown Los Angeles.

FREED: Kate Bartolo is a developer for the Kor Realty Group. Her organization is transforming this building into 147 condominiums and 20,000 square feet of retail space. The Eastern Columbia is a downtown landmark that has sat nearly empty for the last 30 years. Its neon-lit clock tower is an unmistakable part of the downtown skyline.

Ms. BARTOLO: The Eastern Columbia building was built in 1930. It is an historic building.

FREED: But not all of downtown's residents see the value of these changes. Skid Row, one of LA's poorest communities, sits in the shadow of these architectural landmarks. Most of Skid Row's inhabitants live in single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs. These hotels were built around the same time as the rest of the historic downtown. Years of neglect and abuse have left the buildings in ruin. Health and safety violations continually threaten to close them for good. But SROs are the only affordable housing available to some of LA's poorest residents. Rising real estate prices make Skid Row increasingly attractive to developers. As this happens, the threat of displacement looms ever larger.

Mr. JEFFREY BROWN(ph) (Resident): My name is Jeffrey Brown, and my wife and family lives in unprotected housing.

FREED: Brown's wife, Sophia(ph), and their four children live in an unprotected SRO hotel. This means that it has not been bought and renovated by a non-profit. Brown was forced to move out because of a disagreement with the hotel's management. He now lives in a nearby homeless shelter. Brown and his wife are afraid of what will happen if their hotel becomes marked for redevelopment.

Mr. BROWN: If the owner decides to sell the hotel, I'll have to find other affordable housing. There's no other place that--where we can go except for the streets.

FREED: Jeffrey Brown and his family are among thousands of others in similar situations. They feel that too much attention is being given to the needs of wealthy new residents and too little to the homeless and working poor who have been living there for years. Anita Nelson works for SRO Housing, one of the non-profits that buys and refurbishes SRO hotels in Skid Row. She understands these concerns but is hesitant to condemn the developers outright.

Ms. ANITA NELSON (SRO Housing): Through their development, a lot of needs are being met. There's a grocery store that's coming in. Well, I would love to say it's because of our affordable housing, but that's not the case. I think it's because the high-end lofts.

FREED: Services like the new supermarket and the jobs they could provide would benefit all downtown residents, new and old. And developers are including some low-cost housing in their building plans. For downtown development to work for everyone, says Nelson, the key is compromise.

(Soundbite of rail cars)

FREED: A few blocks away, beneath the aquamarine clock tower of the Eastern Columbia building, construction continues. In their first day of sales, the Kor Group sold more than half the units in the building. A year from now, the owners will begin moving in. The compromises they seek with their neighbors will determine the shape of LA's newest urban community. For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Freed in Los Angeles.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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