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Wilshire Grand Hotel: Los Angeles Digital Skyscraper Goes to a City Council that Has Little Idea What It's Approving

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Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 4:59 PM

By Tibby Rothman and Jill Stewart

click to enlarge Wilshire Grand Hotel rendering done at such an extreme angle it's nearly impossible to see light effects.
  • Wilshire Grand Hotel rendering done at such an extreme angle it's nearly impossible to see light effects.
Update: The City Council has approved the top-to-bottom lighted Wilshire Grand Hotel project.  The vote will read as "unanimous" officially, yet one council member voted No. Bizarre details on the jump. 

Two towering skyscrapers wrapped in "decorative" digital lights from top to bottom are rushing toward approval by the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday, and as LA Weekly reported days ago, there's a chance the developer will try to turn much of that lighting into advertising once allowed to embed the lights into the outer walls of the buildings.

Tampax Tampon Towers may be in L.A.'s future, thanks to project owner Korean Air, its subsidiary Hanjin International, developer Thomas Properties -- and a City Council that consistently does the bidding of billboard kings and outdoor advertising kings:

The developer released a surprise "rendering" just days before the City Council vote tomorrow.

Then on Friday, the City Council unanimously agreed to subsidize construction by waiving up to $79 million in hotel bed taxes.

The rubber-stamping, almost slavishly unquestioning L.A. City Council, whose 15 members vote unanimously 99.993% of the time, have been in a big rush to praise the top-to-bottom lighting and give Korean Air and Hanjin what they want.

Paul Krekorian declared a few days ago: "The more I hear about this project, the better I like it!"

Nobody -- including Krekorian and the City Council -- knows what it will really look like.

click to enlarge Here's the size of the lighting display, again shown very faintly in the draft EIR.
  • Here's the size of the lighting display, again shown very faintly in the draft EIR.
The surprise rendering has not been vetted by anyone independent of the money-makers seeking to erect the towers, and the new images weren't included in the draft Environmental Impact Report.

Angelenos at large have no idea such a skyline-altering, downtown-remaking project is in the offing.

The Wilshire Grand Hotel skyscrapers had received only minimal coverage by the media until a flurry of stories in the past week -- led off by the Weekly on Wednesday, then CurbedLA on Thursday, and finally hitting the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Saturday.

The artist who created the depiction set the skyscrapers at a neck-craning diagonal, dramatically softening the look of the 40-story and 20-story "flowering vine" designs -- which are so faint they're barely recognizable as "flowering vines."

Krekorian is the newish City Council member who moved into the city limits from Glendale solely to run for City Council. He has been insisting he is a "different" kind of City Council politician, and one of his aides has repeatedly approached the media to promote Krekorian as "different."

Krekorian isn't looking so different now.

He made up one of two key votes on the city council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM) to ignore the Planning Commission and approve the precedent-setting digital skyscrapers.

PLUM is chaired by Ed Reyes, an outspoken outdoor advertising industry ally and recipient of billboard industry campaign contributions.

PLUM overruled the City Planning Commission's opposition to the scheme for Wilshire Grand Hotel, sending the plan to the City Council for a full vote.

Jan Perry, who avidly backs the plan, pressed PLUM by arguing that it took 22 months of effort for the developer to deal with numerous issues within the city's Planning Department, so "I ask that you approve this project today."

In 2006, the Los Angeles City Council -- all 15 of whom had accepted money from the outdoor advertising industry -- spent almost no time discussing "digital billboards in Council Chambers before approving about 850 of them citywide.

Led by the City Council's No. 1 billboard fan and outdoor advertising industry ally Eric Garcetti, the council told CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor Advertising and others that they could erect the ultra-bright billboards in place of 850 of their traditionally illuminated billboards -- anywhere they wished, in any neighborhood -- without public notification or debate.

It later turned out that not a single member of the L.A. City Council knew what a "digital billboard" was. (They contain nearly 450,000 LED lights, enough energy to power more than a dozen homes.)

It's not hard to imagine that Krekorian, Reyes and the rest of the 15 now have no idea what top-to-bottom "architectural" digital lighting is.

There are no skyscrapers in California sporting the wall-embedded technology at this kind of scale.

Already, spokesmen for the developers are failing to deny it when asked to respond to fears that they will use the technology, once embedded in the walls, as a Trojan horse to press the City Council to let them transform the "flowering vines" into skyscraper-sized Pepto-Bismol ads.

Whenever a developer fails to deny something, you can be sure it's part of the plan.
Top-to-bottom advertising was, in fact, the developer's original plan but city officials refused to allow it.

Here's what Thomas/Hanjin are saying about whether the "architectural" lighting, once installed, will be used to pressure city leaders to let them flash huge ads across downtown:

From CurbedLA:

The LED lights are expensive to install, so will development team Hanjin/Thomas eventually seek to replace these images with advertising?"At this point, we can't say," said Wisner. "What's approved is architectural lighting and that's what we have agreed to."

From LA Times:

[Ayahlushim Getachew, senior vice president for developer Thomas Properties] says that although a switch to advertising might one day be contemplated, such a request would need to be vetted by the Planning Commission and council.
"One day we might not be the owners of the site anymore. And if that's so, that's what somebody else might want to do," she said.

Alix Wisner, project manager for the Thomas Properties, says the surprise release of the "rendering" to reporters last week was in response to questions from the media about "what the architectural lighting will look like."

Update, Tuesday afternoon:

Councilman Bill Rosendahl cast the lone dissenting vote on the unanimity-obsessed City Council, for a vote of 13-1.

Then, in a nod to City Council members who are driven by the idea that they must present a united front to the Los Angeles public -- and that dissent among elected leaders on the City Council is a negative force -- Rosendahl agreed to leave the room so the 13 pro-tower voters could conduct a unanimous vote.

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