One of my favorite writers, Dorothy Parker, once wrote this about my hometown: “Los Angeles: Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”
Granted, Parker wrote her description more than 60 years ago but, suffice it to say, up until now, I would have been apt to agree with her.
Downtown L.A. looks dramatically different than it did just a few years ago. // © 2009 LA Inc.
For years, downtown Los Angeles, the former heart of the city — and the closest thing Los Angeles has that resembles an urban metropolis — lay empty and derelict. Bustling with activity on weekdays in its skyward skyscrapers, it was eerily quiet at nights and on weekends, its residents seeking out the suburbs, rather than the city, to make their homes.
Now, however, all that is slowly starting to change as Angelinos are rediscovering the downtown area, and flocking to it in droves. According to the “Downtown Los Angeles Demographic Study 2008” by The Los Angeles Downtown Center Business Improvement District, downtown’s resident population increased 36.9 percent from 28,878 in 2006 to 39,537 in 2008.
Today, hopes are that travelers will rediscover it, too. To begin with, downtown is not lacking in accommodations. Favorite standbys include the Marriott Los Angeles Downtown; the Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles; The Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza; the Sheraton Los Angeles Downtown Hotel; The Standard Downtown L.A.; and The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, Los Angeles, to name a few. And with the arrival of The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles, and the JW Marriott Hotel Los Angeles at L.A. Live next year, anticipation continues to build.
Lights, Camera, Action
The revitalization of downtown Los Angeles has been germinating for a number of years, first taking root with the introduction of the Staples Center in October 1999. Since its opening, the arena has hosted more than 2,200 events and more than 3.7 million guests. The Staples Center was followed by the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in October 2003.
“The opening of the Staples Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall gave people a real reason to come downtown,” said Carol Martinez, associate vice president of media relations and communications for LA Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We always had a Music Center here, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, but some of those major developments really put downtown into the ‘must-visit’ category for people. They wanted to see where the Lakers play, to see the Frank Gehry architecture of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and to visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels where actor Gregory Peck is buried. They’d seen photos of it and heard about it, and they wanted to see it in person.”
Los Angeles is no stranger to reinvention. Every day, the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world morphs itself into different settings for countless films, television shows and commercials. And, as with the making of a motion picture, there were a number of players involved in the central business district’s new look and feel. From real estate mavericks who saw the potential in converting abandoned — and historic — buildings into office spaces and lofts, to bar mavens and restaurateurs who took a gamble on downtown digs, there were a number of folks who made today’s new downtown real. Today, pedestrian-friendly downtown is downright lively at all hours of the day. The overall effect was to make downtown Los Angeles desirable again — not just to convention center attendees, University of Southern California students and Lakers fans — but to everyone.
Like many residents of downtown, Martinez moved there from the suburbs five years ago, lured by the area’s burgeoning arts scene, vibrant nightlife, eclectic shops, diversity and proximity to her workplace. Martinez’ former commute of an hour or so — not uncommon by L.A. standards — has now been reduced to a short five-minute stroll. And, as many of her fellow residents will tell you, one of the biggest milestones in the neighborhood’s revitalization was the opening of a Ralphs market in 2007, the first supermarket to open downtown in 57 years.
“What residents need also makes things attractive to a visitor,” Martinez explained. “When you’re a tourist, you want to go to the grocery store to get snacks or get things to make a picnic. Having people actually live in downtown has really made it more desirable to visitors.”
Perhaps the biggest player in the new downtown, however, is AEG, one of the world’s biggest sports and entertainment companies. It was AEG who dreamed up the Staples Center and L.A. Live, a retail, entertainment and hospitality complex. Both are mere steps from each other on a prime stretch of downtown’s Olympic Boulevard that was once made up, primarily, of parking lots, but is now known as South Park.
Construction on L.A. Live began in 2005, and it officially opened in October 2007, with the completion of the Nokia L.A. Live Theatre and the Nokia Plaza. L.A. Live, in particular, is difficult to describe for the mere fact that it houses so many different attractions. The campus includes an interactive Grammy Museum, a Lucky Strikes Lanes bowling alley, a 14-screen movie theater, a 7,100-seat theater and a total of 13 restaurants, not including the two signature restaurants that have yet to be announced at its soon-to-open hotels.
Together with the Staples Center, which recently underwent a $20 million renovation, L.A. Live was an answer to Los Angeles’ Convention Center conundrum of not having enough attractions and accommodations in order to satisfy the convention center crowd.
“Clearly, Los Angeles has needed a convention hotel for a long time,” said Javier Cano, general manager for both the JW Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton at L.A. Live. “The Ritz-Carlton and Marriott approached AEG about being part of this great project, and what we found was that we had a lot of similar goals.We were very fortunate that discussions were made and that we were able to operate in this great [space].”
