But downtown still faces image problems

Just a few weeks ago, before some 200 people, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped break ground on L.A. Live, a massive new project of theaters, restaurants, condos, hotels and even a broadcast facility that he and other civic leaders hope will help create a real, 24-hour-a-day downtown, a place where even entertainment industry professionals might live and work.

“It is going to be a real jewel for downtown Los Angeles,” Villaraigosa says.

But the industry’s Westsiders and Valleyites can be forgiven if they view the whole thing with a dose of skepticism, for they have heard reports of downtown’s resurgence many times before. There was the promise of the Music Center in the 1960s. Then there were all the condos built in the 1970s, along with the Bonaventure Hotel. In the ’80s a phalanx of plush office towers fortified the cityscape. But the area still lacked vitality and a sense of purpose.

But the mayor sees this downtown effort as something far different — in style and scope.

“When you look at downtown in the last 18 years, we built two high-rises 10 stories and above,” Villaraigosa says. “We have some 86 high-rises right now in the permitting process, and nearly half of them are definitely going to be built. Make no mistake, there is a great deal of energy downtown.”

More than anything, there’s the promise that downtown’s rising residential population will grow enough to create a real thriving metropolis, even if it may never remind Manhattan transplants of home.

A key concern is homelessness. Those who have bought lofts near skid row face daily the stark contrast between their luxury living inside and the sight of utter misery on the streets.

Villaraigosa recently announced a plan to spend $137 million from the city’s affordable-housing trust to aid those with the “greatest needs,” saying it will help leverage some $1 billion from state and federal sources to build 1,500 units citywide. But housing advocates say much more is needed, and they worry the city will lose its drive to do something about it. Villaraigosa was a strong backer of a $1 billion initiative to fund affordable housing on a long-term basis, but it failed on the November ballot.

“It is a big challenge for us,” Villaraigosa says. “We are still the homeless capital of the United States of America. What you see is an administration that is focused on working with the county, doing what we can to try and address the situation, especially downtown, where there is an overconcentration of the homeless.”

He makes the point, though, that it should not just be downtown’s problem. “We think it is very important for every community to shoulder the burden of homelessness in our city,” he says. “And we are working to make sure that every community does.”

For generations, save for production shoots, the industry seemed to have little interest in downtown or shunned it altogether. Business interests there had little to do with the studios, and they had little reason to mix. Even when Disney Hall opened, the rap was that it was difficult to interest entertainment industry types to even attend one of the inaugural galas. And it hasn’t been easy to draw ongoing interest from the industry in the Music Center as a whole.

Is that fissure narrowing? Villaraigosa does have extensive ties to the biz, which has not always been the case between City Hall and industry leaders. Just a few weeks ago, Marc and Jane Nathanson hosted a dinner party for Villaraigosa that included Leonard Goldberg, Bob Shaye, Bert Fields, Sherry Lansing and Jonathan Dolgen. After he lost his initial bid for mayor in 2001, Villaraigosa got a consulting job with Ron Burkle, the supermarket magnate and Clinton confidant who counts many producers and moguls as his best friends.

According to Villaraigosa, his showbiz relationships have helped address some of the big problems facing the business.

“I have a personal relationship with most of the studio heads and the talent agencies and have worked with them on issues including antipiracy efforts and getting (film) tax credits from the state,” Villaraigosa says. “And we have been very concerned about a potential strike and hope to play a role in ensuring that parties remain at the table.”

With Manhattan taking big strides in making it easier to shoot productions even in the heart of the city, Villaraigosa and the City Council have eased some restrictions on shooting in Los Angeles: Last year fees were waived for filming at most city facilities including City Hall; in downtown, production has become a frustration as residents move in. Councilwoman Jan Perry notes that a lot of residents come from entertainment and “they understand production. But they just want to sleep.”

“There are more complaints,” Villaraigosa says, “but I think if we are working closely with the residents, really mitigating the impacts of filming on traffic and the residents of downtown, I think people will be open and supportive of filming there because it is such an important generator of revenues for our city.”

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