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Sci-Arc problem has a solution

Officials could dedicate a publicly owned parcel in the Grand Avenue plan for the architecture institute's campus.

June 10, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Over the last few weeks, two seemingly unrelated architectural dramas have been playing out in downtown Los Angeles.

Inside Department 18 of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or Sci-Arc, has been fighting a nasty legal battle over the fate of its single-building campus on the eastern edge of downtown. A decision in the case is expected shortly, perhaps as early as today; a victory for Sci-Arc, allowing it to buy the renovated rail depot it's been leasing for five years, appears unlikely.

Meanwhile, along Grand Avenue, New York-based developer Related Cos. has been working to flesh out and win final approval for a plan to build two huge mixed-use commercial parcels to accompany a 16-acre park. The $1.8-billion project doesn't include a single educational or cultural component or, at least so far, any prominent local architects to complement its roster of established and largely risk-averse firms from Chicago, Boston and New York. Without a change of architectural course, its commercial sections may provide little more than a shiny, joyless parade of high-end chain stores.

Remarkably, there's an attractively simple solution to Sci-Arc's real estate woes and the Related plan's essential conservatism that no one has suggested: Dedicate one of the publicly owned parcels in the new Grand Avenue development for a new, free-standing Sci-Arc campus building, and give the job of designing it to an emerging, experimentally minded architecture firm based in Los Angeles.

In a single stroke, the gesture would give Sci-Arc the permanent home it has been seeking downtown and offer an early sign of reassurance that Related is committed to more than the bottom line. It would bring to the heart of the new development hundreds of architecture students, not to mention audiences for evening lectures, exhibitions and other Sci-Arc events that are open to the public.

More than that, the move would provide the youthful and architectural energy that the project is now lacking.

Sci-Arc's 450 students and 80 faculty members, once in place, could help transform the development from within. Their presence could help attract a diverse mixture of retail outlets as well as, in time, residents who might not otherwise consider living there.

Adding to the crowds now drawn to the Music Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art and other venues, the school could help push this part of downtown toward a critical mass of culture.

Ideally, the architecture of Sci-Arc's new building would match the school's reputation for risk-taking and innovation, challenging the firms working on the large surrounding buildings to match its verve. There is certainly no shortage of qualified young Los Angeles architects to design it. If it were exceptionally successful, it could offer a generational counterpoint to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the nearby Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, projects designed, respectively, by two deans of Southern California architecture, 76-year-old Frank Gehry and 61-year-old Thom Mayne.

Finally, the move would suggest that City Councilwoman Jan Perry, county Supervisor Gloria Molina, philanthropist Eli Broad and other leaders of the Grand Avenue Authority and its associated planning committee, who are overseeing the project, are taking creative, even unorthodox steps to ensure its vitality.

In such a scenario, land would be donated by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency or by Los Angeles County, depending on which parcel the school occupied. Paying for the new building would be Sci-Arc's responsibility, though with the prestige of a high-profile new site -- and even the mere rhetorical support of Broad and others -- the school's prospects for fundraising should be considerably brighter than they've been in its current location. A sizable gift from Related could get the campaign going.

There are several possible locations for a new Sci-Arc. The school could take up residence in the parcel of land south of Disney Hall, most of which is owned by the CRA -- say, along Hope Street. But it would be better if planners included it in the first phase of construction, which will occur in a parcel down the hill from Disney Hall that is bounded by 1st, 2nd, Grand and Hill and is owned by the county. Doing so could put Sci-Arc on a relatively fast track to a new home.

The cost would almost surely be higher than the $12.8 million Sci-Arc was ready to spend to buy its present home. Two to three times that figure might be a reasonable preliminary estimate.

This solution wouldn't be a cure-all. It would leave a vacuum in the neighborhood where Sci-Arc is now located, on East 3rd Street near the L.A. River, which with a boost from the school has been slowly coming to life. Any plan to bring Sci-Arc up the hill should include commitments from the city that it will encourage new buildings around its old campus that respect the low-rise scale and the gritty character of that area.

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