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Government Intervention May Save the City's Heart

May 25, 1997|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 "The Dream Endures, California Enters the 1940s" (Oxford University Press)

Within the immediate future, four different government authorities currently located in the Civic Center will be making five or more major relocation decisions. These decisions, in turn, will either accelerate the maturity of the Civic Center or significantly slow its progress.

On the federal level, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is looking for 400,000 square feet of office and reception space, and the U.S. District Court needs more room. On the state level, Caltrans is seeking a building in which to headquarter its transportation, management and operations center. The City of Los Angeles, meanwhile, seeks a replacement for Parker Center; and the Los Angeles Unified School District is looking for a permanent headquarters building.

Immigration, justice, transportation/mobility, public safety and education: The agencies in question represent the most vital and necessary of governmental forces. Should they decide to remain in the Civic Center, that district will be re-energized by the social, economic and architectural presence of employment-intense agencies connected to government. The locations selected by these five governmental agencies, moreover, could either make or break the Civic Center Master Plan.

Completed last fall by a team of architects and urban planners--Melendrez Associates, Johnson Fain Partners, RAW Architecture, Public Works Design, and Landmark Partners--the Los Angeles Civic Center Master Plan has conceptualized the Civic Center as a diamond-shaped zone centered on City Hall, with its farthest points no more than a 10-minute walk from each other. The diamond incorporates the Plaza and Olvera Street, where Los Angeles began; Bunker Hill, toward which the city expanded as early as the Spanish era; Japantown and the rest of the riverbed quarter, and the downtown centered on Main Street, the axis along which the city began to advance in the 1870s.

The Civic Center Master Plan, in short, shows that the historic core of Los Angeles remains intact and vital with possibilities.

The naysayers, of course, contend that Los Angeles has no central place and, moreover, needs none. But why, one asks, are some 40 projects, totaling an estimated $3 billion in cost--among them, the renovation of City Hall, the construction of Our Lady of Angels Cathedral, the quickening back to life of the Disney Hall project, the construction of a Japanese-American National Museum, the expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the construction of the Coburn School of Performing Arts, and the renovation of the original Broadway Department Store by the state of California--currently being contemplated, in the design phase or under construction?

These projects represent an exhilarating synergy between the public and the private sectors. Civic Center Los Angeles might well be, as many claim, the second-largest governmental concentration outside of Washington, but it is not the exclusive province of governmental buildings and enterprises. It combines, rather, the active life of the public, private and philanthropic/cultural sectors.

Yet, large-scale governmental enterprises are necessary to anchor the Civic Center's economy, which is why the impending decisions of the five government agencies are so crucial.

It is no accident, moreover, that some members of the intergovernmental Civic Center Authority are outspoken boosters of the Civic Center. These elected officials, among them Rita Walters, Gloria Molina, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Louis Caldera, correctly sense the white-flight argument implicit in so much of the anti-Civic Center rhetoric. In one sense, they are resisting the political mode du jour that panders to a separatist hegemony (35 planning districts in the city, 88 cities in the metropolitan region). As important as these local entities are, they cannot support agencies and institutions--an airport, a port, an opera, a symphony, a regional transportation plan, a public library research collection, museums, sports stadia, a cathedral--the entire region needs for its social, economic and cultural vitality.

The Civic Center as an ideal moderates the urge toward Balkanization, which is among the supreme temptations of our post-modernist era. How ironic, then, that it should be our minority elected officials who most clearly see the need for continuing symbols of civic unity, while so many others have lost faith in the healing center and the common ground.

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