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Los Angeles Times Interview

Ira Yellin

On Reclaiming Downtown as L.A.'s (Multi-)Cultural Center

July 28, 1996|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is project director at the Hajjar/Kaufman New Media Lab. He interviewed Ira Yellin at the developer's home in Santa Monica Canyon

The battle over the fate of the earthquake-damaged St. Vibiana Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles remains unclear. Cardinal Roger Mahony wanted to raze the building to make way for a new cathedral complex. But on Monday, the cardinal announced the new cathedral will be build elsewhere--probably several blocks west of the current site. While that may not have pleased preservationists, who have been engaged in an often acrimonious battle with the archdiocese to save the old cathedral, it was welcome news to those involved in the redevelopment of downtown. The cardinal had threatened to move the project outside of downtown, perhaps even outside the city. To developers trying to reclaim the area, keeping the new cathedral project in the city's central core represents an important victory.

For three decades, efforts to revitalize the downtown, and make it a place where people can work, live and play, have met with less than overwhelming success. They've been stymied by sometimes arcane building codes, lack of financing and the general indifference of much of the city's population--who can easily find things to do closer to home. But, against all odds, some have succeeded in maintaining and restoring some of the city's oldest and most interesting buildings.

The Grand Central Market on Broadway bustles, and down the street, the Bradbury Building shines. Both these properties have been restored and reinvigorated by developer Ira E. Yellin, who has concentrated his energies on rebuilding in downtown Los Angeles. Yellin, whose projects include the renovation of the Million Dollar Building on Broadway, worked with the archdiocese to select Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo for the new cathedral project. He believes the new $45-million complex will be a powerful symbolic and tangible component in the future of the city's center.

Yellin, 56, recently took a position as senior vice president in the giant Catellus Development Corp. Catellus is working on a 50-acre office-retail development around Union Station, and is studying the possibility of building an NFL arena next to Dodger Stadium. But Yellin remains committed to working on his own projects in downtown. He is worried that the fight over St. Vibiana's may create bad blood between preservationists and developers. But he sees a bright future for downtown Los Angeles.

Yellin is married and the father of two grown children. In an interview at his Santa Monica Canyon home--originally built for actress Delores Del Rio--he talked about the importance of urban spaces, the unique qualities of Los Angeles' downtown and his vision of how the city will mature.

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Question: What's the basis for your attraction to downtown Los Angeles? Why have you devoted so much energy to working in an area where development is so much more difficult than in other parts of the city?

Answer: . . . I love architecture. It's my favorite art form--and in downtown there is so much richness, so much texture and so many layers of human society. We've destroyed a lot, but we still have a lot.

There's the whole area of the historic core of downtown Los Angeles that, to my amazement, so many developers have avoided. Perhaps I am less naive now, having worked there for 15 years, but there is still a wealth of history there, and also great economic opportunity. It's an area that was overlooked by all of the major developers . . . .

Q: Downtown Los Angeles is very different from the downtowns of Eastern cities. How do you classify downtown Los Angeles, and how is it unique?

A: First of all, Los Angeles has been many different cities. At one time, it saw itself as a little pueblo village. At the beginning of the century, it saw itself as a small, Eastern-style city. But it has only been a megalopolis since World War II. In analyzing the city, I always begin with that assumption--that it is a postwar metropolis. It began to realize its physical form with the advent of the automobile. It sits in a basin that has no real geographical limits, other than the ocean to the west, and its great expansion took place in the 1950s and '60s, when everybody had to have their multiple cars and individual homes in the suburbs. It was during that period when Los Angeles came to represent everything we thought of as modern. But we are still a very young place--essentially a 40-year-old city.

If you try to project forward 100 years, I think you will have a Westside that will be highly dense in population; you'll have a downtown that will be substantially ethnic and very vibrant and creative, and I believe the avenues, like Wilshire and Beverly, which connect downtown with the Westside, will become increasingly like the great boulevards of Manhattan. They'll go through generations of higher and higher density and traffic patterns. But, right now, we are a very young city, barely in our adolescence. We'll never be New York because we are evolving in a whole different time, but this city will grow and change.

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