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Looking for Room to Grow : Children's Museum: A plan to take over adjacent mall moves forward, but operators are weighing other choices. One option is moving to a new site.

March 20, 1994|IRIS YOKOI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The long-awaited expansion of the Children's Museum appeared to take a step forward last month when the City Council approved, in concept, a years-old proposal under which the museum would take over operation of the bedraggled, city-owned Los Angeles Mall that adjoins it.

But although city and museum officials say they are proceeding with the plan, museum officials are also keeping themselves open to other options for expansion--including the possibility of leaving Downtown for another site.

Museum officials said the Los Angeles Mall plan, in the works for five years, is the favored option. But museum officials have also had talks with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about moving part or all of the Children's Museum to property the county facility hopes to buy in the Mid-Wilshire area for its own expansion.

And Vincent Beggs, Children's Museum executive director, said another entity, which he declined to identify, recently offered the museum an alternative space.

Museum officials say they want to find the best location for the 225,000 visitors they draw annually. "We're looking at all options right now," Beggs said. "Our biggest concern is, how can we best serve our constituency?"

The 15-year-old museum began assessing future needs in 1985. It was already feeling squeezed in the 15,000-square-foot space at 310 N. Main St., at the end of the Los Angeles Mall, which was always meant to be a temporary site, Beggs said. "The space we're in was originally designed for a restaurant," he said.

So when the city in 1989 put out a call for new operators to take over the mall, which runs under City Hall East between Main and Los Angeles streets, the Children's Museum responded with its proposal to expand into the mall and take over its operations.

In February, the City Council approved a letter of intent to lease the mall, negotiated by city staff and Children's Museum supporters.

Under that plan, the Children's Museum would expand to 80,000 square feet for an estimated $20 million. The museum would also renovate the underground shopping center, expected to cost $10 million, and take over mall operations and maintenance. The museum would lease the mall for $1 a year for 34 years.

The nonprofit museum could also benefit from mall revenues, which would go toward operating expenses and which donors hope will recoup their investment. In a 1990 evaluation, consultants estimated that the mall made a profit of $66,000 on revenues of $676,000 that year.

City administrative officials herald the plan as a way for the city to get out of the mall business. The 20-year-old mall is in desperate need of repair that the city hasn't been able to afford, and the Children's Museum would pay for the renovation as well as hire a management company to run the mall.

Among the improvements the mall needs, according to city officials, are new access ways for visitors with disabilities, new paving and air conditioning, and basic repairs and replacement of fixtures such as the fountains, drains, planters and electrical system. Asbestos clearing may also be necessary.

Museum officials believe that the renovations and a better mix of tenants will boost business at the mall, which empties on weeknights because it is dependent on government and business workers. The museum itself draws visitors on evenings and weekends, and that could translate into more mall business, said museum board member David Houk.

Museum officials are now in the middle of a 60-day inspection period during which they are checking the mall's structural features to determine whether it is feasible to proceed with the project or pull out. If museum officials decide to go ahead, the city and museum will spend the next year negotiating detailed lease agreements and other necessary documents to solidify the plan. The museum must also secure $3 million in donor pledges during that time to demonstrate its ability to raise money for the project.

Once the contract documents are approved, the museum would launch its fund-raising campaign and have a year to draft design plans for both the mall renovation and its own expansion. Once it begins, construction is expected to take 18 months.

The cost or extent of repair work needed at the mall could conceivably scare museum officials away from the project. Beggs acknowledged that the vast changes in economic and real estate conditions since the project was first proposed could affect the plans.

Meanwhile, the County Museum offers a central location with good access. The museum is working to buy the vacant May Co. building next door on Wilshire Boulevard and is talking to a number of arts and cultural organizations about using that space or building its own structures on the site.

Preliminary analyses have indicated that there is room for a 35,000-square-foot building at the Wilshire site, which would drop the Children's expansion cost to about $10 million but may not be enough space for the entire museum, Beggs said.

Using the Wilshire location for a second, auxiliary facility is another option, Beggs said.

If the Children's Museum opts to back out of the mall plan, the city will continue to look for an operator to take over the shopping center, city officials said.

But the museum has been the only operator so far willing to pay for the renovation as well as run the mall, city officials said.

Some observers worry that a move out of Downtown by the Children's Museum will hurt the area's already struggling public image.

"It's not going to be good for Downtown, especially when we believe that 'Downtown's Back,' " said Carol Schatz, vice president of the Central City Assn., an organization of Downtown businesses. "With (the renovations of) Pershing Square, the Convention Center, the Central Library and the Disney Concert Hall, . . . there are all these forces for positive change happening now."

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