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Faith in Angel Monument Teeters Off Its Pedestal

Development: The ambitious but stagnant venture loses major funding as well as credibility. Despite it, artist pushes ahead.


Artist Brett-Livingstone Strong succeeded in attracting plenty of attention after proposing to build a multibillion dollar development--crowned by a giant, sword-bearing angel--in the heart of Los Angeles.

Cash and credibility, however, have been harder to come by.

The venture behind the City of Angels Monument has recently lost a major financial supporter and has yet to purchase any property nearly 18 months after the bold project was unveiled, according to several real estate and legal specialists. A group of high-profile lawyers also cut their ties to the spectacular development, which would rise over the empty and tattered blocks across the Harbor Freeway from downtown Los Angeles.

"It was quite the ambitious project," said attorney Benjamin M. Reznik of the firm Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro. But "the impediment was financing."

Despite vows by Strong's representatives to push ahead, most real estate observers doubt that the group can revive the nearly 100-acre City of Angels Monument, which has intrigued and puzzled downtown landowners, civic leaders and residents since it was first proposed.

Many are still scratching their heads as to how a relatively obscure artist--who once transformed a 12 1/2-ton boulder into a sculpture of actor John Wayne--was able to win support from civic officials and attract initial financing for a project that would feature a 300-foot-high bronze angel as well as an indoor ski run.

In addition, the project would include three hotels, office buildings, shopping malls and an underground 8,000-seat concert hall.

"I know the whole thing sounds like it's impossible," said one downtown real estate executive. "But it's no stranger than some of the other things that have happened around here."

A native of Australia, Strong, 46, has made a living from a wide variety of artistic pursuits, ranging from statuettes of John Lennon to portraits of Michael Jackson to album cover designs. His promotional material likens him to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. He was one of four artists commissioned to create posters for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, according to one account.

In 1998, a few months before he went public with his plans for the City of Angels Monument, he and Beverly Hills financier Leonard Ross entered into an agreement to create "a major, large-scale monument of the type found in the world's great cities," according to court documents.

But the venture, which would have created a museum dedicated to the entertainment industry, was quickly snagged in a legal dispute revolving around charges of breach of contract. The matter was resolved out of court, according to attorneys on both sides, and Ross never invested in Strong's project.

A few months later, Strong and West Los Angeles businessman Gary Clayman made a splash by announcing plans for a $1.6-billion project centered at Third and Bixel streets. Set atop an enormous pedestal-like structure, the bronze angel would rise 100 feet higher than Los Angeles' tallest building: downtown's 73-story Library Tower.

The seemingly outlandish proposal raised quite a few eyebrows, even among Strong's admirers. "I think that Brett is an accomplished artist and sculptor but I'm not sure how much of a developer he is," said the owner of a nearby commercial project.

But many people tempered their public comments as Strong and Clayman fielded a team of highly paid legal and real estate professionals that included WestMac, a commercial brokerage, Gensler, a blue-chip architecture firm, as well as Reznik's law firm. In addition, the project claimed the financial backing of Bank of New York and CNB Capital Inc., a New Hampshire-based investment firm with offices in Orange County.

Soon, the City of Angels team had put down deposits to buy properties totaling 55 acres, including the Pacific Stock Exchange Building on Beaudry Street. The group even approached the Los Angeles Board of Education about purchasing the nearby site of the controversial Belmont Learning Complex. Mayor Richard Riordan as well as City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents the area, issued resolutions praising Strong's idea.

"We're taking it seriously because these guys are serious. They have financing," a Hernandez aide told The Times early last year.

But, as Strong's plans grew ever most elaborate and costly, so did the anxiety among his team. By June of last year, the City of Angels Monument had grown to a $3.55-billion development that, Strong said, might be linked to other portions of the city by high-speed monorails.

"It would have had credibility if he had stuck to one component," said an advisor who worked for Strong's group. But, "he kept growing and growing the project."

Earlier this year, CNB Capital withdrew its commitment to finance more than $125 million in land purchases.

"We haven't had discussions with them in 45 days," said Todd Harris, CNB Capital senior vice president, in an interview last week. "We had issues with them."

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