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L.A. Remakes Itself : Can public works help restore shared values to a city divided by fear and suspicion?

November 28, 1993|KEVIN STARR | Kevin Starr, a professor of planning and development in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at USC, is the author of "The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression," to be published by Oxford University Press

What is it building, the city asks itself?

At this moment in history, no city in the world is building for the future on a scale to match the construction--public, private, or public-private--currently under way, scheduled or being planned for metropolitan Los Angeles. It can be argued, in fact, that few cities in the history of the human race have ever embarked upon a comparably ambitious program of public and private works. The building of the Acropolis in Athens, the redesign and reconstruction of Rome, the rebuilding of London after the Fire of 1666, the high-rises and subway systems of Manhattan as they emerged in the first three decades of the 20th Century--all these projects are in the league in which Los Angeles now finds itself.

The best of times--in terms of planning and construction, in terms of creating shared identities through public works--seems simultaneously to be the worst of times--in terms of the shared social values upon which such public works depend for their success. Los Angeles designs, finances and authorizes the greatest building program under way on the planet--a program gloriously evocative of a shared and prosperous future--while, simultaneously, it gropes through a maze of fear and suspicion in which no future seems possible.

The mind reels trying to keep track of Los Angeles as it builds for the 21st Century. The multibillion-dollar Red Line and Blue Line subway and light-rail systems have received extensive coverage. By the end of this decade, the convergence of Amtrak, Metro Rail and Metrolink in the Union Station will make it, once again, the Grand Central Station of Los Angeles.

Last month, the $220-million-plus Central Library renovation and expansion came on line. Across Fifth Street, the Bunker Hill Steps, designed by Lawrence Halprin, seeks to recreate the exuberant and sophisticated urbanism of the Spanish Steps of Rome. A few blocks up the hill, construction is under way on the $80-million, 2,400-seat Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by architects Frank Gehry and Michael Maltzen.

The just-opened addition to the Convention Center on Figueroa brought on line 805,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space. Designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the center looms like a vast cathedral of commercial and technological exchange.

The recently completed Century Freeway, meanwhile, brings to a climax more than a half century of freeway construction, beginning with the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1939. Thanks to this 17.3-mile stretch, the last freeway of its kind, Downtown, including the Convention Center, is now no more than 20 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport.

Representing the busiest port in the nation, directly responsible for as many as 750,000 jobs, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners and the Long Beach Port Authority recently completed a $100-million-plus terminal and yard renovation program. They are now planning to link the port with Downtown via existing Southern Pacific railheads on the Alameda Corridor, for which they are willing to pay $275 million just for the right-of-way. The linkage of LAX with the port via the Century Freeway, together with the linkage of the port with the existing freeway and railroad system via the Alameda Corridor--all this integrated into the existing system of freeways, regional rail heads and airports--depends upon, and further actualizes, a perception of metropolitan Los Angeles as being at the hub of a mega-billion Asia-Pacific and Latin American import-export economy.

The private sector, meanwhile, continues to push its advantage, despite (or is it because of?) the current restructuring of the Southern California economy. In Downtown, such forthcoming projects as Metropolis, designed by Michael Graves, and Central City West, with its master plan by Johnson Fain and Pereira, will create new commercial centers in dialogue with two decades of construction on Bunker Hill.

Planning is under way to facilitate and harmonize all this new construction via a strategic plan for the Downtown, sponsored by the Community Redevelopment Agency and other governmental agencies. The plan envisions central Los Angeles re-emerging in the next 50 years as a patchwork quilt of pedestrian zones, plazas, mini-parks and other forms of accessible open space co-existing within a larger framework of freeway, boulevard, light rail and subway transportation.

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