At the Start of 2012: Downtown's Continuing Rollercoaster Ride

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Annual roundups have a common theme - it's always "the worst of times and the best of times." And that certainly is true of downtown at the end of 2011 and the start of 2012:

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New Parks. Whatever your feelings about the ever diminishing grandeur of the Grand Avenue development scheme, a key part is actually nearing completion. The $56-million "Civic Park" from Grand Avenue through the jumble of government offices to Spring Street is scheduled to be open by mid-summer. The 12-acre park will have terraces that step down the slope of Bunker Hill, walking paths, an "event lawn," and even a dog run. A one-acre park, not far away on Spring Street, is under construction, too. The $8-million project will have benches, landscaping, and a walking path.

More Transit. Stitching together the city's light rail lines and subways moved forward in 2011 and will pass an important milestone in early 2012 with the publication of the project's environmental report. One day, the Regional Connector will link the Blue, Gold, and Expo lines under downtown at a cost of $1.44-billion. Much sooner - sometime in 2012, I hope - the Expo Line to Culver City will be running. Spats between Metro and the Expo Line construction authority have moved the opening day yet again. (Meanwhile, the Orange Line busway extension in the Valley is ahead of schedule for its opening.)

More problematic (and dubious) is a downtown streetcar that would make a one-way loop mostly along Broadway (probably to AEG's LA Live and possibly to Union Station). If this sounds like the Disneyland Railway, you wouldn't be wrong, since the streetcar's primary target seems to be convention center tourists rather than commuter transit. The streetcar plan didn't get Federal Transit Administration funding in 2011, but its backers are hoping other sources will be found to cover the $106 million to $137 million cost.

Union Station. Metro's $75-million purchase of Union Station last April didn't register as a big story, but it is. With the historic station, Metro also got nearly 40 acres of real estate and - more importantly - entitlements that add up to about six million square feet of housing, office, hotel, and retail space. The build-out of the Union Station parcel will redefine downtown eastward and tie a live/work neighborhood directly to Metro's rail network through the Regional Connector project.

The Mess at the Old Plaza. First, it was the mismanagement of excavations around the new La Plaza de Cultura y Artes across from Union Station and the removal of early 19th century burials. Then it was disappointing fundraising for the $27-million museum and cultural center. In April, it was allegations of fiscal mismanagement and a lawsuit over construction bills left unpaid. Miguel Corzo, the museum's CEO, left the newly opened museum in August, and the museum's staff was cut in half.

Not-So-Green Los Angeles. The promise of making the northeastern wedge of downtown a hub for "green" innovation and manufacturing has mostly - and quietly - faded. The city had no takers to lease its 20-acre "Cleantech Manufacturing Center" site and couldn't even sell the property initially, due to concerns about soil contamination. The city's redevelopment agency hastily sold the site to Trammell Crow in November for $15.4 million (just in time to make a critical loan repayment). But that deal took most of the "green" out of the project's specifications.

Homelessness Expanding. 2012 is going to be a bad year for the poor and homeless downtown. Another round of prison releases will send more men and women to the streets with no work and nowhere to live. Already, the population living on the streets around Skid Row has jumped from 500 a night (in mid-2009) to at least 1,700 in October 2011. The growing homeless population could unsettle hopes for Union Station development, Civic Park use, and downtown tourism.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Scrunchleface. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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DJ, that really is the best seat in downtown!