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TO EXPAND OR NOT . . . AND IF SO,WHERE? : A Tale of Power and Politics; Compromise May Result

May 10, 1987|TED VOLLMER | Vollmer is a Times Metro staff writer who reports on county government

One of the more charitable appraisals of "The Meeting" about the proposed Music Center expansion was that it was a disaster.

Held in MCA chairman Lew Wasserman's office on Dec. 18, 1985, "The Meeting" was called so that Music Center chief executive Daniel Frost and director Wasserman could view architectural renderings for the expansion's placement on a 3.6-acre county-owned parking lot across from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

But instead, Los Angeles-based theater architect Barton Myers--at the behest of top Los Angeles County officials including then Chief Administrative Officer James Hankla--unveiled Myers' novel idea to locate the proposed expansion between arguably the two ugliest government buildings in Los Angeles: the County Courthouse and the Hall of Administration.

A tense confrontation ensued between Wasserman and Frost on one side, and Hankla and two county supervisors on the other, over Myers' concept. And today, more than 16 months later, the mall concept is at the core of a dispute that threatens any expansion ideas.

The aftershocks from The Meeting recently began to ebb in intensity, even to the point that one key county official, Hankla successor Richard B. Dixon, optimistically predicted a compromise could occur in a matter of months, if not weeks. Dixon, who ultimately will recommend some course of action to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors--most of whom are publicly neutral on the dispute--says he is searching for a "win-win" settlement.

Any resolution of the differences between the Music Center and the county, however, will hinge on a number of major questions, many of which may not be answered for years to come:

What exactly will the Music Center's expansion be? Envisioned five years ago was an ambitious development featuring a 3,200-seat concert hall and theater, a 1,500-seat proscenium theater and a 500-seat black box experimental theater. But that was in 1982. In light of a soft theater market and increasing construction costs, should that idea now be scaled down to only a large concert hall as one prominent consultant has suggested?

Where is the best place for an expansion if one is even built? Myers never thought his mall alternative would create such a stir, but its introduction offered county officials what they saw as an exciting chance to raise potentially tens of millions of dollars for strapped county coffers. By building the expansion in the mall across Grand Avenue rather than on the county-owned parking lot on First Street facing the rear of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the county reasoned it could fully develop the lot for a luxury hotel and/or high-rise office building. For cost, fund raising and aesthetic reasons, Music Center leaders have so far rejected the mall and want the First Street property for the expansion.

When will an expansion be built? There has not seemed to be any hurry to launch the expansion fund drive that could amount to more than $100 million. With questions being raised both inside and outside the Music Center about its future needs and current operations, there is a feeling among some leaders that an expansion can wait.

Whatever occurs, however, is sure to be a compromise. The Board of Supervisors and the Music Center leaders due to mutual needs and physical proximity have developed a healthy respect for each others' roles in Los Angeles' cultural and political communities. The supervisors have relied on Music Center leaders for campaign contributions as well as to raise millions of dollars each year to subsidize the resident performing arts companies. In turn, the county has pitched in with maintenance and operating subsidies to keep the Music Center in shape.

Wasserman and Frost had heard only vague reports about Myers' mall concept when they agreed to meet with county officials and the architect on that December, 1985 afternoon. The two Music Center representatives soon discovered that county officials, including Hankla, were very intrigued by Myers' idea, seemingly to the exclusion of others.

In colorful renderings enthusiastically presented by Myers, both Wasserman and Frost were told how the ambitious Music Center expansion, if nestled in the Civic Center mall, would complement the current facilities without overshadowing them.

Myers envisioned the concert hall/theater expansion anchored between the two eight-story government buildings and then spanning Grand Avenue to the Music Center's central plaza. The effect was not unlike the central plaza of New York's Lincoln Center.

"(The mall) is the most prestigious site because it is at the head of the mall and faces City Hall at the bottom of the mall," said Myers. "It shares the plaza equally with the Chandler, Taper and Ahmanson. One of the problems . . . (with the other, Parcel K scenario) is if the new project is spectacular . . . does it make the Chandler, Ahmanson and Taper second-class citizens?"

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