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The Architecture of Rebirth

What happens to an empty lot will say much about the future of downtown Los Angeles.

July 26, 2004

There is more to the revival of downtown Los Angeles than the billion-dollar mega-developments being pitched for Grand Avenue and Staples Center. Whether downtown evolves into a vital place to live rather than just work or visit hinges on decisions like the one being made on a little-noticed empty lot near the Los Angeles River. Call it a battle for downtown's soul.

Four years ago, the Southern California Institute of Architecture moved its 500 students and 80 teachers into an old freight depot on a corner of the lot. Then-Mayor Richard Riordan lured the cutting-edge school to relocate from Santa Monica to this gritty corner of downtown with a $1-million city subsidy and a promised role in the neighborhood's comeback.

The students see downtown as a laboratory for transforming abandoned commercial areas into lively urban neighborhoods. So far they've worked on designs for a senior center and for skid row housing. For the empty lot next door, SCI-Arc envisioned an adventuresome mix of affordable lofts, restaurants and student parking.

But the nonprofit school ran into a conundrum: Its very presence and the nearby housing and cafes it helped stimulate drove up the lot's price. Before the school could raise enough money to buy the lot, the owner sold the land to developers who said they wanted to build two 40-story towers housing 400 luxury apartments, based on a model used in Miami Beach.

An import from Miami Beach! That was almost the worst blow for an architecture school known for innovation.

SCI-Arc offered to work with the developer on a new design. It tried to at least buy the land its leased building sits on. It filed a lawsuit.

What makes this more than just another Los Angeles brawl over land use -- or maybe a symbol of all such arguments -- is the wasted opportunities it represents: to tap the expertise of a well-respected school and get the most from a city subsidy. To build something architecturally adventurous instead of ordinary. Most of all, to build something that would succeed in a diverse, still dodgy part of downtown more likely to appeal to urban pioneers seeking low-rent artists' lofts than Westsiders hunting luxury apartments.

With City Councilwoman Jan Perry's help, SCI-Arc officials are still trying to work with the developer. At stake is not just one plot of land but the long-anticipated, long-elusive renaissance of a downtown. The optimistic rebirth announcements have come and gone, decade after decade. Maybe it's time to admit that, like the rest of this sprawling city, downtown refuses to be pegged as just one place. A one-size revival does not fit all.

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