What does revitalization look like? For Los Angeles, that question has produced several different answers. In many cases, however, attempts have been limited: focusing on either single buildings or small areas, with the often erroneous assumption that an influx of wealthier residential or commercial tenants will automatically “revitalize” a less affluent community. In fact, many of these attempts have resulted in walled enclaves and buildings, such as the lofts that dot Skid Row or the architectural showpieces that have replaced bungalows in the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice.
The Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP), approved by the Planning Commission on December 13, 2012, aims to dodge these pitfalls. Moreover, Los Angeles State Historic Park, the 32-acre green space at the heart of the plan—known as “The Cornfield”—looks poised to become an urban catalyst akin to the High Line. California State Parks began construction on the park in January.
The project does not intend to serve a single community, but as many as three, with very different social, economic, and racial demographics. As City Councilmember Gilbert Cedillo explains, the Cornfield is meant to “encourage redevelopment that is compatible with Chinatown, and the William Meade and Lincoln Heights communities.” One of the major innovations is the establishment of four new zoning districts, three of which are mixed-use: Urban Village, Urban Center, and Urban Innovation, along with a greenway. That means CASP will be serving people who are residents, retailers, and commercial tenants. Even more interesting are the land use strategies. In addition to the parks that will minimize “demand for potable water,” the project is also including space for community gardens.
Someone who noticed the area’s potential early on is Bryson Reaume, president of City Constructors, a construction firm that has worked on several downtown projects. “We had been keeping a close eye on the area since 2011,” said Reaume. “The Specific Plan convinced us that this was going to be one of LA’s next important areas, so we jumped on a park-adjacent property for our new headquarters. Who wouldn’t want to have an office near that park?” he added.
City Constructors is looking at different architects to turn the 16,700-square-foot warehouse they purchased on North Spring Street into a mixed creative office and retail space. They plan to line retail opposite the park with their new headquarters on the opposite side. The scheme also incorporates several outdoor seating areas, wooden decks with built-in seating, and roof decks overlooking the park. “We think the area has great potential and we believe it is LA’s largest and most important new park,” said Reaume. They are so confident in the area, in fact, that they recently acquired an additional 10,000-square-foot lot with the intention of building luxury apartments and a wine bar.
Cedillo explains that there are several other projects already in development, including Chinatown Lofts, which includes 300 residential and commercial flex units. Capitol Milling’s adaptive reuse project will include restaurant and office space connecting with the new Johnson Fain-designed Blossom Plaza and the METRO Gold Line station. Johnson Fain, incidentally, moved its offices just across from the park a few years ago. Additionally, EVOQ Properties owns a five-acre parcel at the south end of the area that is being entitled for a large mixed-use development and another local developer has recently purchased a campus at the north end known as the “graffiti buildings,” with plans to turn it into creative mixed-use spaces.
Another part of the plan that facilitates development is the lack of parking requirements—the first of its kind in Los Angeles—because of the project’s proximity to public transit. In an interview with Curbed LA, city planner Claire Bowin noted that the market will ultimately decide the allocation of parking, while allowing developers to “minimize the amount of parking for specific projects.”
The question, then, is will this project succeed in revitalizing the immediate area and successfully interact with the surrounding communities? Tom Gilmore, developer and CEO of Tom Gilmore and Associates, thinks so, but hopes development is unique to the area. “It has the same opportunities and risks that arose in the Arts District and Little Tokyo. Both benefitted from the convergence of new development but were diminished by the uniformity of many of those new developments, which were in both districts, but were of neither,” he said. “Chinatown is an amazing slice of LA and a lot of new development is on the way. Hopefully, the new developments in Chinatown and nearby will be able to take advantage of the unique culture and architecture already there and expand upon it with a real appreciation of its value.”