Christ and Urban Development
October 6, 2011 1 Comment
Of all the places to look for wisdom on urban development, I would never have thought to go to the Bible. I should have known better.
For one, I should have recognized that civilization in Biblical times had in fact progressed to a point where great cities (if not cities with skyscrapers and subways) did exist. Business was important, as was development and building. Temples, government buildings, public squares and more were an important part of city life 2000 years ago. Secondly, it makes sense that Jesus would have used examples of this city life in his teaching. He often used metaphors from the culture, religion, government and recreation of the day.
While sitting in church a few weeks ago, I heard one specific example in Luke 14. Jesus was using the metaphor of building to teach a lesson about following him, but I think it can also be used as great wisdom for development. Lessons learned following Jesus have apply to all areas of life.
In speaking about the cost of being a disciple, he says “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish’” (verses 28-30).
I’ve seen so many projects here in Downtown Los Angeles that sit stalled. From the Grand Avenue Project with its unbroken ground, to the Brockman Building and its vacant upper floors, to the opulent theaters on Broadway and many of their unused interiors, each unfinished project has a definite and visible effect on the community.
Just as a completed project adds to the urban fabric, creating new pedestrian activity and connecting the land and developments around it, so too do unfinished projects detract from that fabric. One of the best examples is on Figueroa Street. Between the flashy campus of L.A. LIVE and the bustling Financial District sits a block of unfinished projects.
The Concerto condominium tower and the Variety Arts Theatre each represent a different type of stalled project. Concerto is a new development, a building whose builder did not accurately count the cost or who wasn’t prepared for that cost to change. It has sat empty for a few years now, almost complete but not quite there. Only recently has it worked its way through bankruptcy and the legal issues that go with it. Only recently have “For Lease” signs appeared in the ground floor windows, giving promise to potential street-level activations.
Currently, however, it is an empty building between two busy districts. It does not invite pedestrians to it’s sidewalks and those who pass by only do so quickly to get somewhere else. It has the usefulness of a surface parking lot at this point — acting as a hole in the urban fabric and an empty space in the community.
Next to the Concerto tower is another stalled development: The Variety Arts Theatre. A historic theatre, but not quite as historic as the ones on Broadway, this building has been largely under the radar and many people don’t even know it exists. It was bought in 2007 and the owner had plans to begin a renovation within 60-90 days and open it a year later, showing live theatrical productions such as plays and musicals. There are a few different spaces in the building that can house bars or restaurants as well, but the whole thing sits empty for now. The costs were not truly counted and the renovation and opening never happened.
Today, the historic lamps on the sidewalk outside slowly find more and more damage and the front doors stay locked. A sign on the front has proclaimed the building “For Sale or Joint Venture” for quite some time. It was recently moved to a more prominent location on the facade, but that is the only activity the building has seen.
These developers, while they had good intentions and started their projects, have left the city with a block-sized hole in its urban fabric. Their good intentions have become a detriment to the community.
This is the point Jesus was making to his followers as well. For those who do not count the cost of following him, who continue to put others above him even while desiring to be his disciple, he gives this metaphor as a warning. The best thing a Christian can do for his relationships is to put his relationship with Christ above all others. If he does not, he will be the weak point in the community he is attempting to make stronger. He will be the unfinished tower in the fabric of all his relationships.
As it is said in Psalm 127, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Unless the Lord builds your relationships and community, you attempt to build it in vain.
Here is a short article from the LA Times in early 2007 about the Variety Arts Theatre’s original plans after its sale. The website for the theatre, unchanged in 5 years details the renovation that was supposed to last one year.
For articles on Concerto’s troubled history, look to Blogdowntown. And, finally some good news good news on the project (apparently renamed Apex) since it was transferred to a new owner out of bankruptcy… it may be coming back on line this fall, possibly as rental.
For the sermon that got me thinking about this whole metaphor, from Tim Chaddick at Reality L.A., see the video below: