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Downtown LA PreCOVID: My Last West Coast Assignment

My last trip to Los Angeles was January 2020. There were a few people in the airport wearing face masks, but most of us were blissfully ignorant of the global pandemic that would change our way of life and force us to rethink how we live and move in cities. Now we know better and we've learned to navigate public spaces differently and appreciate them even more.

Enter downtown LA. I heard it was on the cusp of something amazing and I had to see for myself.

But when I arrived at our downtown hotel, as far as I could see, there wasn't much activity at all. No main street, art gallery, shops and certainly no people walking. So I did what any urban tourist would do and I asked the concierge at the hotel front desk for recommendations. Although the suggestions weren't overwhelmingly exciting I chose the closest (and safest) one within walking distance.

Remember the 80s song "walking in LA, walking in LA...nobody walks in LA?" Well I couldn't get it out of my head. I was the ONLY pedestrian. But I persisted.


DTL ROW (The Row)

I headed on a lonely and slightly sketchy walk to the Row or DTLA ROW. A former American Apparel manufacturing facility and the original LA terminal market, the Row are nine Beaux Art buildings on 30 acres perfectly renovated into this new commercial neighborhood and office district. It sits on the corner of an uninspiring wide road with not much to look at, but having walked 10 minutes out here, I decided to cross 7th and Almeda and look for the entrance. No it was not obvious how to get inside, but the building colors and typeface were enough to coax me across faded yellow crosswalk. Folks, I was not disappointed.

*Note, yellow crosswalk is a nice touch. We don't see these in Miami. Nice touch.


The Entrance

Designed more as an entrance for cars, the project developer put the parking garage front and center. As this was the only way in, I could not find the street entrance, I have to imagine that this was either an oversight of the developers or that connections to 7th and Almeda streets were planned for the future when the adjacent and planned south metro station opens.

But back to the parking, unlike a lot of projects that try to screen or conceal their parking structures, this one is totally unapologetic. No denying this is a garage. The stairway/elevator column is prominently facing the entrance street with massive and bold lettering hinting that something cool lies beyond. This design aesthetic is carried throughout the project- bold type face, stark concrete walls with wood imprints and architectural landscaping.


The property includes 9 buildings with 1,735,000 rentable square feet and eighty-five feet tall with unique retail brands, restaurants, fitness centers and office tenants like Adidas, Spotify, Zappos, JBrand. The entrance sign is a creative homage to the development's industrial roots with a metal graphic of the development layout and bold typeface again.


Retail Street

Walk a little further in and a whole world opens up. The buildings are three-story early 20th century industrial Beaux-Arts style architecture with large windows and open floor plans. Large warehouses converted to retail space have an edgy and inviting feel with large pane glass windows, industrial embellishments, historic architectural details and that bold typeface again which adorns each building.

Another view further in feels a bit more "retaily" with metal awnings, wide sidewalk and open shopfronts.


Repurposed Loading Dock for Patio Seating

I also like how the former loading docks for the produce market are reimagined as an elevated sidewalk for expansive cafe seating. They've saved truck pads from the original loading dock to extend the edgy vibe. Again, it's industrial feeling, but made inviting with landscaping, soft bent metal railings, umbrellas and outdoor seating.

Here's another view of that seating. Only thing missing are the people. I did see a few, but it was particularly quiet that Tuesday morning.


Serene Outdoor Seating

Here was a lovely outdoor dining space at the end of the main street. What's interesting is that beyond the wooden wall to the right, is the original food distribution center which is still in use and holds (or at least pre-covid held) weekly markets/food festival Smorgasburg LA.

Here's the view of the same wall from the other side where the food distribution still occurs daily. Kind of the less pretty side of the Row.

LA Terminal Market

Bustling with activity now, the original wholesale market handled produce and goods entering Los Angeles by train between 1917 and 1923. Amazing fact, while in operation, it distributed 10 percent of the entire nation’s food products. Even more amazing, the market presently distributes 1% of American produce.


Lessons Learned:

The overall design of the Row reminds us of its industrial roots and attracts businesses that support the vibe. Even the street and public spaces have been redesigned to match the buildings’ industrial character in terms of pavement markings and landscaping that contrasts with the hard, concrete building material and openings. Having a single developer certainly helped to have a consistent design feel and tenant mix. And I hope that the next time I travel to LA (hopefully soon) I'll see more activity, more people and a new appreciation for walking in LA!


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