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Bunkum Hill

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.

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.”

 

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.

The trouble, says Councilwoman Jan Perry, who now represents the hill, is that “Design is very subjective; what one may think is incredible another may think is really ugly. This is a very level competition. It offers some parity to enable a developer to forge ahead in defining their ability to create the project.” Still, counters architect and SCI-Arc director Eric Owen Moss, Los Angeles needs “a good podium” for a discussion about Bunker Hill. Otherwise, we are leaving it to developers to define Grand Avenue.

UCLA’s Weinstein, who is a consultant with Frank Gehry’s team, agrees. “It should have been a developer design team. That’s how they did the new Caltrans building. A developer came in and said, ‘I’m prepared to build this.’ There were signed completion bonds and all the hard financial stuff, but there were also drawings, models, photo montages, all kinds of eyewash. This helps to precipitate the issues. Nobody knows what the potential of all this land is until you’ve gone through the first exercise. It’s just a shrewd guess by informed people about what is possible. Then you invite public comment, you parcel it out, and then you see if the market is interested. Of course it’s interested!”

 

It’s ironic that in a city alive with architectural invention and talent, no invitation was issued. What might have come of an open design competition was, for starters, a dialogue among some of the city’s most thoughtful and thought-provoking architects and planners. Three of them, in fact — Moss, Mayne and Craig Hodgetts — attempted to share their ideas with one of the four developers, Forest City, but never heard back. More’s the pity because Moss’ ideas deserve to be heard.

“Los Angeles is sort of an adolescent city,” he says, “a newer city exploring itself and trying to understand itself, its weights, its hierarchies, its priorities. That’s why you have these discussions: The urban psychology has to be that the process is still open, still experimental. It means that there is no master plan in a conventional sense. If you assume at the beginning what’s going to happen at the end, you are rerunning what is already known.

“If you think the city is composed of standard parts,” Moss continues, “you can look it up in the dictionary — the Ringstrasse, the Rambla, Fifth Avenue. You want a great city, you’ve got to have a great avenue. There is another possibility: We are not like them in a fundamental way. In L.A. you get Century City, a line on Wilshire Boulevard, Warner Center. I don’t think this is necessarily an argument for not intensifying the development along Grand Avenue, but it is an argument for being cognizant of L.A. We don’t need the Arc de Triomphe. We need room for additions, pieces and modifications; an egalitarian, ecumenical means of being able to look at what you have and course-correct it. There would have to be situational sites which allow you to re-imagine and rebuild.”

The “huge challenge” of Bunker Hill, adds Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain, “is to knit back the center of a series of neighborhoods that from the beginning have been isolated. Bunker Hill was a hill, and the roadways and trolleys went around the hill. Urban renewal and clearance really decimated the neighborhood and left it undefined.”

Interestingly, Johnson Fain is moving its offices from a nondescript, 18-story black citadel at Flower and Wilshire, in the Financial District, to a former automobile dealership in Chinatown, a community booming thanks to artists and hipsters and architects in search of ever-cheaper-by-the-square-foot space and the frisson of Vietnamese vermicelli and old women carrying umbrellas. Johnson, who built his own home on a commercial lot on Larchmont Boulevard, has an astute feel for the city’s currents.

 

“I see Grand as the city’s most important north-south axis. It connects history to demographics. It runs from Juan de Portolá settling just north on the L.A. River, to Chinatown, the Pueblo, Bunker Hill, through the downtown business corridor south to Exposition Park. The cross axis, First Street, represents the demographics. The San Gabriel Valley, artists’ lofts, the commercial district, government, culture, off and out into Mid-Wilshire and West Los Angeles.”

The project, then, is schizophrenic: Grand Avenue must be two things, the center and the sinew.

Twenty-five days before his proposal was due in to Grand Avenue Committee, Frank Gehry was seated on the stage of the Japan America Theater for “A Gathering by Design,” his attempt to “broaden the discussion to include architecture” by inviting the public to mix it up a little over Grand Avenue. (Although the handpicked audience of architects and architecture students, Gehry’s friends and fans — including Brad Pitt — was hardly a broad constituency.) Among the all-star cast, which included the Pritzker Prize–winning Hadid, Gehry’s was the voice of authority. He’d been tinkering with plans for Bunker Hill since the late ’70s. At least twice before, he’d made models “destined for obsolescence.” When he agreed to assemble his current corps, he said, he had thought Grand Avenue was a “design competition.” Now, his group, Bunker Hill, LLC, was openly attacking the developer-first-design-later process.

But Gehry himself seemed less concerned about a chicken-and-egg debate than addressing the “ideal we have that people of all ethnic and financial levels can live together downtown. It’s already there on Wilshire Boulevard, from Figueroa to Santa Monica,” he began. “Wilshire Boulevard is the connective tissue of Los Angeles. Everybody lives within two blocks — blacks, Koreans, Hispanics, Jews. That is Los Angeles. It’s a paradigm that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Wilshire Boulevard is, to my mind, the equivalent of our downtown.”

Then Gehry delivered his punch line. “Had I been God at the time, I would have put Disney Hall in Wadsworth and the Cathedral in MacArthur Park.”

What Gehry was acknowledging may be an inalterable fact about Los Angeles: that the patrons of Disney Hall are West-siders and the patrons of the Cathedral live around, but not in, downtown proper. Los Angeles is balkanized, which may be the best, not the worst, of its many, layered environments. Perhaps this is a crabbed view, a mite undemocratic. Certainly it is politically incorrect in its failure to embrace the bon mot du jour, diversity. The promoters of Reimagining Grand Avenue are sincere, and their desire to carve out a commons, a place where all citizens feel they’ve got ground to stand on, mingle in, use and, yes, abuse, is wonderfully 19th-century. But it may be that Los Angeles just isn’t headed that way. It may be that the city is composed entirely of hot zones and cool zones, perpetually subject to collapse and rediscovery.

The genuine task, and the one Bunker Hill has failed to live up to from the day that wrecking balls started their dastardly work, was posed by the greatest architecture critic of the 20th century. In 1937, Lewis Mumford offered his credo: “Every new structure, if it is really well-designed, should be capable of becoming the nucleus of a whole city.” If you do not know what that city is, or where it is headed, you are destined to build places that are truly nowhere.


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