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Five Steps for a Better Downtown

By Eric Richardson
Published: Friday, November 09, 2007, at 08:25PM

For this week's issue, the Downtown News asked if I'd take the five steps I touched on a few weeks back and expand them into an opinion piece. I did so, and the piece can now be found online. It's nothing particularly revolutionary for those of you already reading this site -- after all, you've already seen these very same five steps -- but I enjoyed the process of going back and putting some more detail on how these points relate to Downtown Los Angeles.

One of the first things you learn upon moving Downtown is that there's no one place to turn for all your questions and concerns. While new residents are often quickly introduced to city government, various Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and a couple of neighborhood councils, the process of figuring out who does what can be daunting.

Part of the problem is, this is a two-way street. Downtown is dotted with organizations, both large and small, that have the potential to make a difference in the lives of its residents. But frequently, these groups don't connect with the new arrivals.

The piece continues...

It's not intentional. But in order to be effective, these groups need to understand how to communicate to those of us who make Downtown our home. A few key steps would go a long way in helping Downtown Los Angeles organizations engage residents.

First, organizations need to listen. You can't answer a question that you don't hear. Downtown groups need to be proactive about finding or creating the places where neighborhood conversation happens. There is a lot of good discussion out there, and, given the technological times we live in, much of it is taking place online. Every week or so I hear of another resident who has started to blog and create smart commentary about the community. I continue to be amazed by the quality of the discussion that takes place in the comments at blogdowntown, the blog I started in 2005.

Sometimes, though, a new venue needs to be created. Last year, DLANC (where I was the former treasurer) hosted a packed forum on homelessness, right as the issue was getting heavy media attention. The attendance and participation proved that Downtowners not only had something to say on the topic, but wanted to be heard.

Second, educate. For some groups that haven't been very involved with the new residential population, this may mean simply letting people know they exist. While almost everyone is aware of the Downtown Center BID, smaller BIDs can fly completely under the radar of many residents. I lived in the Historic Core for two years before I had any idea that there was a Historic Downtown BID, and I wasn't the only one.

Once identity is established, the education process depends on helping residents understand the fundamentals of how Downtown works. For example, many new inhabitants quickly become frustrated by the slow process of getting retail into the ground floor of their building. Those empty storefronts make them think nothing is happening. Organizations need to help residents understand the hurdles that slow Downtown's revitalization. They should explain the lengthy, complicated process of getting a Conditional Use Permit for a new restaurant, or perhaps detail why, even with a residential explosion, it still takes time to change the negative perception some retailers have of Downtown.

This education leads directly into step three: Organizations should aggressively look for ways to enable Downtown residents to help them further their causes. In September, I posted on blogdowntown about a hearing on Conditional Use Permits for Kor Group's Santa Fe Lofts (the company wanted to open several restaurants and a bar in the building). The city's Zoning Administrator had denied Kor's application, and the ruling threatened to make revitalization much harder for projects across Downtown. That post and a subsequent follow-up generated a combined 55 comments, many asking who they should write or call to add their support to Kor's cause. Downtown's residents are eager to get involved; they just need someone to tell them how.

Fourth, organizations need to find ways to respond to the comments that they hear from residents. Groups need to determine which complaints and suggestions they can tackle and communicate the results. Even when the goal can't be reached right away, it's important to outline the steps involved and show there is a plan at work.

Finally, organizations need to anticipate what Downtown is going to become. Granted, many are trying to do this, and there is no single answer, but it is important to look at the demographics and the challenges of today and try to figure out what the situation is going to be five and 10 years down the line.

For example, much of the new Downtown population has been assumed to be young, single professionals. Many of the floor plans we see in Downtown development reflect this. Yet in the summer of 2006, there were three weddings involving Downtown bloggers (myself included), all of whom still make their home in the Historic Core. I jokingly asked on blogdowntown at the time whether this signaled an upcoming demographic change, but the progression makes good sense. We need to create a Downtown where the young professionals moving in can be comfortable as their station in life changes. Kathryn Maese's Downtown News account last week weighing the pros and cons of Downtown life while expecting a baby will be repeated many times over the upcoming years. Downtown organizations need to take the lead on making sure that our community isn't constantly in flux.

There are no simple answers, but what we have in front of us is a great opportunity. People remain excited about moving to Downtown and, unlike other areas in the city, they have the chance to help shape the growth of a community. Many of the new arrivals want to participate in the area's evolution. Sometimes, they just need a little help from those who have been around a while.

Thanks to the Downtown News for giving me the chance to flesh these ideas out a bit more. I always enjoy that process given the fast pace at which things work here on the site. I especially owe thanks to Jon Regardie, who I always enjoy working with as an editor.


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