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With Vision, a New Downtown

July 26, 1998

Competing visions of the future of downtown Los Angeles have become a fixation among developers and policymakers. Should we, can we, have a "real" downtown again that attracts upscale shoppers and an after-hours dinner and theater crowd? Or because Los Angeles is so different from other cities, so widespread and diverse, must we settle for a smaller vision, one that sees a downtown of cultural attractions but not the thriving commerce and night life of other cities?

The news last week that the Walt Disney Concert Hall project has raised the last $20 million needed to start construction means that we should soon sense which downtown will emerge from all the talk.

The added $20 million, raised from several sources, puts the total pledged beyond the original Disney gift at $196 million. The gifts mean that the stalled concert hall project has met a crucial county deadline five months ahead of schedule.

Los Angeles County, which owns the 1st Street and Grand Avenue site on which the hall will be built, shut down the project in 1995 because of spiraling cost estimates. County officials demanded firm construction estimates for the ambitious Frank O. Gehry design and insisted that backers raise 95% of the estimated $205 million needed before a groundbreaking could take place. That challenge has now been met, and it seems assured that the hall will open in 2002.

The project began in 1987 with the late Lillian B. Disney's $50-million gift to build the concert hall in her late husband's name. Now, with funding in hand, construction could begin in April, but the long delay has resulted in both promise and problems. New elements include administrative offices and a 200-seat theater for the California Institute of the Arts. Meanwhile, Gehry has had to redesign the hall, replacing limestone with less costly metal cladding on the soaring wing-like exterior.

This is the outline of our emerging downtown so far: When completed, Disney Hall will join other new landmarks like the Colburn School of Performing Arts, which opened recently on Grand Avenue, the new Roman Catholic cathedral, expected to open in 2000, and the Staples Arena, now rising beside the Convention Center.

Smaller but no less important projects are conversion of the old Broadway department store into state offices; establishment of Los Angeles Center Studios, a sound-stage complex, in the old Unocal headquarters, and repairing of dilapidated buildings on historic Olvera Street.

Each of these is expected to draw new visitors to downtown and to keep some of the daytime crowd into the evening. But success will turn on the extent to which planners establish a relationship that links these structures, making each seem less like outposts amid a sea of empty storefronts and aging buildings and more part of a visually appealing neighborhood.

Joint planning by Civic Center-area agencies and creative public-private partnerships can help. Under the direction of the Los Angeles Civic Center Authority, these efforts will determine the future of downtown Los Angeles, and it's looking good. caption: Model of interior of proposed Disney Hall, which is expected to help invigorate downtown Los Angeles.

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