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Public Unwelcome at Grand Avenue

Waiting for Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry to show up last week was like waiting for the glitzy Grand Avenue hotel-shop-condos project to finally launch: No one could say exactly when or if it might happen. As the scheduled 10 a.m. start time for the January 25 Grand Avenue Authority meeting came and went with no sign of Perry, some muttering broke out among the well-dressed, laptop-toting, very-busy, super-organized 20 or so people in the room. There wasn't any outright complaining, just a couple of sly jokes about Queen Jan or the "mayor-in-waiting."

Then at 10:14, a man in a dark suit with a cell phone glued to his ear solemnly announced: "She's in the parking lot." That generated a buzz from a gaggle of Los Angeles city and county officials, developers, support staff, bloggers and three members of the media. Everyone scurried to their seats, and veteran photographer Gary Leonard got ready to take pictures.

But members of the general public? Not evident, unless you count gadfly and downtown dealmaker Brady Westwater, nicknamed by insiders the Mayor of Downtown. Westwater appeared to be the only person not paid to be there, but, as it later turned out, he came with his own agenda.

The reason for the lack of public participation in a development slated to rise on choice public land owned, collectively, by about 9.8 million people, is manifold: The meeting of the obscure but powerful Grand Avenue Authority board was its first in two months, and the authority gave the citizenry just 48 hours' notice, the bare minimum California law requires the board to provide. Unless your e-mail was on the digital list for notification, you wouldn't have heard about it. And the meeting was held, as usual, on a Monday morning, when working people cannot attend, in a building so difficult to access that unless you had $20 for parking — or a reserved "VIP" spot — it might be prohibitive to show up.

Soon, Perry and her entourage swept into Room 374-A of the Kenneth Hahn Building. Because the Grand Avenue Authority's chairwoman, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, was absent, the gavel fell to Perry, who smiled at some familiar faces as she flipped through a stack of papers. She began the meeting at 10:20 a.m. but announced, "It's about 10:15 and I'm calling the meeting to order."

In just 15 minutes, she raced through seven items on what was billed as a public agenda, hearing from several government officials who delivered rapid-fire, jargon-filled reports.

Then Perry announced that the five-member Grand Avenue Authority board — besides politicians Perry and Molina, the panel includes financial analyst and L.A. redevelopment official Cal Hollis, attorney and California transportation secretary Dale Bonner and L.A. County Chief Executive Officer William T. Fujioka — was heading behind closed doors for an "executive session" to negotiate with the Eli Broad Foundation. About 45 minutes later the group returned with satisfied smiles but said they had nothing "actionable" to report to the small audience.

Only Westwater chose to utilize the public comment period that followed. An ardent downtown booster, he praised the precooked news that had prompted the closed session: the possibility that a Broad art museum filled with the billionaire's storied collection might rise on Grand Avenue in downtown L.A.

If it ever pans out, the museum will be part of the stalled, fiscally floundering $3 billion–plus Grand Avenue project, which has yet to turn a shovel of earth and has taken up thousands of hours of city and county government and legal time the past five years — and has been awarded $100 million in taxpayer incentives and other breaks.

With no other business at hand, the authority agreed to next meet on February 22. But for the authority, it was "mission accomplished," as the media quickly reported that a Broad museum could possibly become the anchor attraction, rare good news for a development critics dismiss as a folly. News items ran first in the blog section of the Los Angeles Times and the Web site of the business-oriented Downtown News. The next day, the Times had two stories — a brief in the front section and a longer article with two bylines in the Calendar section.

After the closed-door chat between Broad and the authority, L.A. Weekly sought out downtown Councilwoman Perry for comment on the sudden shift to use part of the public land for Broad's art collection. Perry tersely referred questions to Eva Kandarpa, her press secretary. When the Weekly e-mailed Kandarpa several questions, she refused to answer and suggested instead the Weekly talk to the city's public partner, Los Angeles County.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina's staff said she was also refusing to comment.

The Weekly has been asking questions for two years about the lack of transparency and vast public resources devoted to "Grand Avenue," whose heavily subsidized proposed retail shops, posh hotel and housing are aimed largely at the wealthy.

As the Weekly reported, city and county politicians led by Perry cut a deal with wealthy sheikhs from the nondemocratic emirate of Dubai to become major investors in what they now call The Grand. But the Dubai sheikhs are in fiscal crisis due to the Wall Street crash, and this month they "cleaned house" by firing the CEO of the emirate's investment arm, Istithmar World. The project developer, the Related Companies, says it is seeking a new principal investor in the project.

Meanwhile, with some analysts saying the condos envisioned at The Grand would take seven years to sell, the authority has granted the Related Companies repeated extensions of its construction deadlines.

"It's a fantasy project that will never be built," says Paul Novak, Land Use and Planning Deputy to Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the lone county supervisor to vote against forming the Grand Avenue Authority five years ago.

Novak says it's time for The Grand's cheerleaders to face reality. "That piece of public property has been tied up for three-and-a-half years. ... Mike [Antonovich] says it's time to cut and run," he says. "Related [Companies] has already had four extensions and has had its performance fine waived," he adds. He's referring to the fact that Perry and the Grand Avenue Authority have, for now, waived the Related Companies' $250,000 monthly late fee, which the developer promised to pay if it failed to start construction.

The project, Novak tells the Weekly, needs to be completely rethought. "It would only duplicate what's already going on at L.A. Live" near Staples Center, he says. "The big draw for Phase 1 was supposed to be a five-star hotel. Well, there's a brand-new five-star hotel at L.A. Live. There's only capacity for one."

Novak wants to see the five-member authority dump Related and start afresh to determine the best use of the land, which is owned by city and county taxpayers, rather than peeling off pieces of land for surprise projects pushed by insiders like Broad.

But Novak doubted such top-down rethinking will unfold because "the [authority] has turned into a cheerleader for the project" even though, he notes, "that's not their job."

Of all the well-dressed people in Room 374-A last week at the Monday morning meeting, the best-dressed was William Witte, Related Companies' California president, who sat in the front and received a steady stream of well-wishers and information-seekers like a rich, popular uncle.

Witte says the public will see tangible progress in June, when ground is broken for the $56 million, 16-acre Civic Park. The park, to be wedged between City Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, has been used as a selling point for the adjacent for-profit Grand Avenue project. Witte also says there will be no change to Civic Park's controversial design. Heavy on cement and lacking much shade or grass where people might relax or play Frisbee, the design by Rios Clementi Hale Studios landed with a thud when it was unveiled last year.

To critics who say Grand Avenue will — and should — never happen, Witte responded: "We could always just give up on Grand Avenue, but we haven't done that. And we won't."

Contact the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net.