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Center of Attention : City Hall Provides Sleek Backdrop for Culvers City's Redevelopment


"When the best leader's work is done, the people will say, 'We did this ourselves.' "

--Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu


It is difficult to know what the old philosopher would have made of Culver City's new City Hall.

Its high walls topped with red brick tiles and trimmed with cherrywood, the building was inspired by California's Spanish missions but its proportions also hint at the palaces of Beijing's Forbidden City

Maybe that is why the proverb from Lao Tzu, who lived from 640 to 531 B.C., seems doubly appropriate on a wall in the garden of the $29 million municipal palace.

Along with other words of wisdom, it is chiseled on bricks salvaged from the old City Hall that served Culver City for 62 years. It is to the point: The people dictated where the new building would be, and they helped choose the architect.

After a dedication ceremony Saturday, the building is scheduled to open its doors June 26 at the site of the old City Hall on Culver Boulevard. For a while, it looked as if that would not happen.

When the effect of decades of earthquake stress forced the city to give up its old building in the heart of downtown six years ago, the City Council voted to move to a new site one mile west.

But residents did not want to abandon their historic center. They called and wrote and came to meetings with petitions signed by 800 people. They proved that you can fight City Hall.

"We figured that if it was that important to them, it should be placed where the citizens want it," said former Councilman Richard Brundo. "It's a building that the city will be saddled with for 50 years, at least."

The public also helped settle a design competition--choosing the proposal by a Pasadena firm, CHCG Architects, over two other finalists. And now a new City Hall has risen on the site of the old, providing a sleek centerpiece for the city's ambitious redevelopment efforts.

"What we're trying to do is get people into downtown," said Debbie Rich, who oversaw the project as the city's deputy community development director.

Other improvements include updated streets, lighting and crosswalks, renovation of landmarks, and establishment of a farmers market.

"The public fell in love with it," Rich said of the winning design. "It was very sensitive to the historical nature of the site, and it's a really open space. That was really important . . . that it be seen as an open building and not a closed-off government facility."

Openness is not always a good thing, however, especially where pigeons are concerned. The birds showed up as soon as the atrium took shape.

But officials are installing prongs in hopes of routing the birds from their roosts.

The project was financed, prongs and all, through bonds issued by the city's redevelopment agency.

The city of Beverly Hills took a different tack with its new Civic Center, financing the project--which grew to $120 million from an original target of $30 million--from its general fund. Beverly Hills does not have a redevelopment agency.

West Hollywood also started out by thinking big, but it recently bought and refurbished a modest office building at a cost of about $8 million.

Perhaps the biggest critic of Culver City's plans was former Councilman Richard Alexander, who first argued for holding on to the old building and using the money for other projects. When he learned that earthquake retrofitting would cost more than constructing a building, he changed his mind.

"I think it looks magnificent," he said of the structure.

Handblown glass wind screens by Oregon artist Ed Carpenter adorn the third-floor atrium, their green tints echoing the hanging-garden effect of elevated planters that will spill fiery bougainvillea 25 feet down into the courtyard.

The landscaping also features reflecting pools, palm trees, olive trees, jacarandas and hibiscus bushes.

Other works of art include a series of oils on California themes by Redondo Beach painter Blue McRight. They are displayed on the curving wall of the council chamber lobby.

Fishhooks, charm stones and whale-shaped amulets figure in an outdoor work by Los Angeles artist May Sun. Culver City's own Barbara McCarren designed the old brick walls and chose the quotations for the garden known as Heritage Park. She also came up with a replica of an old-fashioned hand-cranked camera--a symbol of the city's importance as a center of movie production.

A soaring arch recalls the facade of the old, 23,000-square-foot City Hall, complete with images of Native Americans and explorers salvaged from the 1927 building. Some are originals, others are replicas.

Originally estimated to cost $34 million, the 80,000-square-foot City Hall project was cut back when overruns loomed. In the end, it cost $1 million less than its final target cost of $30 million.

The city benefited from lower costs during the recent economic recession--and also from a drought during crucial phases of construction the winter before last.

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