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Disney Hall's Resonance Downtown May Be Subtle

October 23, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

In the half-dozen years since it opened, the Frank Gehry- designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has created thousands of new jobs, pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy and almost single-handedly turned a dying postindustrial city into an international tourist destination. That phenomenon today is widely referred to in cultural circles as "the Bilbao effect."

The "Los Angeles effect" stemming from Gehry's $274-million Walt Disney Concert Hall is likely to be much more subtle and indirect. Rather than dollars and cents, the new hall's benefits may be measurable principally in how Los Angeles is perceived at home and abroad: as a burgeoning cultural center where the fine arts finally have a place beside the popular culture of the Hollywood entertainment industry.

Already, Disney Hall, which officially opens this week, has helped spur commercial development along landmark-studded Grand Avenue. Among the most high-profile of the recent arrivals is celebrity restaurateur-chef Joachim Splichal. He announced last month that he was relocating his flagship Patina restaurant from Melrose Avenue to the new concert hall and was opening another restaurant, Kendall's Brasserie, replacing Otto's on the ground level of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion across the street.

"The number of tours and other visitors will increase substantially," said Jim Thomas, a developer and chairman of the Grand Avenue Committee, a nonprofit group that is promoting and coordinating redevelopment in the area around the concert hall. "So then real estate people, retailers, entertainment, food, people in these businesses will see that the bodies are there, [that] 'I can make my business work.' And beyond just the hard cold facts you have the psychological impact, which is tremendous. When you go there and you see this tremendous achievement, you want to be there."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Jack Kyser -- An article in Friday's California section about MTA talks and an article in Thursday's Section A about the impact of Disney Hall both misspelled the name of the senior vice president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. The economist's name is Jack Kyser, not Keyser.

But the concert hall's potential value goes beyond these economic effects, solidifying downtown's growing image as the high-culture heart of Southern California. The building's completion, Thomas says, represents "a giant leap forward" for the Grand Avenue cultural corridor, the stretch of prime downtown real estate that connects the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre, the Colburn School of Performing Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art with Bunker Hill's high-rise office towers to the south.

Under an ambitious plan, the Grand Avenue Committee, which is co-chaired by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, envisions Grand Avenue as a dynamic urban axis that will unite the city's civic, business and cultural nerve centers. To accomplish this, the committee has proposed upgraded streetscaping, the conversion of unused parcels of land into housing, retail, entertainment and office space and the development of a large civic park stretching from the Department of Water and Power building at the top of Bunker Hill east to City Hall.

The new concert hall, Thomas said, fills a pivotal role in bringing cohesion to, and focusing attention on, these broader goals.

"We've been working on this plan for several years now, and the thing that we were seeing is that once the [concert hall] construction started and you had the shell up, the level of interest increased almost daily as construction progressed," Thomas said.

Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles, which represents downtown business interests, said that her office had not made "any kind of formal study" of the new hall's potential economic impact. "It probably would've been smart to do that," she said.

However, Schatz said, that impact will depend not simply on attracting new visitors downtown -- in addition to longtime Los Angeles Philharmonic patrons -- but on whether those visitors can be encouraged to extend their stay and sample downtown's expanding list of attractions.

"It's our job to turn the visit into an impact itself. In other words, that you don't just visit the hall -- you have lunch or you have dinner, you take the Dash [bus] down to the Jewelry District or the Fashion District. That's what we'll be doing," she said.

While some Los Angeles business officials have spoken hopefully of the new hall replicating the Bilbao effect, the comparison is not particularly apt. The Bilbao project was part of a massive, publicly funded urban redevelopment effort augmented by millions of dollars in infrastructure and public works, including a new subway system designed by the acclaimed British architect Norman Foster. No comparable public investment has attended the construction of Disney Hall.

In addition, Bilbao was a cultural blank slate prior to the Guggenheim opening, with virtually no tourist industry whatsoever. Today, the city attracts 1 million visitors a year. By contrast, Los Angeles and the Southern California region hardly need Gehry's spectacular new edifice to put them on the map.

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