Putting on The Ritz
AEG and its partners, along with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, and Marriott International, Inc., will soon find out if their goals will be fulfilled on Feb. 15. That is when the two hotels are scheduled to open, one month earlier than their originally scheduled opening of March 2010.
“Due to the success of the great team AEG has and the great folks who have been working on this project for many years, we were able to move the opening date up, which is, as you know, almost unheard of in our world,” said Cano.
And, even before they officially open their doors, there is plenty of buzz surrounding both hotels. For one thing, they are both located in the same building. The 56-story tower, designed by global architecture firm Gensler, includes a 26-story wing housing both hotels that gives way to The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles, private luxury apartments, on the upper floors. This will be the first time that all three components will be housed together under one roof, so to speak.
The JW Marriott guestrooms will comprise floors four through 21, with 878 guestrooms, including 52 suites. The Ritz-Carlton, with a total of 123 guestrooms, 14 of which are suites, will occupy floors 22 through 26. Together, both properties will offer 1,001 guestrooms. While both hotels share real estate space — including an 8,000-square-foot The Ritz-Carlton Spa on the second floor and more than 77,000 square feet of indoor meeting space in total — each will have its own lobby, entrance and pool area.
On a hard-hat tour of the site in October, I got a glimpse of what the two hotels will look like once they are complete. From what I could tell, the first-floor entrance of the JW Marriott will be massive and elegant, decked out in newly laid white-marble floors and topped off by glittering strands of lights. On the first floor, guests will also find a lobby lounge and bar and a full-service restaurant. On the second floor, guests can work up a sweat at a 4,000-square-foot JW Marriott fitness center or slip into sublimity at the 8,000-square-foot The Ritz-Carlton Spa. Traveling up to the fourth floor, I could imagine guests and visitors lounging by the outdoor, rooftop pool, sipping on cocktails and soaking up SoCal’s sunshine.
While the fourth floor offered sizeable views of the city, they didn’t quite compare to the views from the top. It is at the top where guests of The Ritz-Carlton will reside. Guests can check in on the 23rd floor where a 3,400-square-foot Club Lounge awaits them. On the 24th floor, they will find a Lobby Lounge and a signature restaurant with near 360-degree views of the Southern California basin. The restaurant will also feature a wine cave and private dining room. And, at the very top, on the 26th floor, there will be another rooftop pool and bar area, surrounded by cabanas, as well as an adjacent 2,000-square-foot The Ritz-Carlton fitness facility.
During the tour, I also walked into models of each hotel’s guestrooms. While the final touches are still being applied to both room designs, it was clear to me that both properties sought guestroom looks that were as sleek and contemporary as their building design. What stood out to me most about the JW Marriott guestroom was its bold use of color — warm citrus hues, complemented by cool blues.
In a standard guestroom at The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles, I’m certain clients will be fixated on, of all things, the bathroom. The set-up features a full-size bath tub adjacent to a separate rain shower, both ensconced by the same clear shower doors. I also loved the adjustable desk, which rotated to adjust for space purposes.
Cano said that, as the hotels’ opening nears, more details, including which two celebrity chefs will helm their signature restaurants, will be released. He also said that the hotels will work with their neighboring L.A. Live business partners to offer combined opening packages and promotions. Agents, as well, will be invited to stay at the hotels and to experience them firsthand.
Back in the Spotlight
While the hotels prepare to open, the historic core of the city is taking center stage once more and, this time, she’s hoping for an indefinite run.
Being able to experience the new downtown is easier than ever. A growing rail network has emerged, bringing visitors from the greater Los Angeles region into the city. By the end of this year, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority hopes to unveil the newly extended Metro Gold Line Eastside, which will connect downtown’s Union Station to East Los Angeles via the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown. Getting around downtown is also a snap, thanks to the DASH (short for the Downtown Area Short Hop) Downtown bus network that takes visitors throughout the area for a fare of just 25 cents. An LAX FlyAway shuttle also operates every half-hour to an hour between the airport and Union Station.
The new downtown is nowhere near stopping its growth spurt, either. In August 2007, the Los Angeles City Council approved a zoning measure that would allow for larger and denser developments downtown. Soon, downtown will be home to the new World of Ecology wing of the California Science Center (spring 2010) and the
Ray Charles Memorial Library (fall 2010), along with countless new bars and restaurants.
Yet even as downtown Los Angeles continues to grow and develop, with newer and bigger projects in the pipeline, there’s still plenty of reverence for the neighborhood’s historic structures and institutions. The famous Bradbury Building on 3rd and Broadway; Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles; and even Philippe the Original restaurant (the purported birthplace of the French dip sandwich) are all downtown icons. Slowly, Angelinos are finding their city and, soon enough, so will your clients.