L.A.‘s Oldest Redevelopment Plan

by Tony Chavira

The year was 1909, and the city of Los Angeles was experiencing a spurt of growth. Henry Huntington’s Red Cars served Los Angeles from Riverside all the way down to San Pedro and across from Long Beach to San Fernando. And our fair city made its first attempt at zoning by slicing the greater LA into four “industrial” zones and just one “residential” zone. Ah, the good old days.

In 1920, the racist elitist population of Los Angeles pushed and received federal approval for “exclusionary zoning” for expensive homes in places like Los Feliz and the Hollywood Hills. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the 1920s, 95% of the homes throughout the city of Los Angeles were unavailable to the Asian and black population. Hey, people were racist in those times ... you knew that.

Bunker Hill
Bunker Hill as seen from City Hall

Throughout the 20s and 30s, most of Los Angeles had become incredibly industrial, splitting between two industries: textiles (like fabrics and furniture) and cars (and car parts of every shape and size). So much of Los Angeles was industrial that 98% of the population at the time lived in South L.A., but because of exclusionary zoning hardly any of those homeowners were non-white. As the huge economic boom that hyper-industrialized Los Angeles started to wane in the 1940s and 1950s, the white community retained the exclusionary zoning ordinances but moved out of South L.A. to just about everywhere else. This left a massive gaping hole in the city of Los Angeles: unsurprisingly, South, East and Central L.A. were basically “left” to the black, Latino and Asian cultural communities. Empty of industry, development, and city money for maintenance. Merry Christmas.

You could say that it was spurred by the Civil Rights movement, you could say that it was a longing for quality housing from the 1920s, or you could just say that 80% of the dwellings downtown were deemed safety hazards by the City Health Department in 1950; but in 1959 (10 years after the CRA-LA was official adopted as an agency and 9 years after the Health Department reports), the City of Los Angeles approved the first official Redevelopment Plan in Los Angeles: The Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project. And man, Bunker Hill needed it. Over time, since the first movement away from Bunker Hill, the crime rate had continued to rise, deterring tenants from using or recycling the existing housing. Of course, this only caused more deterioration, more crime and less local economic investment.

The Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project has accomplished a lot in its time: it re-aligned the streets and developed over 14 million square feet, of which almost three million are residential. The planners brought in some cool stuff, including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, California Plaza, MOCA, Disney Concert Hall, etc., etc. The official project end date is January 1, 2010, and we can already see that the Health Department concerns are more than likely a thing of the past. Most of the newer development in Los Angeles is surrounding Bunker Hill nowadays, and everyone’s fighting to get in while the gettin’s good. “Mission accomplished,” you’d say?

Unfortunately this isn’t international warfare, it’s city planning, and planning needs to have a strong vision to build from at the onset. You can’t just improvise good planning, especially if you have goals, and that’s what a strong vision’s supposed to do. If we look back for a vision on the original Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project document, we will not find one. Sure we’ll see lots of tactical things like “buy up land,” “knock down buildings,” and “manage property,” but you won’t see anything akin to “Turn Bunker Hill into the banking Mecca of Los Angeles” or “Turn Bunker Hill into the art and musical center of Los Angeles” or even “Turn Bunker Hill into something that isn’t a hazardous slum.”

Grand Avenue plan
Grand Avenue on acid

Understandably, plans change as a community takes on a life of its own. The Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project Redevelopment Plan was amended about five times in the past 50 years; roughly once every ten years. Something else that would happen roughly every ten years: a turnover of Mayoral leadership. Poulson adopted the plan, Yorty presided over amendments in 1968 and 1970, Bradley oversaw another in 1986, Riordan’s was in 1994, Hahn’s in 2003; and now there’s Villaraigosa. These changes in management are especially important when one city official would receive money from the Federal Government for the redevelopment of South Central, but another would take office and blow it all on Bunker Hill instead (but that’s another, very angry article).

