The Heart of Downtown: Beneath Bunker Hill

beneath bunker hill los angeles
photo credit: Neil Kremer via photopin cc

Writer Mary Fagnano will be contributing a regular series “The Heart of Downtown” giving a look into what’s pumping life into the nine key districts that make up the center of our city.

Downtown map courtesy of ExperienceLA.com
Downtown map courtesy of ExperienceLA.com

You don’t know anything about Downtown Los Angeles until you’ve walked around the city with USC Professor Don Spivack. This week I was lucky enough to be invited by Professor Spivack to join the students in his Community and Economic Development class (that he’s team teaching with Professor Elizabeth Currid) for a walking lecture from Bunker Hill all the way to South Park.

The tour started at California Plaza’s Water Court at the top of Grand Avenue where Don told us how all of Bunker Hill is built on a series of bridges and parking lots that were designed to level out the area for the construction of the high rises. Next time you make the wrong turn and end up on the lower level service entrances for 300 and 350 South Grand, just remember that you’re at ground zero where the whole Bunker Hill Project started and everything above you is concrete.

What you also might not know is that there are tunnels under the buildings of Bunker Hill that were originally bored to annex a people mover. According to Metro’s website:

The 1980 proposed Downtown People Mover would have created a 2.9 mile automated above-ground distribution system covering 13 station/activity centers between Union Station and the Convention Center, along with 3,750 new parking spaces. The concept was that downtown workers would ride rail, express buses or vanpools to the edge of downtown, transfer at intercept stations and ride the People Mover to their final destinations. Lack of anticipated federal funds in the 1980s derailed the plans.

But look at this 1980s rendering for a rail car that would have been part of a more extensive line – with racks for bicycles and surfboards.  Maybe this is actually the 2025 view of DTLA when the city will be full of young residents working for tech companies located in creatively renovated old buildings – who will be able to avoid traffic on the 10 by riding metro to the beach and back. I’d love to see people walking through the subway in wetsuits!

A 1980s rendering of a "people-mover" that would take bikes and surfboards through tunnels below the city center.
A 1980s rendering of a “People Mover” that would take bikes and surfboards through tunnels below the city center.

It was clear as Spivack guided us through the various downtown districts that he had the inside scoop gained from 28 years of experience in the City in varying capacities with the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles. Spivack also managed the Central Business District Redevelopment Project for several years and oversaw long range and strategic planning efforts on adaptive re-use, transit oriented development, industrial retention and expansion, community revitalization and other city-wide policy matters.

Llyod Hamrol's "Uptown Rocker" on Fourth.
Llyod Hamrol’s “Uptown Rocker” on Fourth.

But on with the tour. In the service entrance road under Bunker Hill, you might recognize the location for all the car commercials you’ve seen that have been filmed on this stretch of street.  We took note of Llyod Hamrol’s sculpture of multicolored one-dimensional metal cars that balance on a concrete crescent and learned that one percent of the total cost of net land development must go to public art.  This whimsical tribute to our car culture – a smile with cars on it – could almost be interpreted as a laugh at the public transportation that has been so long debated and not yet fully realized throughout the greater Los Angeles area.

Spivack pointed out that most of the old buildings in downtown Los Angeles are about the same height. That’s because from 1905 until the mid 1950s there was a 150 foot height limit. As we stood on the lower elevation at 4th and Olive, Spivack pointed to the Terminal Building which is now the Metro 417 Apartments. This building was a major subway station that opened on December 1, 1925. According to Wikipedia, the last train to carry passengers was draped with a banner reading “To Oblivion” on the morning of June 19, 1955. Shortly thereafter, Pacific Electric removed the tracks and trains from the tunnel and closed the station within the Subway Terminal Building.

Neon lights up eateries in the Central Market.
Neon lights up eateries in the Grand Central Market.

Even before the subway was open, Grand Central Market was thriving. It opened in 1917 and  was the main shopping destination for all things food and grocery for Downtown LA residents. While the subway may have left the station in 1955, Grand Central Market is still thriving today and undergoing a renaissance along with much of the City. New stalls alongside the old charming spots attract a true cross section of all who call Downtown LA their home … as well as those who are just there to explore.

Driving through downtown is no substitute for getting out of the car and walking the city. Whether it’s enjoying the architecture, discovering a new store or finding a live performance going on in Grand Park, there’s a beat that’s pumping new life into the streets – and it’s only five miles from Larchmont.

For more of Mary Fagnano, and downtown see downtownboomer

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About Mary Fagnano

Mary Fagnano, during her 20 years living in the Hancock Park area, ventured downtown primarily when jury duty called, Prince or U2 was performing at Staples Center or there was something really good at the Ahmanson or Mark Taper. Now she lives and works in a loft in the Eastern Columbia Building on 9th & Broadway, walks everywhere and shares her love for all that’s new and old in downtown Los Angeles through her blog www.downtownboomer.com.

2 thoughts on “The Heart of Downtown: Beneath Bunker Hill

  1. This is fascinating Mary. Cassie is now studying for another stamp in Civil Engineering in Transportation. She is going to love this too. Great work.

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