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“When I was growing up, I would tell people to get out of Downtown L.A. by 6 or 7 p.m.—it wasn’t safe,” my Uber driver told me as we wrapped around the Hollywood Freeway before making a turn onto West 4th Street. I looked down at my watch. It was about 7 p.m., and I was heading into the once-verboten neighborhood—now the city’s nexus for great restaurants and hip hotels.
The emergence of Downtown Los Angeles, dubbed DTLA, is no news flash: The area has been on the rise since the late 1990s. But that was the start of a long uphill climb. By 2009, it had already undergone the transition from bleak badlands to vibrant cultural mecca, thanks to early pioneers like the Broad art museum and the Standard Hotel. Since then, a slew of new hotels, restaurants, and museums have joined, and the neighborhood is showing no sign of slowing down.
This past year, cultural and lifestyle developments Row DTLA and City Market South opened up — bringing with them a string of restaurants and indie shops, and warranting the city a slot on our annual “Where to Go” list of hot travel destinations. In September, the Institute of Contemporary Art relocated from Santa Monica to Downtown. And a shopping complex in the Arts District, At Mateo, is in the final stages of development—proving that DTLA has yet to peak.
“I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that 15 years ago, it was an urban wasteland,” said real estate developer Tom Gilmore, referring to DTLA. An architect by trade, Gilmore almost single-handedly spearheaded the inner city’s rejuvenation. He first took note of DTLA’s architectural stock in the early ’90s: The inner city was a ghost town with potential, brimming with abandoned beaux arts and art deco buildings.
The city’s redevelopment agency had attempted to revitalize the neighborhood before. In the 1990s, $29 million was injected into the Los Angeles Theater Center in the hope that it would draw suburbanites and ignite the opening of bars and restaurants. People came for the shows but retreated back to the suburbs after nightfall. By 1998, the only occupants of Downtown’s beautiful buildings were addicts and squatters; the project had failed.
Gilmore’s strategy? To purchase and convert four old buildings into loft apartments, then add bars and restaurants. The timing couldn’t have been better. Simultaneously, Staples swooped in to build its 21,000-seat arena, and Lillian Disney (Walt’s wife) had lined up Frank Gehry to design a metallic curved concert hall—venues that were sure to draw thousands of visitors.
“It was like a hat trick. It became a very collaborative urban advocate-based environment,” he said.
A $20 Billion Budget
Those three projects and the Broad Museum have been cornerstones to a $20 billion investment in DTLA—with cash coming not just from Gilmore, but from a handful of forward-looking hoteliers, foreign companies, the city of Los Angeles, and several private sources.
In the past 15 years, more than 3,500 hotel rooms have been added within the DTLA area, with several notable newcomers arriving in 2017, such as the 889-room InterContinental (now the tallest building on the West Coast, at 73 stories) and the offbeat, $30 million Hotel Figueroa, a redo of a 1926 icon.
The neighborhood’s highest-profile opening yet, the NoMad, is coming this month to the historic Giannini Place building. After standing empty for 17 years, it’ll now have 241 Italian-inspired rooms designed by Jacques Garcia, a library, a rooftop pool, and a restaurant by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara (of New York City’s Eleven Madison Park). A Soho House is reportedly on its way, too, this summer.
To Gilmore, these are the brightest signs yet of the neighborhood’s arrival. “When a tastemaker brand like the NoMad comes in, you realize that whole block is going to change because of them, and you know that the bump from that is going to be significant,” he said.
Not Becoming SoHo
If Downtown’s initial struggle was to prove its worth, now its struggle is to ensure that its success doesn’t lead to its demise.
As global brands such as Whole Foods and H&M find their way here, Gilmore sees New York’s SoHo—an excessively commercialized place that was once filled with character—as a cautionary tale.
Balancing out the big names is Row DTLA, a 30-acre complex of historic buildings that has been overhauled into a creative district: It includes a smart collection of independent retailers, businesses, and restaurants, and draws up-and-coming talent by offering short -to medium-term pop-up leases. That’s what allowed French independent menswear label Bonaparte 13 to open its first permanent store in the U.S. here, after testing the waters.
“It’s hard for a young brand to commit to a long-term lease, which a lot of retailers require,” said Maxwell Anderson, U.S. director of Bonaparte 13.
“They’re carefully curating the stores that come in here with a strong bias toward independent retailers,” said Andy Griffith of A+R, a stalwart furniture company in L.A. that recently opened at Row DTLA. Joining him in the neighborhood are other cult brands that have found standalone spaces. Locally born clothing brand 3.1 Phillip Lim recently opened a concept store in the Arts District, and Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster opened its second U.S. store wedged between the historic Orpheum and Tower theaters.
For all its progress, DTLA is far from finished. Gilmore, for one, says the area is only halfway there. There are major projects still under way: the renovation of Pershing Square and the addition of the Regional Connector Rail, part of a $1.7 billion high-speed rail project that will link a trio of lines (it’s expected to be completed in 2021).
“I think the reason that it’s an important moment for Downtown right now is that people from other cities are beginning to take notice on a level that is more than just mild curiosity. The idea that Los Angeles is a viable alternative for the creative class and for the entrepreneurial population around the country—that’s new,” he said.
Where to Eat and Sleep in DTLA
Freehand: A bright hotel and hostel (there are a few bunk rooms available) that has a distinctive easygoing California sensibility.
NoMad: The design sensibility nods to the building’s roots as an Italian bank.
Hotel Figueroa: One of the city’s most iconic hotels has just undergone a revamp resulting in an offbeat Moroccan look.
Shibumi: A modern, seasonally driven Japanese kappo-style (a method that uses various traditional cooking techniques) restaurant with just a handful of seats along a salvaged-wood chef’s counter.
Rossoblu: One of L.A.’s rising culinary stars, Steve Samson, is creating authentic Bologna-inspired dishes in a lofty warehouse space.
The Exchange: Considering its chef Alex Chang is Mexican-Chinese, this lively joint has an unexpected culinary bent—the menu is Israeli, just like the wunderkind bartenders.