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03.13.2013
The Street Stays in the Picture
Film industry bucks downtown Los Angeles alterations including bike lanes, parklets.
Buffered bike lane on LA's Spring Street.
Joe Linton / LA Eco-Village

The resurgence of the residential community in downtown Los Angeles has come with numerous urban design interventions, from bike lanes to parklets to new transit stations. Not all of the neighborhood’s stakeholders, however, are happy about the changes. The film industry, one of the most powerful of those groups, has grown increasingly outspoken in its concerns about how the modifications are impacting business.

Downtown’s impressive mix of Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, and Postmodern buildings, along with abundant surface parking lots and alleys, comprises the city’s busiest collection of off-studio filming locations. In 2012 alone, on-site film industry shoots downtown totaled 8,394 production days, according to Film L.A., a nonprofit created by the city and county to balance the business of filming with its impacts on neighborhoods.

One downtown neighborhood in particular, known as the Historic Core, a boomtown for the new residential population, is an especially popular filming location. The film industry uses the neighborhood as a proxy for any older city in the United States, such as New York or Chicago. “It’s the only place in Los Angeles that doubles for them,” said Paul Audley, president and CEO of Film L.A.

In November 2011, however, an unexpected conflict arose when the city unveiled a buffered bike lane painted bright green and running along Spring Street between Cesar Chavez Avenue and 9th Street, the heart of the Historic Core. Just weeks after the lane opened, Film L.A. announced that the green color was adversely impacting film shoots. According to Audley, the bike lane “killed filming for three weeks,” as crews scrambled to find a way to cover up the incongruous green streak.

The bike lane is only one example of street level decisions that can ruin the illusion the film industry desires. For instance, palm trees, ubiquitous in Los Angeles but not elsewhere, take certain locations out of play. Audley cited the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department as a building that would attract the gaze of a lot more cameras if not for its landscaping.

A new parklet on Spring Street opened this year in Los Angeles.
Sam Lubell / AN
 

With two new parklets opening on Spring Street in January, to be followed shortly by the Bike Nation bike-sharing system, plus a downtown streetcar project backed by a voter-approved tax increase, Film L.A. has plenty of work on the horizon to make sure that the neighborhood continues to play the role of back lot for Hollywood. Since the Spring Street bike lane controversy, Film L.A. has worked closely with the mayor’s office, the city council, and other city departments to improve the siting of such urban initiatives. According to Audley, Film L.A. will not oppose any of the projects, “because they are important to the future of downtown, to keep it vibrant and alive.” He acknowledged, though, that more work is required “to consider the needs of this critical industry as these projects go forward.”

To Daveed Kapoor, a downtown resident, registered architect, and one of the designers of the Spring Street parklet, the proximity of these new facilities to the work of the film industry has multiple benefits. “We’re going to export images of a new type of city,” said Kapoor, adding that the parklets and the bike lane will slow traffic on the street, making it a safer place for film crews to work.

Rick Coca, spokesperson for Council member José Huizar, who represents the area, stressed that the film industry will have to adjust to the new reality of downtown: “You have 50,000 people living there, as opposed to 10,000 people living there ten years ago…500,000 people work there.”

Clearly, the ghost town quality that made downtown such an attractive back lot for the film industry—like the era of the early 20th century that built the neighborhood—is a thing of the past.

James Brasuell