So my big question is this: did political agenda sway the vision for Bunker Hill so dramatically that it is now a hodgepodge of an area? Is it a financial district or is it an art district? Is it a music center or is it a business center? Can’t it be all of these things? It’s hard defining exactly what you want from a space with vague clauses in the plan such as, for example, Section 513 on landscaping:

All areas of the Project included in public rights-of-way shall be suitably landscaped or otherwise treated to blend attractively with the high order of development it is anticipated that the project will attract.

What this clause is literally saying to us is, “We don’t care if the developers put a skyscraper next to a row of one-story homes, we’ll just design the landscape around their projects.” But even after years and years of new deals cut with new mayors, new city councils, and new executive officers in Planning, Zoning, Build and CRA-LA, Bunker Hill is still building. Every ten years or so the vision changes and everything shakes up. Bunker Hill currently has development multiple personality disorder, but it’s not so much the fault of the developers. They’re doing their job by investing in the Bunker Hill plan, just like the city asked. The fault for this vision dysphoria is entirely the city’s, both for never formalizing their vision for Bunker Hill AND for adapting to the vision of others without taking the brave risk of saying,

No, Bunker Hill will NOT be a mishmash of 30 visions depending on the politician! Bunker Hill will be an Urban Utopia with Supersonic Railways, Flying Cars, mixed-use housing, moving walkways, and smart urban design! Bunker Hill will sit above Los Angeles as a shining example of infusive and creative architecture and landscaping, appropriate for OUR designed vision as laid out in OUR Redevelopment Plan!

futuristic city

And the developers would’ve listened. The politicians would’ve read this vision, clear as day, and understood how to move forward without miscommunication. Amendments would’ve been adapted only for simple changes, infusion of research and technology, or design modernization. Who knows what Bunker Hill could’ve been after 50 years of a single, simple, perfectly understood vision?

Maybe Villaraigosa can amend the current plan, add 25 years to the deadline and find out for himself. The Grand Avenue Project is the next big step, and hopefully it will have a more consistent, city-led vision behind it. But mark my words: this redevelopment plan will not complete in 2010. So we might as well get it right this time.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


For a website dedicated to “fair living conditions for everyone,” I’m shocked that you gloss over the redevelopment of Bunker Hill and don’t give even a passing mention to the thousands of residents (many elderly) that were displaced when Bunker Hill was cleared and graded. The area wasn’t perfect and many of the buildings were old, but Bunker Hill was still a community and source of affordable housing for many of them.

2010-11-1 by Jeff

Yes what about the the historic buildings? I read :“Bunker Hill was an island in time; a microcosm of quaint buildings and vistas redolent of much that was typical of the first American neighborhood in the old Mexican pueblo. It might fittingly have been called ‘Little Old Los Angeles.’ While a great deal of its original charm had vanished, many of the most striking features of the budding community were still in lively evidence. Within its secluded precincts numerous relics of the booming eighties, and the following decades of growth, continued to dominate the scene. And as the metropolis of today mushroomed on all sides, the hill, with its memories of yesterday, remained a peaceful haven of the past. But in a time and place (book written in 1975) not particularly noted for conservation this state of existence could hardly be expected to continue for long.” (Hylen, xi.)

2010-12-6 by Carson Bennitt

Oh and to add “In 1954, the same year that Roger Young Village closed, a year after public housing was soundly beaten back at Chavez Ravine, Bunker Hill was approved to be redeveloped by Los Angeles Council. At that point there were “7,000 substandard dwelling units” on Bunker Hill. This meant 10,000 residents who included mostly minorities andthe elderly were to be displaced at Elysian Park Heights as known as Chavez Ravine. (Chavira, MasterPlanning!: L.A.‘s Oldest Redevelopment Plan.) On March 31, 1959, the Los Angeles Council approved “a project to be the largest (in dollar volume) and most dramatic in the United States, Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project.” (Los Angeles 1901-1961, 53.)  Soon the most historical neighborhood was to be replaced by “the most modern and attractive core area development in any American city!” (Los Angeles 1901-1961, 54.)  Coincidentally after this section on Urban Renewal, the book which was written in 1961 followed it with a section on L.A. County Historical Landmarks Committee and their strides. Nothing was mentioned about the historical and cultural loses on Bunker Hill though.

2010-12-7 by Carson Bennitt

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