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DOWNTOWN : Back to the Future

February 18, 1996|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "Endangered Dreams, The Great Depression in California" (Oxford University Press)

Next Saturday at 10 a.m., after a shutdown of 27 years, the Olivet and the Sinai will carry passengers from Third and Hill streets to the top of Bunker Hill and return. The revival of the Angels Flight Railway, two funiculars ascending and descending an incline 315 feet in length, is not, at first glance, an Earth-shaking event. Yet, the revival of this historic structure, the shortest railway in the world, Los Angeles Landmark No. 4, has a message for the embattled downtown. Only by becoming more urban and less modernist-corporate can it survive.

These days, downtown Los Angeles is suffering a crisis of identity and expectation. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold in "Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse," downtown seems caught powerless between two worlds, the one dead (or dying), the other unable to be born. Everywhere one looks--City Hall, Parker Center, the subway project, Disney Hall, the acquisition and downsizing of First Interstate, high-rises with a vacancy rate of 22%--symbols of Los Angeles as modernist downtown, unified, commanding and corporate are under stress. One era seems to be ending, and the next is not in sight.The primary symbol of modern Los Angeles--indeed, the first modernist icon of its arrival as a metropolis in the 1920s--is City Hall. Designed by John C. Austin, John Parkinson and Albert C. Martin, it rises 28 stories above its four-story base, an Art Deco assertion of civic well-being surmounted by a Halicarnassan ziggurat linking Los Angeles with the cities of the ancient world. Few, if any, city halls in the nation have expressed the aspirations of a city for modernity and prosperity on an almost Babylonian scale, an assertion made even more dramatic given the 150-foot height limit in force for most of the existence of the building.

Now, the very survival of City Hall is open to question, as a seismic retrofitting project--initially authorized at $153 million and threatening to reach $300 million--halts. Now, with 24 stories vacant, debate centers on a $165-million recommendation announced earlier this month by an advisory panel. Many contend that the building has served its purpose and should be razed in favor of a more efficient and cost-effective structure. A less draconian proposal has the building remaining vacant above the 4th floor for an indefinite period--just another addendum to the downtown's vacancy rate.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority's tunneling project under Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, meanwhile, the linchpin of the mega-billion-dollar subway project, is in equally perilous condition. Even as 250 workers address the 21 tons of debris in a sinkhole it created, the realization pervades the MTA that the unthinkable is being thought. It can now be imagined that the county would halt, for a generation or two, a subway project that, like City Hall in 1928, embodies a modern and modernist downtown as the hub of the metro region.

If all this were not enough, a report by Kosmont & Associates declares that the eight-story, 250,000-square-foot Parker Center, headquarters of the LAPD, is a disaster and should be demolished. But wasn't the center, gleaming in modernist glass and geometry, only opened in 1955? Didn't Chief William H. Parker, after whom the building was named in 1967, see in this structure the embodiment of the streamlined, austere, modernist police department he was creating for Los Angeles?

The continuing non-construction of the Frank O. Gehry-designed Disney Hall, stalled because of a $150-million funding gap, is yet another symbol of an embattled downtown. As is First Interstate, which, instead of soaring over the metropolis-like City Hall of old, a symbol of Los Angeles as a world banking center, succumbs to a $11.5-billion takeover by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.

But the Olivet and the Sinai will soon be rising and descending Angels Flight. And what does this suggest? Nothing less than an opposing scenario: one in which the downtown, shaken in its corporate modernist identity, goes back to the future with a post-modernist repossession of the downtown not as modernist monolith, but as a diversified urban village (albeit a village of astonishing proportions) integrating housing, entertainment, commerce, governmental administration, a diversity of retail and pedestrian values everywhere.

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