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Urban Jewel or Height of Folly? : Lavish new transit center and 26-story office tower next to Union Station will become a civic treasure, MTA officials predict. But critics fear a $300-million white elephant instead of an urban oasis.

September 24, 1995|RICHARD SIMON | Times Staff Writer

So which is it?

A crown jewel of Downtown architecture that is destined to become the city's transportation hub in the 21st Century while reviving a long-neglected neighborhood?

Or a $300-million white elephant featuring Italian granite, English brick and a $300,000 aquarium--a "Taj Mahal," as one critic put it, a monument to the transit agency's misplaced priorities?

Love it or hate it, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's lonely 26-story office tower and palm-lined transit center nearing completion by Union Station has altered the city's skyline and, officials hope, will redefine its view of public transit.

Built in the mold of the great train stations of the past, the project is designed to return the historic site to its glory days as the grand portal to the city--the Grand Central Station of the West.

The glass-domed Gateway Intermodal Transit Center, which will open in October, is projected by next decade to serve more than 100,000 commuters a day arriving and departing by car, bus, train, bike and foot. Next door, MTA employees have begun moving into their new earth-toned headquarters.

Critics fear that the massive transportation palace will trivialize beloved Union Station. But project officials say the new center--with its provocative art, live music and cappuccino carts--will draw more visitors to the old depot.

From the beginning, the tower has been the subject of controversy among architects, politicians and even ordinary folk.

"It's always dangerous from a public relations point of view for a large public agency to build a monument to itself," said Bill Fulton, editor of California Planning and Development Report.

But Fulton and others say the project's location makes a powerful statement about the region's changing transportation priorities.

"For the first time in a lot of years, we're building a skyscraper next to the railroad tracks instead of next to the freeway," Fulton said. "Whether that becomes a lonely white elephant that represents a failed policy remains to be seen."

Admirers say Gateway will become not only an important transit nexus but a civic treasure--in the tradition of the great public works projects of the 1920s and '30s. The project, they say, will revive a forgotten but historically important part of Downtown and create a new public place for a city with many communities but few communal gathering places.

Artwork can be found at almost every turn--from a bench featuring rocks from the Los Angeles River bed unearthed during construction, with water trickling behind seated visitors, to giant murals of the city, past, present and future. The designers even re-created the 1920s-era street lights from the nearby Macy Street viaduct.

"The criticism has been that the MTA is pulling life away from Downtown," said urban designer and architect Doug Suisman. "It's certainly pushing activity in directions that it hasn't tended to go, which is north and east rather than south and west. That is potentially a wonderful thing for Downtown, to recapture its origins and to link these vital ethnic and historic communities."

"Over the next 50 years, public transportation, with the improvements that are happening right now, will reinforce the importance of transportation hubs as development zones," said Los Angeles architect Scott Johnson.

"The argument persists that we've always had in Los Angeles: Should there be centers?" he added. "My own view is absolutely. We need public symbols. We need places that, no matter what edge of the city we live in, we all pay respect to and we all unify behind. Unity in our diversity is more important than ever."

The project is part of a grand plan to transform the industrial wasteland around Union Station into an urban oasis that would include several commercial and residential towers and a sports arena over the train sheds, along the lines of Madison Square Garden. Now, only a new 12-story Metropolitan Water District headquarters is assured.

The prime movers behind the Gateway project--longtime transportation official Nick Patsaouras and Eastside Councilman Richard Alatorre--see the development in larger terms.

Patsaouras is a forward thinker who has championed a West Coast Statue of Liberty spanning the Hollywood Freeway as a monument to immigrants. He also has pushed Angel's Walk, a plan to plant trees, display artwork and make other sidewalk improvements in order to make it more appealing for people to walk between Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Bunker Hill, the Civic Center and Union Station.

Alatorre, the political pragmatist who used his reapportionment skills to add Union Station to his district in 1986, promoted the project as a way to provide economic opportunities for Latino residents east of the Los Angeles River.

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