The earliest known settlements in the area of what is now Downtown Los Angeles was by the Tongva, a Native American people. Later European settlement arrived after Father Juan Crespí, a Spanish missionary charged with exploring sites for Catholic missions in California, noted in 1769 that the region had “all the requisites for a large settlement.” On September 4, 1781, the city was founded by a group of settlers who trekked north from present-day Mexico.
Land speculation increased in the 1880’s, which saw the population of the city explode from 11,000 in 1880 to nearly 100,000 by 1896.
Infrastructure enhancements and the laying of a street grid eventually brought development south of the original settlement into what is today the Civic Center and Historic Core neighborhoods.
Downtown’s golden age
By 1920, the city’s private and municipal rail lines were the most far-flung and most comprehensive in the world in mileage, even besting that of New York City. By this time, a steady influx of residents and aggressive land developers had transformed the city into a large metropolitan area, with Downtown LA at its center. Rail lines connected four counties with over 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of track.
During the early part of the 20th century, banking institutions clustered around South Spring Street, forming the Spring Street Financial District. Sometimes referred to as the “Wall Street of the West,” the district held corporate headquarters for financial institutions including Bank of America, Farmers and Merchants Bank, the Crocker National Bank, California Bank & Trust, and International Savings & Exchange Bank. The Los Angeles Stock Exchange was also located on the corridor from 1929 until 1986 before moving into a new building across the Harbor (110) Freeway.
Commercial growth brought with it hotel construction—during this time period several grand hotels, the Alexandria (1906), the Rosslyn (1911), and the Biltmore (1923), were erected—and also the need for venues to entertain the growing population of Los Angeles. Broadway became the nightlife, shopping and entertainment district of the city, with over a dozen theater and movie palaces built before 1932.
Department stores also opened flagship stores downtown, including The Broadway, Hamburger & Sons, May Company, JW Robinson’s, and Bullock’s, serving a wealthy residential population in the Bunker Hill neighborhood. Numerous specialty stores also flourished including those in the jewelry business which gave rise to the Downtown Jewelry District. Among these early jewelers included the Laykin Diamond Company (later becoming Laykin et Cie) and Harry Winston & Co. both of which found their beginnings in the Alexandria Hotel at 5th and Spring Streets.
The Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (Union Station) opened in May, 1939, unifying passenger service among various local, regional and long-distance passenger trains. It was built on a grand scale and would be one of the “last of the Great Railway Stations” built in the United States.
Decline and redevelopment
Following World War II, suburbanization, the development of the Los Angeles freeway network, and subsequently, increased automobile ownership led to decreased investment downtown. Many corporate headquarters slowly dispersed to new suburbs or fell to mergers and acquisitions. The once-wealthy Bunker Hill neighborhood became a haven for low-income renters, its stately Victorian mansions turned into flophouses. From about 1930 onward, numerous very old and historic buildings in the Plaza area were demolished to make way for street-level parking lots, the high demand for parking making this more profitable than any other option that might have allowed preservation. The drastic reduction in the number of residents in the area further reduced the viability of street front businesses that would be able to attract pedestrians. For most Angelenos, downtown became a drive-in-drive-out destination as they would come into the area for a particular objective and then leave immediately once their business was completed.
In an effort to combat blight and lure businesses back downtown, the Community Redevelopment Agency of the city of Los Angeles undertook the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project in 1955, a massive clearance project that leveled homes and cleared land for future commercial skyscraper development. This period saw the clearing and upzoning of the entire neighborhood as well as the shuttering of the Angels Flight funicular railway in 1969. Angels Flight resumed operation in 1996 for a period of five years, shutting down once again after a fatal accident in 2001. On March 15, 2010, the railway once again opened for passenger service following extensive upgrades to brake and safety systems.
With Class A office space becoming available on Bunker Hill, many of Downtown LA’s remaining financial corporations moved to the newer buildings, leaving the former Spring Street Financial District devoid of tenants above ground floor. Following the corporate headquarters’ moving six blocks west, the large department stores on Broadway shuttered, culminating in the 1980s.
However, the Broadway theaters saw much use as Spanish-language movie houses during this time, beginning with the conversion of the Million Dollar Theater in the 1950s to a Spanish-language theater.
In mid-2013, Downtown was noted as “a neighborhood with an increasingly hip and well-heeled residential population.”
Because of the downtown area’s office market’s migration west to Bunker Hill and the Financial District, many historic office buildings have been left intact, simply used for storage or remaining empty during recent decades. In 1999, the Los Angeles City Council passed an adaptive reuse ordinance, making it easier for developers to convert outmoded, vacant office and commercial buildings into renovated lofts and luxury apartment and condo complexes.
As of early 2009, 14,561 residential units have been created under the adaptive reuse ordinance, leading to an increase in the residential population. With 28,878 residents in 2006 and 39,537 in 2008, a 36.9% increase, Downtown Los Angeles is seeing new life and investment. Staples Center, which opened in 1999, has contributed immensely to the revitalization plans, adding 250 events and nearly 4 million visitors per year to the neighborhood. Since the opening of the Staples Center, the adjacent L.A. Live complex was completed, which includes the Microsoft Theatre and the Grammy Museum. Los Angeles County Metro Rail, a rail transit network centered on the downtown area, facilitates access to the city center, especially from the congested west side.
Real estate developers and investors planned a $1.8 billion revitalization project along Grand Avenue, which included the development of Grand Park, a large city park, and the construction of major city landmarks including the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and modern art museum The Broad, which is set to open in 2015.
On August 7, 2007, the Los Angeles City Council approved sweeping changes in zoning and development rules for the downtown area. Strongly advocated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the changes allow larger and denser developments downtown; developers who reserve 15% of their units for low-income residents are now exempt from some open-space requirements and can make their buildings 35% larger than current zoning codes allow.
In 2009 Bottega Louie opened on the first floor of the historic Brockman Building on Grand Avenue and 7th Street. It contributed to the revitalization of Downtown LA by creating restaurant row, which has since brought numerous new restaurants and retail shops to the area. In 2012, the upper 11 floors of the Brockman Building were bought with the intention of being sold as luxury lofts[