Real-Time Creative Placemaking on Steroids: Eli Broad's Bold Plan for Downtown LA

Every now and then, an entity—be it a foundation, state government, or private organization—engages in a grand public experiment to test a hotly debated hypothesis.

In the arts world, perhaps none is as audacious as what's happening in Los Angeles. Powerhouse philanthropist Eli Broad's bold plan, sometimes dubbed the "Grand Avenue Arts Corridor," tests the hypothesis: Can the arts transform a barren stretch of land in downtown LA into a tourist-friendly oasis? Consider it creative placemaking on steroids.

So how's it going? 

Let's first start with the basics. Broad's plan to revitalize the area is a simple one: Build it and they will come. Every arts district needs a nexus point, and Broad's is his self-financed, $140 million museum, the Broad, scheduled to open September 20. The Broad, which is flanked by other arts-related establishments like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, to which Broad contributed $30 million and $15 million to respectively. But there only so many things a billionaire philanthropist can directly control.

The Grand Avenue Arts Corridor project poses four main challenges—challenges, mind you, that certainly aren't relegated to what's happening in downtown Los Angeles. Those are:

  • Dearth of pedestrian traffic. This challenge is partly a structural one. The neighborhood is plagued by narrow sidewalks and few trees.
  • Boring adjacent buildings. The surrounding area consists of bland corporate towers straight out of a dystopian urban drama from the 1980s. Their cumulative aesthetic effect is rather uninspiring.  
  • Branding issues. As noted, the area is being called the Grand Avenue Arts Corridor, but not everyone's happy about it. For example, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s director, Philippe Vergne, said "corridor" sounded "too dusty and dark."
  • Lack of affordable parking. Perhaps the most problematic obstacle of them all for a car-centric city like L.A. (although "affordable" is a relative term). Currently, visitors pay $12 for three hours during weekdays. That rate jumps to a maximum of $22 a day thereafter.

So how are stakeholders addressing these challenges? While realizing they won't transform the area into the Left Bank overnight, architects Diller Scofidio & Renfro recently widened the sidewalks around the museum by six feet and financed a crosswalk and stoplight on Grand Avenue. They also designed a grassy plaza to make the area more pedestrian friendly. In addition, Broad is keen on two additional projects that will address issues like accessibility and a development domino effect. To the former, a metro station that will open in 2020. To the latter, the development of a three-acre parcel that will include more parking, shops, apartments, and a hotel.

At the end of the day, Broad's trump card (pun not intended, we swear) is something rather intangible—the buy-in and goodwill he's established with the public and private stakeholders. These assets, more than his billions, should help him and his team address these challenges and transform this once-foresaken strip in the city of endless sprawl.

Stay tuned.