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They're Blockbusters

May 07, 1987

Two monster projects in the Los Angeles Civic Center are moving ahead--a fascinating insight into the way governments themselves plan, view development and consider infrastructure.

The larger project will bring up to 1.2 million square feet of office and commercial space and a possible additional 200 apartments or condominiums to a 7.8-acre parcel owned by the city between 1st and Temple and San Pedro and Alameda streets. It will likely include some 200-foot towers along Temple. Just across Temple Street will be the other giant development--a new 800,000-square-foot, 20-story federal building for which plans are nearing completion. Construction on that site already is under way for a 272,000-square-foot detention center.

If some of this sounds oversize, it is. Indeed, the city sought unsuccessfully to persuade the federal government to down-scale its project. But when it came to the city-owned site, the City Council went the other way, wanting to maximize its return, and approved a plan that will permit development at more than double the volume originally proposed by the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Maximizing return in the public interest will make no lighter the burden that this will impose on adjacent streets, freeways and bus routes--many already judged as busy by daily commuters. The city's Transportation Department has in effect set the limits on the city project, giving the green light on the basis that the proposed maximum use of land will fill but not overwhelm adjacent streets. At best, however, it will bring traffic to the choking point, requiring two or more cycles of the traffic lights to clear a given intersection. That would depend on a plan putting 60% of the new building occupants into car pools no mean task and making street improvements, including a two-foot widening on the north side of 1st Street where the sidewalk already is perilously narrow.

The federal development project is being carried out with disregard of local wishes and controls because the federal government is not bound to respect local rules. It could have been worse. Plans for a Veterans Administration clinic at the northwest corner of Temple and Alameda, adjacent to the new high-rise federal building, have for the moment been shelved. The project would have generated its own traffic jams and taxed the 1,200 off-street parking spaces planned in the new federal addition.

City officials justify going for the maximum return on the basis that they are doing the taxpayers a favor. In a way they are. The city will end up with about 500,000 square feet of office space for its own use in the new project without paying out a penny--its return on allowing a developer a high-density operation during the long-term lease on the city land.

The project will at least ensure the implementation of plans to restore and maintain the storefronts on the north side of 1st Street between San Pedro and Central, and of plans for the East-West Theater in the former Union Church and for the new Japanese American National Museum in the old Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. And the developer will be required to contribute 1.5% of development costs, not counting land, to the Japanese American National Museum and to the existing adjacent Temporary Museum of Contemporary Art.

There is no requirement for housing, however. Should the developer choose to develop housing, it would be a bonus, allowing 200 units without specific requirements for low- and middle-income housing--although the request for proposals refers to "housing for people with a range of income levels." This has created criticism in adjoining Little Tokyo, where housing is extremely scarce.

So much for policy development. The federal government remains disdainful of local controls. And the Los Angeles City Council signals the way of the future in the city: More is beautiful, big is better. Which does not sound as if the council has been listening to the voters in recent tests of controls vs. more of the same.

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