Los Angeles’ L.A. Live luxury complex isn’t always alive

Los Angeles’ spectacular L.A. Live development, cleverly planted by the city’s convention center near the interchange of the 10 and the 110, cost a reported $2.5 billion to construct. Its two marquee hotels, a Ritz-Carlton (123 rooms, opened in April) and a J.W. Marriott (878 rooms, opened in February), represent two of the more appealing national luxury brands, and their placement in an eye-catching, bowed skyscraper was tactical, designed to attract convention-goers and concert VIPs.

It’s bustling on nights when there are events at the adjoining Staples Center and the Nokia Theatre. It also hosts the cinema where Eclipse recently held its premiere.

But on other nights, like the ones when I was there, the party shuts down. At L.A. Live, the energy level is all-or-nothing.The hotels aren’t the problem. They’re fairly well-designed, the rooms and corridors spacious, and with terrific views of downtown and beyond. The Ritz’s spa is a fantasia of all-white decor, while the vertical aspirations of the J.W.’s lobby feel akin to a mod 1960s airport terminal. In all, despite the volume of people they can collectively serve, the hotels were a welcome, private respite from the tumult down below on the tough and cluttered grid of Southern California.

I did experience some minor hiccups during my stay, though: My coffeemaker at the J.W. didn’t work and my requests for repair were ignored. There are also a few notable, but not fatal, flaws, the biggest being the private but large pool decks for the J.W. (4th floor) and the Ritz (28th floor) are both in the shade of the connected 54-story condo tower by the middle of a mid-summer afternoon. The $38 parking charge was dizzying, but at least the subterranean lot was so roomy it could eat countless other L.A. structures for breakfast.

The Ritz-Carlton’s 24th-floor restaurant and lounge, WP24 by Wolfgang Puck, should be one of the most alluring nighttime watering holes in the city, given its sumptuous panorama of downtown Los Angeles and the poor suckers laboring along the 110 freeway. But when I showed up at 10 p.m., primed for a martini overlooking the skyline, I was told it was closed for the night. The economics of the L.A. Live project are so immense that tenants are interested only in blockbuster crowds, not off-night scene-making.

It was a shame to seek a martini elsewhere when I was staying in something purported to be a full-service entertainment citadel, but now, L.A. Live is designed to feed guaranteed crowds, not draw its own.

The situation in the rest of the complex, connected to the hotels, wasn’t better. On one of the nights of my stay, the Trader Vic’s began closing at 9 p.m., the same time as the mall in many small towns. But the two hotels’ smart and glassy decor and full-service détente had made me feel urban and chic, and I wanted a highbrow cocktail to suit the mood they put me in. Almost every L.A. Live nightspot was closing, except the sports bar, and I wasn’t in the mind of onion rings.

Rather than settle for the no-view hotel lobby bar at the J.W. Marriott (stylish as it is), I ended up having to leave L.A. Live and search for style on the mean streets of downtown L.A. There, I found the nightlife I was looking for at Seven Grand (a hip and dusky whiskey bar), Rivera (artisan cocktails and modern Latin plates), and Hank’s (a lost-in-time dive bar often populated with tipsy solo men and, on my night, a young gay trust funder and his smitten female BFF).

It was a shame to have to seek a martini elsewhere when I was staying in something that purportedly was constructed to be a full-service entertainment citadel, but right now, L.A. Live is designed to feed guaranteed crowds, but not draw its own, and until that changes, it won’t truly establish itself on the landscape.

That may not be much of a loss, since downtown Los Angeles is one of the most underrated and history-rich central business districts that middle-class Americans have ever ignored. For me, being near downtown L.A. is a one of the most important reasons to choose to stay at L.A. Live.

But if I were a local, I’d never risk heading to L.A. Live unless I had an event ticket in hand, even if it meant battling the influx. The development will never be integral to the Los Angeles nightlife until it jumps the hurdle between serving only guaranteed audiences and offering something distinctive that can be accessed anytime. That’s quite a leap to make if you’re a cynical developer who aligns his goals by his predicted market share and not by a distinctive vision.