Intent on turning blight into boom in his own backyard, Jon Jerde plots an urban risorgimento rooted in downtown L.A.’s ethnic enclaves.
HE HAS MADE A CAREER out of building “faux” cities, destinations like Universal CityWalk that are packaged with retail and entertainment options to resemble frenetic urban centers. But lately, Jon Jerde’s thoughts have been consumed by the future of a real city – one that has confounded mayors, developers and architects for decades.
What to do about downtown Los Angeles?
The city’s core is a shell, a ghost town after dark, when the high-rises empty onto the freeways and merchants board up their shops. Seasoned natives and confused visitors alike wonder: Where is the center of this city?
“No parks, no other amenities, no grand boulevards, no nothing,” Jerde says of his beloved, bewildering home town.
Now he’s on a mission to renew the city’s core, from Chinatown to the Coliseum. The Jerde Partnership is in the preliminary stages of mapping a series of corridors that will link downtown’s major attractions – such as the Music Center, the museums, Olvera Street and USC.
“We said, ‘Well, nobody’s going to commission what we think we need to do, so let’s just do it ourselves,’” Jerde says, his blue eyes steely. “We don’t have a client, we’re just doing it. And we’re going to light the place up.”
Jerde is not alone in his interest. A handful of developers from around the country have begun re-investing in sections of downtown in recent years – including New Yorker Tom Gilmore, who is betting $170 million that suburbanites will return to downtown to live in one of the hundreds of loft apartments he has refurbished in the neighborhood around Skid Row. There is no master plan that binds these developers, except their rejection of the conventional wisdom that the city’s historic core is hopeless.

A ghost town after dark, downtown Los Angeles has confounded planners for decades. Jon Jerde: “I would go out happy if I knew I could make L.A. work.”

Jerde says the key is to link downtown’s ethnic enclaves – Chinatown, Olvera Street, Little Tokyo – and showcase each of them as part of a grander scheme. The forthcoming Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and Walt Disney Concert Hall are two “glimmers of light” – along with the Staples Center, Exposition Park and the Museum of Contemporary Art – that Jerde thinks can guide the public through the area, through each of the districts, along a sort of “yellow brick road.”
The fantasy, to him, is real. Get him going on the idea and he doesn’t stop talking.
“There is such tremendous pride in these ethnic communities around here. I say, ‘Show us what you’re all about. Show us your food, show us your products, show us your spirit, because we all want to know about it.’”
He’s still talking, his sentences growing shorter.
“The theme of L.A. is that it’s not a single idea. It’s a pluralistic idea. Now how to capture that in a bottle? How to symbolize that? That’s part of the grand plan.”
Jerde pauses here and reflects for a moment.
“I would go out happy if I knew I could make L.A. work.” – S.B.

East harmoniously blends with West in Canal City, whose five “zones” are named for parts of the universe – such as Sea Court and Moon Walk. Here, Sun Plaza’s terraces fill with spectators during a performance.

Related Stories

Urban Legend

Where Angelenos Fear to Tread

Architecture by the Book

Related Links

The Jerde Partnership International, Inc.

Universal City Walk

Canal City photo by FJUD /

Features -- Sample's Decade of Distinction - Kid Watch - Attacking Diabetes -Urban Legend Jon Jerde
Departments -- Mailbag - What's New - In Support - Alumni News - The Last Word