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Few Aware of Proposed Public Plaza in Downtown Los Angeles

Development: The still-undefined Civic Square has yet to attract attention as part of rejuvenation project.

November 20, 2001|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles officials have set aside $25 million and negotiated a complicated land swap with the state as part of a bold plan to transform an entire city block in downtown Los Angeles into a public plaza.

But few people outside of the downtown establishment seem to know about the plan to create a new focal point for public life in central Los Angeles. Despite the allocation of city funds, details for Civic Square--including a final price tag--remain sketchy at best and the proposal has been supported only in concept by previous City Councils.

Even the staff of Mayor James Hahn lacks detailed knowledge of Civic Square, which would be located immediately south of City Hall. "Nobody here has been involved with it," said spokeswoman Julie Wong.

"In most cities this would be a big deal," said Los Angeles real estate consultant Larry Kosmont. "I haven't heard anything at all about this."

Backers of the Civic Square proposal say the project is part of an effort to rejuvenate the Civic Center, tie together downtown neighborhoods and stimulate further development. The project's long-term and still-undefined nature has made it difficult to generate public debate or attention, say supporters.

"As time goes on there will be more meat on this [plan]," said former Community Redevelopment Agency Administrator Ed Avila, an advocate of Civic Square who also is involved in the restoration of City Hall. "I anticipate there will be a lot of discussion and intergovernmental and private involvement."

The idea of creating a public plaza on the block bounded by 1st, 2nd, Main and Spring streets was included in a 1997 master plan to revive the Civic Center, a hodgepodge of government buildings, parking lots and open spaces. The plan, adopted by the City Council, backs creation of open space on the block that is home to Caltrans' regional headquarters and a strip of businesses along 1st Street.

Some downtown leaders have said the parking lots and vacant government land just west of City Hall might be more suitable for a public plaza.

But the Civic Center master plan has designated that property for development of additional buildings and a garden that would extend uphill to the Music Center. The block to the south remains the preferred site for a Civic Square, said landscape architect Lauren Melendrez, who oversaw the creation of the Civic Center master plan.

"It's a real important piece of property," Melendrez said. "It can become the center of the Civic Center and a place for people to come together."

Civic Square supporters say the site fills the need for a central gathering spot to stage city celebrations, rallies and other events. It would be fronted by some of the city's well-known institutions and buildings, including Los Angeles City Hall, the Los Angeles Times and the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral.

"This is innovative stuff for the city of Los Angeles ... to create a new sense of public space," said developer Dan Rosenfeld, who has been involved in Civic Center planning. "This city doesn't have a great track record ... of creating successful public places."

Caltrans, which occupies much of the block envisioned as Civic Square, recently selected Rosenfeld to develop a $171-million complex one block east of its existing buildings. The state will give its portion of the Civic Square block to the city in return for other land Caltrans needs to complete its new office building.

Earlier this year, the City Council approved the arrangement and budgeted $25 million to purchase a strip of businesses along two blocks of 1st Street. That deal would give Caltrans the property it needs and also would put the entire Civic Square block under city ownership.

If the city is successful in purchasing the properties, Caltrans is scheduled to start construction on its new building by the middle of next year. The state has agreed to hand over its property on the Civic Square block by the end of 2005, said Gerry Miller, who is overseeing the property acquisition for the city's Office of the Chief Legislative Analyst.

"We intend to purchase the other properties and turn that into open space," Miller said.

The city is committed to acquiring control of the Civic Square block but has not estimated how much it will spend on developing the property, Miller said.

The effort to create a detailed plan for Civic Square and to find a way to pay for it certainly will raise its profile. But more intense public review could result in rival uses for such a centrally located block, real estate observers say.

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