By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Despite the emphasis on developer bona fides, three of the four teams promptly amassed architectural firepower. Weintraub Financial Services, a Los Angeles firm, enlisted Frank Gehry, who called in global all-stars Zaha Hadid, this year’s winner of architecture’s Nobel, the Pritzker Prize; French master Jean Nouvel; Henry Cobb, who designed Library Tower at the foot of Bunker Hill; and two rising L.A. practitioners, Kevin Daly and Greg Lynn. Another firm, the Related Companies, brought in powerhouse Skidmore Owings Merrill’s David Childs (who has been sparring with Daniel Libeskind over the new designs for the World Trade Center), and L.A.’s Thom Mayne, whose breakout Caltrans headquarters is nearing completion at First and Spring. Jerry Snyder, another local developer, paired mall-design genius Jon Jerde (Universal CityWalk and the Westside Pavilion) with Johnson Fain, downtown architects committed to a more modest civic ideal. Only Forest City, a powerful Cleveland-based developer, declined to disclose its design team.
Beginning next week, a seven-member review committee — headed by Broad and Thomas and including David Malmuth (of Hollywood & Highland infamy), the CRA’s Ayalushim Hammond and Alana Martinez, chief of staff to Supervisor Gloria Molina — will study the developers’ schemes and interview the four teams. On May 24, a recommendation will be made to a county-city power-sharing authority, whose voting members are Molina, Councilwoman Jan Perry, L.A. County chief administrative officer David Janssen and CRA chief Robert Ovrum. If all goes as expected, the authority will rubber-stamp the committee’s choice, and the quasi-secret plan will be launched.
Given the scope of the project, the muscle behind the Grand Avenue Committee, the obvious strengths of the design teams, and the enormous potential for another debacle on Bunker Hill, you’d expect this project to inspire at least a fraction of the interest the public has taken in the World Trade Center project, or at least in the raising of Disney Hall. And yet the Grand Avenue project has proceeded as silently as a bat in flight. This is partly intentional and partly the fault of a civic leadership that has spent too much time reviewing reruns of The Sopranos — Molina, whose district encompasses Bunker Hill, and who will cast a decisive vote on its future, was “not available for comment” — and partly because, as Richard Weinstein, the dean of UCLA’s School of Architecture and Design says, “The public isn’t interested in the finances of a deal. An accountant is.” By choosing a developer first and a design later, the committee has effectively stifled public discussion.
Even if there were interest, none of the four schemes will be revealed until after a winning one is chosen — which is a little like playing the NCAA Final Four in a locked gym and then airing the taped games. Nor is it certain that, once a developer is picked, a forum will be opened for the public to have a look at the proposals. Instead, the development may well proceed like a typical office building in Pacoima, from bureaucratic hearing to bureaucratic hearing until all conceivable doubt or inquiry yields to the juggernaut of inevitability — with the developer very much in the driver’s seat.
And that’s the way almost all of the decision makers want it — with reason. Past CRA schemes envisioning “a new downtown for Los Angeles” have all been, to one extent or another, failed public competitions. Beginning in November 1955, the CRA unveiled the first redevelopment design, a Pereira & Luckman conception of the “New Heart of Los Angeles,” above Grand Avenue. It showed a vast, sunken mall surrounded by 10-story steel-and-glass Modernist boxes, clean, awash in lucid winter light and populated by trim, purposeful technocrats who had shed their passions upon entering the utopian oasis. It went nowhere. Every few years another iteration emerged, until 1979, when the CRA held a formal competition for some of the same vacant lots in play today.
The present mess up on Bunker Hill is the outcome of that competition, and that fact weighs heavily on the Grand Avenue Committee. But that competition was prophetic, not for the design but for the developer chosen. Several ideas were presented for what was anticipated, at $1.2 billion, as the largest mixed-use development in the country. A smart, pedestrian-friendly urban layout styled by Barton Myers, Cesar Pelli, Charles Moore, Hugh Hardy, Frank Gehry and Ricardo Legoretta — who’d been recruited by Harvey Perloff on behalf of mega-developers Robert Maguire and, ironically, Jim Thomas — won near universal acclaim and was recommended by CRA staff. The award instead went to Canadian developer Cadillac Fairview, which had the deepest pockets, and its highly refined architect Arthur Erickson, who somehow lost his touch and churned out the weighty duds and desolate spaces that adorn California Plaza today.
In truth, then-Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, who represented downtown, pressured the CRA board, not because he favored Erickson’s design but because Cadillac Fairview’s lobbyists impressed him the most. In effect, one of the city’s most precious pieces of real estate was delivered to the company that had doled out the best goodie bag. This sordid history has soured public officials and downtown boosters on anything like an open design-selection process. They prefer to be on the terra firma of spreadsheets and market analysis and blue-chip bond ratings — which might avert the other Disney Hall effect, namely skyrocketing costs. Besides, as the current World Trade Center project proves, democracy can get messy: Putting the original designs before the public totally tripped up the best of well-laid plans by New York’s politicos, administrators and building tycoons.