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Urban Pioneers in a Battle Usually Fought in Suburbs

Residents of gentrified downtown lofts don't want to live next to the LAPD's new home, but a park as they expected.

April 03, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when a gleaming, architecturally edgy new police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles might have been welcomed as a boost to a bleak urban landscape.

Thirty, 20, even 10 years ago the idea of a thriving city center was just that: a vision bandied about by planners that never seemed to happen.

And then things changed.

Now, as hundreds of apartments and condos have been built downtown and started to fill with residents, some of these new urban pioneers find themselves in the kind of battle usually fought in the suburbs.

They don't want to live next to the new home of the Los Angeles Police Department. Instead, they want more open space and an entire block filled with a park -- the way the city originally planned it.

On the other side of the debate is city government, which has spent the better part of a decade trying to find somewhere to build a $340.9-million replacement for Parker Center that would be open 24-7, complete with a rooftop helipad.

The city has settled on a site conveniently across from the south side of City Hall and also bordered by the new Caltrans building, the Los Angeles Times building and a turn-of-the-century office mid-rise now filled with expensive lofts and some very peeved residents.

There also would be a six-story garage and motor pool nearby, next to the restored St. Vibiana's Cathedral, irritating business owners at the north end of the developing Gallery Row arts district.

In March, the city released its final environmental report on the project. And though some downtown residents and businesses will continue to raise a fuss, in all likelihood the plan will be approved by the City Council this spring and construction will begin.

There remains disagreement over whether the project will have a broader impact on the Civic Center district downtown. Boosters see it as beneficial; critics think it's a train wreck; and others wonder if it reveals something else entirely: the lack of a consistent, long-range vision for the center of L.A.

"This entire episode is symptomatic of the failure of good planning in Los Angeles," said Ken Ehrlich, a park activist, artist and Cypress Park resident. "For seven years, there has been discussions at taxpayer expense to develop this land as a park, and at a drop of a hat it's ignored." Meanwhile, city officials aren't sure what to do with the current, outdated and undersized police headquarters, just east of City Hall, or its motor pool. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the downtown area, recently urged officials to explore tearing down Parker Center and possibly replacing it with other unspecified city structures.

And on top of the Higgins Building -- a blockish 1911 edifice rehabbed with residential lofts across from the headquarters site -- two banners hang. One reads "Mayor Save This Park." The other reads "Live Work Play," but "Live" and "Play" have been crossed out in red.


As early as the 1930s, with the construction of City Hall finished, Los Angeles planners had grand visions for a Civic Center much like the mall in Washington, D.C. City Hall would anchor an area that included courthouses, county buildings and a great lawn sweeping downhill toward Union Station.

What happened instead: The Hollywood Freeway carved the area in half and the Civic Center, courtesy of mid-20th-century architecture, filled with a slew of bland buildings.

And there things stood for decades, until 1997, when city and county leaders undertook a project to revamp the Civic Center and tie its disparate buildings together. The plan called for more green space and more uniformity in the design of tree grates, park benches and signs that were to be "colorful and festive."

The plan dictated that two new parks be created. The first would be on the west side of City Hall on a site occupied by a parking lot for the criminal courts building.

The other would be on the block dominated by the old Caltrans building and bounded by 1st, Spring, 2nd and Main streets.

Ira Yellin, the late civic leader and downtown developer, had long pushed for the old Caltrans site to become a park and helped conceptualize what it might look like.

Concurrently, the city was searching for a new home for Parker Center, a 1950s-era structure that was overcrowded, lacked fire sprinklers, had asbestos in its ventilation system and, according to city engineers, might not survive a major earthquake.

Several downtown commercial properties were considered but abandoned for reasons including cost, feasibility, politics, too little parking and the unwillingness of elected officials to allow the LAPD to be located too far from the seat of city government.

Officials finally settled on a large plot the city owned at 1st and Alameda streets. The property, at least originally, would have housed the police headquarters, a city jail and a fire station as well as the city's emergency operations center.

Enter the residents of Little Tokyo, an adjacent part of downtown that is well-kept and pedestrian-friendly.

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