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Bunkum Hill 

Over the past 50 years, the city has tried repeatedly to turn Grand Avenue into the living, breathing heart of downtown, and has failed miserably. Now, a public-private group led by Eli Broad is trying again — with the emphasis on private

Thursday, Apr 15 2004
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Last Wednesday, April 7, four thick packages arrived at the 34th-floor offices of the Grand Avenue Committee, a quiet public-private partnership charged with remaking the hub of downtown, Bunker Hill, home to the city’s elite cultural and governmental institutions. One of the envelopes contains what will become the blueprint for Reimagining Grand Avenue, the ambitious project begun three years ago by the power troika of multibillionaire Eli Broad, Cardinal Roger Mahony and then-Mayor Richard Riordan. Their aim was to break the cycle of promise and despair that has dogged Bunker Hill since 1961, when bulldozers began clearing hundreds of homes and small shops, displacing the 10,000 residents who lived atop downtown’s highest peak. Grand Avenue, which traces the flattened summit of those 132 acres, had become an eyesore and an international embarrassment.

Deemed blighted back in the mid-’50s, the land was cleared and graded and then stood vacant for almost 25 years. Then, in the mid-’80s, the Community Redevelopment Agency’s plan to bring life back to the streets of Bunker Hill — streets that existed only in moldering plat maps and fading memories — finally got under way. Alas, the agency possessed a sorrowful lack of imagination; not surprisingly, so did the developers and architectural firms it hired. One implacable skyscraper after another arose, mammoth obelisks of granite and glass.

Inexorably, the more foreboding each new high-rise, the less populated Grand Avenue became. Even the addition of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a brilliant stroke by arts’ advocates who realized they could consolidate $23 million in mandatory art contributions from the huge California Plaza redevelopment project next door, didn’t resuscitate the boulevard. To guarantee unobstructed views for the lawyers and bankers and accountants occupying the surrounding tombstones, Arata Isozaki’s reserved, finely crafted, red-sandstone museum buildings were burrowed into the hillside. MOCA had no street presence and, regrettably, still doesn’t.

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Then came what almost everyone thought to be the crown jewel, Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. But its completion only made the contrast between ambition and reality that much starker: You couldn’t set a shimmering jewel in a crown made of pewter. For Broad, the civic-minded art collector and insurance magnate who’d intervened to get Disney Hall completed after 16 years of delays, it was time to ensure that the city’s premier boulevard looks and feels like something other than downtown Burbank.

So, Broad and his confreres at the Grand Avenue Committee — which he co-chairs with real estate giant Jim Thomas — enlisted A.C. Martin Partners (best known for designing the DWP headquarters) and Rios Associates to conjure up a new vision for the troubled hilltop. In January 2003, the committee issued its first report, which described its goal of transforming “downtown into the regional gathering place it was originally intended to be.”

Four empty parcels — two on Grand Avenue across from the Colburn School and two directly east of Disney Hall — remained to be filled in. And the dreary, incomplete 16-acre park that extends from the Music Center down to City Hall needed to be reworked. Adding approximately 3.2 million square feet — the equivalent of three MGM Grand Hotels — of offices, retailers, hotels and residences “to Grand Avenue will dramatically change the dynamic of the street,” wrote the committee. “With new options available to them, concert and theater patrons might come downtown before a performance, have dinner, walk along the storefronts or stop at MOCA before heading to the performance. Office workers might stay downtown at the end of a day, meet some friends, and head to a jazz club or to the movies before going home. County workers might walk down the street to lunch at any one of the new restaurants or sit in the park for a midday break. And tourists visiting Disney Hall and the Cathedral might just make a day of it to explore MOCA, the Water Court, the new Caltrans building, or the newly renovated, historic City Hall.”

The operative word there is might. And yet at the September unveiling of the $1.3 billion project, Broad was more upbeat. “Paris has its Champs Élysées. New York has its Rockefeller Center, Times Square and Central Park. Now, Los Angeles will have at its center a grand boulevard and urban park.” Broad and his team issued a call for developers to compete for the ultimate prize: the right to design and build, in the heart of downtown, two high-rise office buildings, two residential towers, a hotel, and thousands of square feet of theaters, clubs, shops and restaurants — with, of course, sufficient parking to accommodate a slew of additional cars. In exchange for these valuable rights, the developer would implement a redesign of the Music Center–to–City Hall park. The committee explicitly ruled out a refined, finished design, limiting the concept to a single 30-by-40-inch poster board. Instead, the four teams that submitted plans last week were asked to demonstrate their financial prowess (they would need roughly a billion dollars) and an understanding of the “urban context.”

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