Opinion: The great Downey sell out

What could they have been thinking?
That’s what you wonder when you hear of the latest Tierra Luna project proposal, whose imminent approval means that any claims to distinction Downey may make on the future are now as good as dead.
In case you haven’t heard, Tierra Luna is the property development scheme that will fill in the last blank of the puzzle the city of Downey has made of the land mass left by Boeing’s departure in 1999, three years after purchasing North American Rockwell. (IRG actually owns the land, but it can only be developed with city approval.)
The plan proposes two big box stores, 13 junior anchor retail stores, a movie theater, a hotel, a gym, 300,000 square feet of office space, four restaurants and a food court. This goes up next to Downey Landing, which has some of the same thing (restaurants, retail outlets, gym). It’s the latest stage of an urban necrosis that’s been poisoning Downey for decades.
Both Boeing and Rockwell achieved historic military and commercial aviation records dating back to the 1930s. The Apollo Space program and the Space Shuttle program were both developed in Downey. But the economics of modern aviation, and congressional reorganizing of government priorities, made Boeing’s role in U.S. space development, as the British say, redundant.
So in 1999, the City of Downey was faced not only with the loss of its greatest commercial taxpayer, but of an industry that provided good jobs and the more intangible elements of pride and the sense of being in a vanguard of scientific and technological change.
Along with classic mid-century residential development, aerospace gave us a large part of our identity, as, to a lesser degree, did Johnie’s Broiler, Marmac’s, MacDonald’s, The Carpenters, the Downey Art Museum and the Downey Children’s Theater. It helped build a foundation for a community, which included middle and upper middle-class housing, schools and a social and cultural life. When it left, it left more than a 200-acre vacant lot. It left a vacuum where Downey’s soul used to be. Thereafter, Downey reverted the TV tagline of a car dealer: “The place where the freeways meet.”
An argument could be made that by then the city was already becoming a lost horizon. It may have begun when the Stonewood shopping center went up in 1958, and Downey Avenue business and cultural life dried up as an unintended consequence. It may have been accelerated by the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act, in which the Reagan administration granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had lived in the U.S. since 1982 (including relatives outside the country), thereby creating a new demographic in which a host culture is overwhelmed by the force of numbers of the new, and lives in a state of general confusion until it adjusts.
There were recessions. There were societal changes, including cocooning, where people stay at home with store-bought multimedia entertainment centers, or have them adapted to their SUVs so that they can drive around in the privacy of their own living rooms. Privatization became a social development as well as an economic one. Which meant that the public sector suffered, in citizen disengagement, in the general trust implied by everyday courtesies, in the erosion of a widely shared vision of what the Constitution calls “a more perfect union.”
This is what cities everywhere were facing by Y2K, especially in Southern California. But Downey had one rare advantage: That enormous piece of land, shimmering in the sunlight of possibility.

In the best of all worlds, you’d hope that the city’s leaders would have asked the most ambitious questions first:
What can we do to give Downey a cachet that will draw people from all over the world? A versatile, state of the art Olympian sports and equestrian center? An opera house to rival La Scala? A science and technology development center like the one in Bern, which created the Hadron Collider? A West Coast United Nations complex devoted to U.S., Pacific Rim and Latin American partnership developments?
Okay, if we can’t do that, what about a presence in the American landscape? How about an NFL stadium and team to go along with it—much more practical than the gridlock site of downtown L.A. How about a West Coast equivalent of the Hayden Planetarium, where the latest scientific knowledge of the cosmos is put on visual display? We might partner with outfits like JPL on this. And it would fit in with our history.
No? Okay. How about a Grand Ol’ Opry kind of center devoted to California music, including the Latin music of locals like Poncho Sanchez? Think The Beach Boys, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Snoop Doggy Dogg and the rap scene famously developed out of Long Beach City College.
Okay, maybe these are unworkable ideas. But let’s at least entertain them, and as many others as we can think of. Let’s start big and scale down to where we have to. Maybe we’ll get lucky with something that catches on.
You know that discussion never happened.
Someone recently asked in the pages of The Downey Patriot if Downey is a small city, a suburb, or a small town. There’s no answer. It’s all and none of them at the same time. Only the word ‘small’ is operative, and it has many applications.
Downey did what virtually every town/city has when it has land space in its precincts and needs tax revenue: it built a shopping mall and called it Downey Landing. It further whittled away the 200-acre space by leasing some of it for studio backlot filming, and leasing more of it to Kaiser Permanente. (There is some mandated set-aside, and we do have the Columbia Memorial Space Center, but it’s relatively small.)
Downey Landing hit Stonewood in much the same way Stonewood hit downtown. Tierra Luna will cannibalize them both. The stores and restaurants will have different names, but they’ll be the same stores and restaurants, generic chain outfits that confer no more distinction on Downey than those sprawling plazas you see as you drive east along the I-10, and Rosemead becomes Pomona becomes West Covina becomes Covina becomes Claremont; i.e., the same place further along the line.
And so it goes.
Let’s acknowledge the effort the city’s leaders have made to help Downey reinvent itself. Let’s cheer the success that Porto’s has been. Let’s understand the damage Tesla Motors did by leaving Downey at the altar; and let’s applaud the measures by which the city has limited its deficit in a historically brutal recession.
Further, let’s assume the city council will act honorably in the city’s interest as it weighs the Planning Commission’s recommendation against the public outcry from people genuinely aghast at seeing Downey’s history and identity buried under the dreary concrete of commercial development.
But you know they won’t listen very hard. If they wanted to hear from the public, they would have held town hall meetings on the topic. And if the Planning Commission wanted to hear from the public, they wouldn’t have slipped the Tierra Luna issue onto the agenda a few days before Christmas, when people have other things in mind. Why else pretend to an open hearing when in fact Tierra Luna, one way or another, is a done deal. That’s what Chairman Robert Keifer implied when he said the development would go on regardless of what the Planning Commission did.
Speaking of pretense, let’s not let the city get away with calling Tierra Luna anything other than what it is: a mall. Let’s propose a measure that would ban the word “esthetic” from the lips of any commercial developer, or, for that matter, from the windy, banal utterances of the city council.
Can they at least stop insulting our intelligence? (Developer Bob Manarino on Tierra Luna: “It will be a pedestrian village.” Oh yeah? Where are people going to carry all the stuff they’ve bought? On their backs?)
After all, bit by bit, when it comes to the grand historic vision that rested on that land, isn't it enough that they've they already sold us out?

Lawrence Christon is a journalist, author, and long-time Downey resident.