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Sam Hall Kaplan

Redesign Bodes Well for Library

March 13, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

The Los Angeles Central Library is, of course, more than a library.

Located where it is, in the approximate center of downtown and singularly styled, the library also is a cherished civic monument; the city's homage to its past and a gesture to the future.

With this in mind, I am pleased to report that the plan to restore and expand the fire-damaged library appears to be on track again following a subtle redesign by the firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (HHPA) and, in the best tradition of a public reading room, a general lowering of voices of those involved in the programming and approval process.

In brief, a nip, tuck and toning job was done on the plans. This includes the selection of a more traditional palette of exterior materials and the manipulation of the massing, scale and detailing so as to make the expansion appear more compatible with the existing landmark. Specifically reworked was the atrium so it does not compete with the distinctive pyramid-topped tower.

While not as resolute and, in some views, confrontational as first proposed a year ago, the latest HHPA scheme also happily does not mimic the original sublime design by Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow. That would have honored no one.

What we have is a compromise brought off with an elan that all interests, including the library board, the cultural affairs commission, the mayor's office and the city council, should be able to accept.

Not as promising is the hope for a rejuvenated Pershing Square, at least as promoted by the forlorn park's forlorn management association.

With its confidence exceeding its competence, the association continues to scratch for the funding of the ambitious and costly scheme by the firm of SITE Projects, of New York, that won the square's widely publicized redesign competition a year and a half ago.

The association's latest ploy is to try to get the city to establish a special assessment district downtown to foot the bill. While some of the property owners and big-buck builders in the area are agreeable in principle to the idea, most feel the SITE design is indulgent and want it abandoned in favor of a more modest and, they feel, appropriate design that would be easier to operate and maintain.

This sentiment also is gaining favor in the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which, for three years, has been nobly indulging the association, and the city's Recreation and Parks Department. Meanwhile, the historic square continues to deteriorate, along with the credibility of those involved. It is time for an accounting.

I tend to avoid writing about controversies involving minor zoning and building variances because few tend to have import beyond the neighborhoods involved. However, two have come to my attention that I feel deserve mention, for they hint at urban design issues relevant to most of the city's diverse shopping streets.

Near completion at the northwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Monument Street in the Pacific Palisades is a 2-story, well-detailed retail complex that, defining as it does the edge of the street, seems to be a happy solution to an awkward site.

Certainly the design by the architectural firm of Meier, Schumacher & Associates is an improvement over the gas station that used to be there and the series of proposals for modified mini-malls that followed. It is a fanciful if frugal style that promises to be pedestrian-friendly.

The problem is, in attempting to create an attractive focal point at the corner, the architect crowned the facade with a Baroque curve, to be marked by a clock, that is about 3 feet above the 30-foot maximum allowable height for the site. For this it needs a variance from the city.

Given the strip development and mini-malling of our commercial streets, such tasteful focal points are welcome, give or take a few extra feet. And as for the clock, what else would you expect from two Swiss-educated architects?

The other variance being sought is in Santa Monica, where developer Steve Soboroff, backed by about 3,000 signatures, wants to build an office, retail and restaurant complex at 11th Street and Montana Avenue despite being eight parking spaces below the minimum required.

The key to the appeal is the designated restaurant, the Sweet Sixteen Grill, which for 46 years had been slinging fries and other fast food to gourmands at the corner of 16th Street and Montana Avenue until escalating rents forced its closing last month.

The Grill is the latest of a group neighborhood conveniences that has been elbowed off the street by trendy restaurants, Southwest emporiums and trinket shops catering to, among others, affluent apartment dwellers subsidized by rent control. There are no such subsidies available to commercial endeavors.

Recognizing the Grill's status as a landmark, Soboroff thought it would make a good anchor to his development, and struck a deal with the operator. The problem is the parking.

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