When it comes to the redevelopment of Grand Avenue, will Thom Mayne wind up looking like the proverbial canary in the coal mine? And is Frank Gehry poised to join the project in full?
Those questions remain unanswered after a master plan for Los Angeles' downtown core earned preliminary approval Monday from the Grand Avenue Authority, a body that includes city and county officials and was created to oversee the project.
The master plan is something of a paradox. Though privately financed, the project holds the potential not just to revitalize downtown but to reassert its very public-ness. It was unveiled at a news conference by the New York-based developer Related Cos. and the Grand Avenue Committee, a panel chaired by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. The plan itself was produced largely by Related and the Chicago office of architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
The $1.8-billion project proposes adding nine acres of mixed-use development, including as many as five residential towers of 25 to 50 stories each, immediately to the south and east of Walt Disney Concert Hall. It also calls for a 16-acre park -- a potentially stunning space that would sweep down the hill in a series of terraces, from the Music Center to the steps of City Hall.
More broadly, the plan aims to stitch together downtown's stand-alone architectural icons -- City Hall, Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jose Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and Arata Isozaki's Museum of Contemporary Art -- with a new fabric of housing, retail and outdoor spaces. On the commercial side, it would add a boutique hotel, an upscale grocery, an art-house cinema, a health club and several restaurants to the area ringed by 1st Street, 2nd Street, Grand Avenue and Hill Street. That piece of land, just down the hill from Disney Hall, now is covered by parking lots.
The redevelopment will offer a high-profile, high-stakes test of the public-private partnerships that have grown so popular in cash-strapped cities around the country. Such partnerships require elected officials to cede substantial control of traditionally civic initiatives to developers. In this case, in exchange for fast-track approvals for the commercial component, which could bring the company a windfall, Related has agreed to build the park at no cost to taxpayers.
If well executed, the park could give downtown the truly vibrant gathering place civic leaders have dreamed of since the City Beautiful Movement at the turn of the previous century. But if it is sterile, overly precious or devotes too much space to high-priced retail pavilions, it will reinforce the city's reputation as a place where the private and the profitable trump the public every time, and where the main architectural attractions are out-of-the-way jewels connected only by a gridlocked freeway system.
Now designed to cover 16 acres, the park could find extra breathing room if two aging buildings, the 1958 County Courthouse and 1961 Hall of Administration, were demolished and their tenants moved to a new office tower on Hill Street. Knocking down the courthouse, on 1st between Grand and Hill, would help connect the park more successfully to the commercial development, from which it is substantially walled off in the current version of the master plan. But the demolitions would require bringing public money and vigorous public leadership to a development that has so far lacked both.
Related has assembled a high-powered if conservative group of designers to execute its vision, including SOM's Philip Enquist, who helped develop Millennium Park in Chicago; his SOM colleague David Childs, who has been battling with Daniel Libeskind over the design of the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site in New York; Philadelphia-based landscape architect Laurie Olin; and local architect Brenda Levin.
Mayne and his Santa Monica firm, Morphosis, were part of the original Related lineup. The architect -- who was awarded the Pritzker Prize, his field's highest honor, this year -- is known for hard-edged designs that aren't always kind to individual users or pedestrians. Still, there can be no doubting the level of his commitment to Los Angeles or his fierce impatience with traditional development formulas, which have produced so many soulless, fortress-like office towers downtown in the last two decades.
That's why his split from the Related team, which Mayne says came after his first and only presentation to the company, should be cause for concern -- even for those with reservations about his architecture. Above all, Mayne's presence offered hope that the project might avoid the glossily generic feel that has marked other recent Related buildings, notably the mall-like Time Warner Center in Manhattan, also an SOM design.