Renaissance or urban travesty? 50 years of high-rise living on Bunker Hill

Renaissance or urban travesty? 50 years of high-rise living on Bunker Hill

The Bunker Hill Towers (the white, lower-slung buildings in the foreground) kick-started a decades-long, city-led redevelopment effort.

In the 1960s, the city leveled Bunker Hill and its Victorian mansions to try to lure “suburban-loving” Angelenos to new apartment towers

A studio apartment in a new luxury building in Downtown Los Angeles for $160 a month? How about a three-bedroom, three-bath for $670?

You’re five decades too late.

Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1968, developers opened the doors to models in the first residential community erected as part of the “Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project.”

The goal of the redevelopment project was to reposition Downtown as a prestigious neighborhood—by erasing tired old buildings that housed more than 7,000 poor people. City leaders were confident if they built up from scratch, they would spark an immediate surge of interest in the neighborhood.

Prospective residents of Bunker Hill Towers could choose from two buildings, one 32 stories, the other 19. These then-rare Los Angeles high-rises sat on 14 acres that stretched from First to Third Streets, bound by Figueroa and Hope. A third 19-story building on the south end of the property was in the works, with two more towers planned for the coming years.

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection
The redevelopment project brought the destruction of 7,677 bedrooms, including those in 400 once-grand Victorian mansions.

Advertisers were commissioned to create a $100,000 promotional campaign around the word “renaissance.” (The word redevelopment, they decided, could be construed as “low-income.”)

“Before we could sell the idea of living in Bunker Hill Towers, we would have to sell the idea of living downtown,” agency principle Phil Bentley of Gumpertz, Bentley and Dolan explained to the Los Angeles Times on October 21, 1968. “And before we could implant the idea of living downtown, we would have to generate the idea that there’s a renaissance downtown.”

Observers weren’t quite sure.

“Can suburban-loving, freeway-addicted Southern Californians be lured into a permanent downtown population?” wondered Los Angeles Times real estate editor Ray Herbert.

The answer, at least then, was no.

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection
Architect’s model of Bunker Hill’s redevelopment from 1970. The $1 billion dollar project was to cover 136-acres and be completed in 1980.

The very words “Bunker Hill” and “Downtown” didn’t exactly conjure up visions of a harmonious landscape. The city had long before decreed what had been the most densely populated residential district in Los Angeles a crime, disease and hazard-riddled blight.

“The Hill was viewed as a cancer whose spread could only be prevented through removal,” writes Stephen Jones in The Bunker Hill Story: Welfare, Redevelopment and the Housing Crisis in Postwar Los Angeles.

The redevelopment project adopted by the city on March 31, 1959 grew out of an urban revival movement sweeping the nation and kickstarted by federal housing acts that offered aid for the clearing of “urban blight.”

Fierce opponents pushed back against the project in a series of protests and lawsuits that dragged on for years. So heated was the debate that the likeness of the man behind the Community Redevelopment Agency, William Sesnon, was burned in effigy and carried through City Hall.

Unsurprisingly, the city ultimately got what it wanted: a clean slate.

The 136-acre project meant the destruction of 7,677 bedrooms, including those in 400 once-grand Victorian mansions. Six thousand residents, mostly poor people and senior citizens eligible for public housing, were relocated outside of the area; the promised replacement affordable housing never materialized.

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection
Bunker Hill, 1969.

Developers Kidder Peabody Realty and Prudential jointly purchased the 14 acres that would become Bunker Hill Towers for $3.8 million.

Architect Robert E. Alexander was enlisted to design the $60 million development. He promised that his creation would rival apartment living downtown anywhere in the world.

He began by studying European apartment developments in West Berlin, Munich, and Basel, although they didn’t, he said, provide for the car as he intended to, with subterranean parking for 2,400 cars. Dismissing balconies as wasted space, Alexander focused instead on a modern necessity he felt would magnetize suburban housewives: larger bathrooms.

A gourmet grocery store, hair salons, and saunas would add a touch of self-sufficient luxury to the place, as would a large swimming pool, jacuzzi, and tennis courts. Earlier plans drawn up by architect I.M. Pei had called for the creation of a public park on the site, but that idea was curiously rebuffed by the city parks and recreation department

Midway through the project, architect and city planner John Pastier excoriated the city for the “simplistic, anti-human philosophy” of the new Bunker Hill. In a Los Angeles Times piece, he explained that Bunker Hill Towers were, in his estimation, “an inhuman and poorly functioning urban environment.”

By Liza Napoli
In 1968, Helen Coleman was immediately charmed by the new Bunker Hill apartments.

Nothing, he said, “will define the space of the street or induce anyone to walk there.” Arcane city laws meant stores built in the complex had to be hidden from street view, which would lead to a “lifeless upper middle-class ghetto.”

This inauspicious beginning to the redevelopment of Bunker Hill was sure to yield, he wrote, an “urban travesty.”

Occupation of the buildings lagged at around 60 percent for 10 years. Among the early takers was Helen Coleman, who moved to the south tower shortly after it opened in 1969. She has called her studio apartment home since.

Now 88, Coleman says she was immediately charmed by the new building, its amenities, and its location when she took a tour.

“I noticed a sign that said the rent was $160 a month for a single,” she recalls.

That was exactly a quarter of her salary as a secretary at the electric company—the acceptable ratio, at the time. The price would allow her to move out of the one-bedroom she shared with her sister on Normandie Avenue and to walk to work each day at Grand Avenue and Fifth Street, rather than ride the bus.

From the boss’ office on the 10th floor, as she took dictation, she could gaze out at the barren landscape she passed each day on foot.

“I saw all these buildings built, except for the Union Bank building,” she said, pointing to the skyscrapers around her from the floor-to-ceiling windows in a neighbor’s apartment, where we had met for tea. That had opened in 1968.

Courtesy of Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar and Related Companies
Renderings of the new skyscrapers planned for Angels Knoll (left) and Grand Avenue (right), both on Bunker Hill.

The emptiness didn’t disturb Coleman. The flowers in the field on what became the World Trade Center site, she said, were “so pretty.”

On the plots of land adjacent to the 32-story tower where two additional buildings were to be built, residents could grow vegetables on garden plots: “I grew corn, but it was filled with bugs.”

Those towers, which would have added 900 additional apartments, never materialized. In 1980, the 32-story tower was granted permission to go condo in the largest such conversion in the West. The 19-story buildings remained rentals at the insistence of the city.

Other parcels left undeveloped from the initial leveling of the area decades ago are about to finally see some action. The Grand, across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, is a $1.2 billion development that just got underway, and Angels Knoll, across from Grand Central Market at Fourth and Hill, has been announced as a 88-story skyscraper and 24-story tower.

And now, on Bunker Hill’s 50th anniversary, the area is bustling with the urban warriors that planners had hoped would flock here decades ago—even if most of them are likely unaware of the curious history that surrounds them.

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