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McKinley Assassinated

The McKinley Building doesn’t jut over the horizon. It’s not the city’s tallest, oldest or most significant architectural landmark, but it once was a building that assured you — after you walked into its soothing, European-style courtyard — that the world was a better place than it had seemed a moment before.

And now we’ve lost it. By a City Council vote of 10-5 last week, demolition crews have won the city’s blessing to flatten the two-story 1920s structure. And, at this writing, they could move in with bulldozers anytime against the boarded-up and battered edifice on Wilshire Boulevard, just east of Western Avenue and just across from the Wiltern Theater complex. The façade of the office building, capped by a broad four-story tower, is still remarkable. With a tile roof and the Churrigueresque decorations of Spanish-revival classicism, it’s finished in a purple-magenta plaster that suggests Italy rather than Spain. The now legally inaccessible courtyard was eternal Mediterranean, with floating arcades and a large, burbly fountain surrounded by an outdoor café — one of the perfect semipublic spaces in Los Angeles. It was the kind of structure — virtually unique — that should exist by the hundreds in a city with this climate and history. Most importantly, the McKinley was part of a context, a historic environment. It stood across from the deco-masterpiece, near-contemporary Wiltern, and close to other late-1920s near-landmarks. The McKinley’s demise symbolizes the failure of efforts to preserve entire historic settings rather than saving a piecemeal relic here and there. The building’s loss also represents a strategic catastrophe for the L.A. Conservancy, whose successful battles to save the Wiltern and the Central Library now stand as the high-water marks of architectural preservation in this ever-forgetful city. Just a few years ago, the council had spurned a McKinley demolition bid, but now the equation is different, perhaps due to the owner’s well-paid lobbyists, including Century City power attorney Ben Reznik, whose firm has frequently contributed funds to City Council campaigns and the multipurpose office-holder accounts of council members. According to City Hall figures, the building’s owner paid $183,000 to lobby for his property’s destruction. Then there was, according to one city memo, $300,000 the owner paid for an environmental-impact report that found — surprise! — that the building was not worth saving. That money would have gone a long way toward restoring the McKinley. At last Wednesday’s council meeting, the arguments of point man Reznik were fairly predictable: The McKinley Building was in terrible condition — damaged by Metrorail construction and further jostled by the 1994 Northridge quake, which ultimately forced tenants to evacuate on orders from the city. Robert Larner, the owner since 1968, had dearly loved the building and kept it up in its time. But now, went the argument, the environmental-impact report proved the building is beyond saving. Larner wanted to pass the McKinley along to his descendants, but he also wanted the right to tear it down first. This reminded me of O.J. Simpson saying that if you killed someone, it meant you really loved her. Lawyer Reznik didn’t dwell on the obvious: that the McKinley site, when packaged with Larner’s corner parking lot next door, could house a first-rate and highly profitable dense high-rise or mixed-use development — particularly given a location at the Western Avenue terminus of the Red Line and the intersection of two major thoroughfares. Indeed, like nearly every true historic structure in this city, the McKinley Building is worth much more dead than alive. From the standpoint of most developers, a corner site that includes a landmark designation is a corner site with a leper’s bell. But there was an alternative, however fleeting. Developer Richard Rand offered a $5 million rescue/renovation plan. He would kick in about half the money if the Community Redevelopment Agency used available funds to pay for the rest. On the council itself, Mike Feuer, to his credit, brought the matter to vote after his Arts, Health and Humanities Committee decided that the building deserved to survive. Feuer astutely observed that the real problem here, masked by the anti-preservation folderol, "is that Dr. Larner doesn’t really want to sell for any reason." A Conservancy spokesperson supported the idea, but the die was cast. The public outcry that made all the difference in preserving — so far — St. Vibiana’s Cathedral from destruction was absent here. The pro-preservation auxiliaries were plainly caught napping. I only knew of the matter at all because I happened to be cleaning out the bottom drawer of my desk at City Hall when discussion of the McKinley echoed over the transom. We reporters never heard a word from the Conservancy about this looming loss. And that’s not a small oversight in a place where publicity is often the most powerful weapon available for making public interests prevail over those of well-connected developers. Instead, it was left to Councilwoman Rita Walters to bash the Conservancy for its few preservation successes, which she characterized as promoting blight in her downtown district. For the record, the McKinley sits in the council district of Nate Holden, where a number of historic buildings have not fared well. Meanwhile, moment by moment, historic buildings are going down, costing the city opportunities to create historic districts that are not really bad investments at all — although they might not make the quick cash of others. Or generate the lobbying dollars. Or campaign contributions. You figure out the cultural calculus in this equation. The L.A. City Council’s majority didn’t bother to. Or maybe they did. The Elected Perfected? I haven’t said much here lately about the elected Los Angeles Charter Commission. For a long time there, I thought I had reason not to. Seemingly, the elected commission took far too long to shape up. Its meetings were devoted not so much to governance issues as to minutiae such as setting up phone lines and hearing locales. Sometimes I had to pinch myself to make sure I had not somehow materialized into a monthly gathering of the Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, Knights of Pythias. Last week, however, there was an elected-commission committee meeting at the Department of Water and Power headquarters that really examined, for the first time, a primary issue of local-government reform: the size of the City Council. What strongly focused the issue was the presence of David Ely and Richard Fajardo, two political-redistricting specialists familiar to City Hall regulars from council and school-district reapportionment sessions in the early 1990s. They don’t actually agree on a whole lot, but they seem to interact well — you could call them the Siskel and Ebert of redistricting. Among their insights was that the more you expand the City Council, the more representative it gets to be. With a larger council, you could avoid the problem of having coastal San Pedro represented by the same councilperson as inner-city Watts. Sometimes it seems as though the latter neighborhood, hard hit by geography and history, has almost given up on being represented. But, alas, the bigger the council gets, the less powerful it becomes — and the more powerful the mayor gets. That’s because each member represents less territory and lacks overall importance, while factions become harder to form. Chicago and New York were cited as cities where the councils are now too large to be effective. Of course, the smaller the council, the more power each member has. But this direction eventually reaches absurdity: Look at the ineffectual gang of five supervisors who are supposed to be running Los Angeles County. So if you go the responsive, representative route, how much expansion is enough, without being too much? Ely suggested 19 members. Bennett Kayser, a member of the elected Charter Commission, leans toward 21. That would bring the size of each district down from over 230,000 to about 150,000 people. It might also make possible an Asian-American majority district. One imagines this district leaping from Chinatown across the adjacent Filipino neighborhoods along Temple Street to easternmost Koreatown. Such ideas are not new. In fact, the representation issue already had been raised last year by the other charter-reform commission, the one appointed by the City Council. But last week, it was the elected commission that gave the issue its fullest airing to date, trying to envision how to create a City Council that best reflects the geography of the underrepresented. In other words, to give reapportionment a human face.


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