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Downtown LA’s Makeover Story: A New Culture of Connection

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In Los Angeles’s formerly decaying Downtown, futuristic, cloud-scraping towers have sprouted near beautifully restored historic facades. The newly built 70-story Wilshire Grand Center — which houses the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown — has become the tallest building in the U.S. west of the Mississippi. Meanwhile, symbols of LA’s Art Deco past, like the circa 1930 Eastern Columbia Building, are now sought-after residential addresses.

Welcome to the new DTLA, a neighborhood that has re-established its connections to the rest of this sprawling city in ways symbolic and real. Thanks in part to an influx of committed and creative young professionals —and investments totaling more than $24 billion over the past 15 years — Los Angeles’s heart is once again in its old urban center.

Come nightfall, the streets of Downtown bustle with people pouring into bars, restaurants and upscale boutiques. Sleek new lofts have pushed occupancy rates past the 90 percent mark, and the 100-year-old Grand Central Market has become a street food mecca — part of a thriving scene that has brought 700 new restaurants to the district.

Grand Central Market; photo credit: Mike Baker

Grand Central Market food stalls; photo credit: Mike Baker

Helping establish new cultural connections — and cement Downtown’s hot spot reputation — are anchors like the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Frank Gehry’s steel deconstructivism marvel, which is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the white geometric marvel that is The Broad museum, and the much-anticipated Institute of Contemporary Art LA.

But perhaps the greatest achievement is not where people are going downtown, but how they are getting there. The Los Angeles Metro Rail’s Red, Purple, Gold and Blue lines all lead downtown, and the Metro’s reach — coupled with a millennial generation favoring ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft — is at long last giving Angelenos a way to make face-to-face connections, rather than being relegated to their individual cars.

Change this dramatic took decades to blossom, but nobody does a makeover story better than Hollywood. Downtown’s tide, urban planners say, first started to change in 1999 when the city passed an ordinance making it significantly easier for developers to convert historic, abandoned buildings into new living spaces. The first conversions took place at the corner of 4th and Main, an area then considered Skid Row.

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Brigham Yen was one of those young transplants who dreamed of an LA where neighbors work and play together, sharing connections on the streets. Yen grew up among the freeway sprawl of suburban Los Angeles, but when the real estate agent and urban-living advocate returned to his native city after graduating from University of California, Berkeley, he chose to settle in DTLA.

In the dozen years since Yen set up shop in the district, DTLA has lived up to that urban promise, by forging the connections that are key to city life. And Yen has helped build those links, partially through his blog, DTLA Rising with Brigham Yen. “I had a dream that DTLA would one day become something great. I was determined to make DTLA into a vibrant urban city,” he says. “Downtown LA is rising and every day, living here, is like a dream come true.”

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