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7 Years Later, Disney Hall Breaks Ground Once Again


After 12 years of planning and hope, mismanagement and recriminations--not to mention fund-raising--the Walt Disney Concert Hall is finally going up.

Today at 9, city, county and arts dignitaries will gather at the site's parking structure to formally mark the beginning of above-ground construction on the new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In many ways, it will be a typical civic event, complete with an appearance by Mayor Richard Riordan and plenty of fanfare (in this case, literally--the orchestra will perform).

The latest contributions to the project--totaling $5.5 million--will be announced, bringing the building fund in line with the confirmed costs of $274 million.

Walt Disney's daughter Diane Disney Miller will join schoolchildren in unveiling a 40-foot-long sign featuring a photo of the model for architect Frank O. Gehry's spectacular, undulating design.

But--not so typical--the event in many ways will be less a celebration of a groundbreaking than an end to years of highly publicized money and management problems that nearly sank the project.

"I will be there at the groundbreaking--it's my second one, you know," Miller said a few days before the event. "I thought [the first one] was a real groundbreaking, and it wasn't. But this is."

Gehry, who in 1988 won the international competition to become the concert hall architect with his controversial, all-curves design, echoed her sentiments.

"I believe them now," Gehry said with a laugh. "You know the feeling of something that you have been waiting for for a long time? As soon as I see some stuff going up, then I'll feel it."

Said Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra's music director: "When I see the steel rods sticking out of the garage, I will open a very nice bottle of something." Salonen is in London and will be unable to attend today's ceremonies.

"I hope that it will be seen as the Carnegie Hall of the West," he added.

It will definitely be a bigger and architecturally splashier monument to music than the New York City landmark. The final design of the block-square Bunker Hill campus includes a 2,290-seat concert hall, gardens and other public spaces, two outdoor amphitheaters, rehearsal rooms, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, and offices for the Philharmonic.

The concert hall dream began in 1987, with a donation of $50 million from Walt Disney's widow, Lillian B. Disney.

On Dec. 10, 1992, Miller stood side by side with her sister, Sharon Disney Lund, at the first groundbreaking ceremony, for the underground parking garage that forms the base for the hall.

Back then, the hall, budgeted at $110 million (with an additional $100 million allotted for the garage, paid for by a county bond issue) was expected to open in 1997--with Lillian Disney as the front-row guest of honor.

Today's event takes place almost a year after Lillian Disney's death at the age of 98 (Sharon Disney Lund died of cancer in 1993), and six years after spiraling cost estimates in 1994 revealed that the hall would cost more than twice the original estimate. The money problems caused the county to shut down construction in 1995.

The stalled project was revived in 1996 when billionaire businessman and arts patron Eli Broad joined Riordan and Andrea van de Kamp, board chairman of the Music Center, to launch a funding drive that raised more than $120 million in less than three years. Donors include the Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation and company chief Ron Burkle ($15 million) and the Arco Foundation ($10 million). Gifts of $5 million came from Wells Fargo, Bank of America, the Times Mirror Foundation, Riordan and Broad.

Broad has since stepped down from his position as chairman of the Disney Hall oversight committee, replaced by William E.B. Siart, but he remains active in the Disney Hall effort.

In December 1997, the drive netted a $25-million matching grant from the Walt Disney Co., which virtually assured that the hall could meet its financial needs. In addition, Roy E. Disney and his wife, Patty, added a $5-million donation specifically to build a theater on the site for CalArts.

But 1997 did not mark the end of the project's problems. In May of that year, Broad and Riordan endorsed a "design-build" plan that would have authorized contractors, rather than Gehry, to complete design drawings for the hall. Gehry threatened to walk off the project. He also argued that Broad's cost estimate for the hall, $220 million, was unrealistically low.

That August, Miller, who up to that point had avoided personal involvement in construction concerns, forced the issue by authorizing up to $14 million in Disney family funds already donated to the project to be used to have Frank O. Gehry & Associates to complete design work. Broad agreed to the working estimate of $255 million predicted by Gehry and his firm.

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