Forty years ago, historian Lewis Mumford famously dismissed Los Angeles as “100 suburbs in search of a city.” Forty years earlier — before the freeways and the post-War boom — Los Angeles was a conventional city, complete with a downtown business and shopping district featuring hotels, apartment buildings, restaurants and even pedestrians.

Now, after a decade of planning and false starts, the effort to rebuild a thriving 24/7 neighborhood in the old downtown is gaining traction. There is a wave of high-profile public projects in the works, including the long-awaited Walt Disney Concert Hall, and a surge in residential building has community leaders buzzing about a “downtown renaissance.”

Getting people to live downtown, of course, is the key. “We want to see housing-unit numbers increase exponentially,” says Carol Schatz, president and CEO of the Central City Association of Los Angeles and the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. “It is an elementary principal of good urban planning that you can't revitalize without a good residential base.”

Eight new multifamily projects are now under construction that will bring in 1,385 units. An additional 29 apartment projects in various stages of planning could produce 5,200 market-rate units over the next few years, nearly doubling the existing supply of 5,452 market-rate units downtown.

Reasons to Live Downtown

Downtown Los Angeles has been setting the stage for revitalization with its push for more housing, investment in infrastructure and incentives, including grants and tax breaks. After languishing for years, the redevelopment effort was revived due to several projects launched in the late 1990s, which sparked a surge in development in a 65-block area downtown.

The $400 million Staples Center sports arena opened in 1999, and the $195 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the first American cathedral to be built in decades, opened in September. The eagerly anticipated Disney Concert Hall, a $274 million modernist structure designed by architect Frank Gehry, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2003.

The Improvement District estimates that $3 billion has been invested in commercial and municipal development in the city's core, which has sparked residential demand. “Housing can't be built fast enough in downtown Los Angeles,” says Todd Anderson, senior director of Cushman & Wakefield of California Inc. in Los Angeles.

The $100 million, 632-unit Medici apartments was one of the first multifamily projects to open near the CBD. Developed by Los Angeles-based G.H. Palmer Associates, the units were delivered in 2000 and 2002.

The $33 million Old Bank District Loft Apartments also transformed three turn-of-the-century office buildings into 230 loft-style apartments. Los Angeles-based Gilmore Associates completed two buildings in 2000 and the third in 2001.

By far the largest multifamily project under way downtown is a five-phase development by Hollywood-based CIM Group, which will tie the Staples Center area to the CBD. The project will produce more than 1,500 rental and for-sale apartment and condo units.

The growing number of residents has already extended what was a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. office district to a 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. hub, Schatz says. “If we can move toward becoming a 24-hour city an hour every year, we are substantially moving toward our goal.”