Bunker Hill, in the downtown area of Los Angeles, California, is a short, developed hill with its peak located roughly around 3rd Street. It is located directly east of the Harbor Freeway. Due to the skyscrapers built on it, the hill stands out from the rest of the L.A. basin and is synonymous with downtown as far as most people are concerned.
A view of Bunker Hill from nearby Pershing Square, 1900. None of the buildings in this picture exist today.
In 1867, a wealthy developer, Prudent Beaudry, purchased a majority of the hill's land. Because of the hill's excellent views of the Los Angeles Basin and the then-attractive Los Angeles River, he knew that it would make for an opulent subdivision. He developed the peak of Bunker Hill with lavish two-story Victorian houses that became famous as homes for the upper-class, educated residents of Los Angeles. Angels Flight, dubbed "The World's Shortest Railway", took residents from the top of the hill to the bottom of the 33% grade and thus to the main business district. Much like today's Bunker Hill, the land of the hill was zoned for dense uses, and was therefore always a very busy area.
Initially a residential suburb, Bunker Hill retained its exclusive character through the end of World War I, but in the face of increased urban growth fed by an extensive streetcar system, its wealthy residents began leaving for enclaves on the west side and Pasadena. Bunker Hill's houses were increasingly sub-divided to accommodate renters. Still, Bunker Hill was at this time "Los Angeles's most crowded and urban neighborhood." By World War II the Pasadena Freeway, built to bring shoppers downtown, was taking more residents out. Additional post-war freeway construction left downtown comparatively empty of both people and services. The once-grand Victorian mansions of Bunker Hill became the home of impoverished pensioners.
The Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project
In 1955, Los Angeles city planners decided that Bunker Hill required a massive slum-clearance project. Thinking big, the top of Bunker Hill was cleared of its houses and street-car tunnels (one tunnel was replaced by a bridge) and then flattened as the first stage of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project to populate Bunker Hill with modern plazas and buildings. When the height limit of buildings for Los Angeles was finally raised (previously buildings were limited to 150 feet), developers built some of the tallest skyscrapers in the region to take advantage of the area's existing dense zoning. In approving such projects, the city sought to project a modern, sophisticated image, and this is largely the impression one receives from visiting the area today.
The project is the longest redevelopment project in Los Angeles history, and is scheduled to end in 2015. The majority of the skyscrapers on Bunker Hill were built in the 1980s, with a new skyscraper or two being finished nearly every year. However, the momentum died down in the 1990s, shortly after the fifty-two story, Two California Plaza was finished. In 1999, the vacancy rate for downtown commercial skyscrapers was 26%, one of the highest in the nation for that time. Planned office towers were canceled, including California Plaza Three, and the 4-towered Metropolis (brought back to life in 2005).
Bunker Hill today
Many of the older buildings and the early high-rises surrounding Bunker Hill are undergoing adaptive reuse from commercial to residential. This trend began in 2000, when the Los Angeles City Council passed an Adaptive Re-Use Ordinance, allowing old unused office buildings to be redeveloped as apartments or "lofts." Developers realized there was a high level of pent-up demand for living in or near downtown, by both artists and employees of various firms in the financial district and government workers in the Civic Center, and that they could profit by supplying housing to meet such demand.
Because of the popularity of the New Urbanism in California, the city has required developers to build mixed-use residential buildings as much as possible. This means that the first floor of such residential developments are devoted to commercial retailers, so that residents do not have to constantly drive around for all their shopping trips and buildings present a more welcoming facade to passersby on the sidewalk.
Contributing to the resurgence of Bunker Hill has been the construction of public venues, such as the new Walt Disney Concert Hall and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. In February 2007 $2.05 billion was approved for the Grand Avenue Project, which over the next 10 years will bring in over 2,000 new residential units, over 400 of them being affordable units for all degrees of low-income families; 1 million square feet (93,000 m²) of office space; a Mandarin hotel; 600,000 square feet (56,000 m²) of retail and entertainment space; and a 16 acre (65,000 m²) park connecting City Hall to Bunker Hill. Office space and residential units will be in several skyscrapers ranging between 35-55 stories each. Nearby planned projects include LA Live on Figueroa Street and Olympic Boulevard in South Park (the southern end of the Bunker Hill area).
Finally, the community is excited about the return of the Angels Flight tramway (which was rebuilt in 1996 near where it was originally located), which was shut down indefinitely after a fatal accident in 2001. It reopened March 15, 2010 to provide a link between Bunker Hill and the revitalized downtown area. One sign of the success of the downtown renaissance is that the office vacancy rate for the fourth quarter of 2004 was 16%, compared to 19% for 2003, and 26% for 1999.
Mix of housing options
While developers are primarily building market-rate housing on Bunker Hill today, the City of Los Angeles has very strict laws, rules, and ordinances established that promote the inclusion of all income levels into the residential mix. Some examples include incentives for the creation of affordable housing (rather than market-rate housing), the preservation of existing affordable housing, the development of affordable housing by the city itself (rather than waiting for private developers), and other things. The city has written documentation regarding the development of affordable housing.
On the topic of building affordable housing for very low-income to moderate-income, Principal City Planner Jane Blumenfeld said, "We are trying to make it attractive to build [downtown] and get this added affordable housing that we normally wouldn't have. We need an adequate amount of lower income housing so that in 20 years Downtown doesn't become an exclusive neighborhood."
Bunker Hill in popular culture
In the 1940s and 1950s, Bunker Hill was a popular film setting, much like South Los Angeles today, especially in the film noir genre, because of its rundown Victorian homes, its rambling hillside apartments and flophouses, its funicular Angels Flight, and its mean (or at least mean-looking) streets. It was used extensively in such crime films as Kiss Me Deadly (1956), Criss Cross (1949), Joseph Losey's M (1951) and Angel's Flight (1965). Director Curtis Hansen recreated Bunker Hill in another hilly neighborhood altogether in his Oscar Award winning L.A. Confidential (1997). Kent Mckenzie's neo-realist and semi-documentary feature The Exiles (1961) depicts the lives of a tribe of urban Indians on Bunker Hill in the late 1950s. Angels Flight and its Third Street neighborhood, circa 1930s, were recreated in South Africa for the filming of Ask the Dust (2006), based on the novel by John Fante, which was set in the district in the 1930s. Bunker Hill is also the title of (and referenced in) the 1992 song from the Free-For-All album by Angelino transplant Michael Penn and a B-Side-song of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers. Jim Dawson's 2008 book Angels Flight includes several chapters, complete with many dozens of early photos, on Bunker Hill and its literary and film background.
The 2nd Street Tunnel under Bunker Hill is widely used in film and advertising.