Hello, Columbus: L.A. Street Looks to a New York Circle

Developer sees the vibrant hub as a model for Grand Avenue. It would be a challenge.

June 19, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Wedged between Lincoln Center and the theater district, Columbus Circle had long been known as an urban landmark inexplicably lacking the hustle and bustle of the rest of Manhattan.

But two years ago, developer Related Cos. opened the 55-story mega-complex known as Time Warner Center here -- and, largely as a result, the area has been transformed. The "mini-city" boasts some of New York's most expensive restaurants as well as luxury condos, a five-star hotel, a Whole Foods Market and, soon, a museum -- all within a few blocks.

Related is now preparing to break ground on another mega-complex: the $1.8-billion, Frank Gehry-designed Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles.

When people ask what Grand Avenue will look and feel like, the developers at Related often point to Columbus Circle. But a visit to Manhattan makes it clear that despite some similarities, replicating the upscale atmosphere and vibrant pedestrian life of Columbus Circle is going to be a challenge.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Columbus: A story in the June 19 A section about Columbus Circle in New York misspelled the name of a sushi master who runs a restaurant in the Time Warner Center. His name is Masa Takayama.

The circle, though once sleepy, had a large, well-heeled residential population living nearby and is located within a quick walk of Central Park, Fifth Avenue's shopping district and Broadway.

By contrast, Grand Avenue is on Bunker Hill, on the far north side of downtown. The area is home to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art, but it is a long uphill walk from other local institutions, including the Central Library, Staples Center and the increasingly trendy South Park district.

Time Warner Center's shops feed off a much denser array of offices and residential buildings than Grand Avenue's shops would. In Columbus Circle, the upscale businesses are sustained both by residents who live nearby and workers at the center's namesake company, media titan Time Warner. Though Grand Avenue will have some office space in its third phase, most of the high-rise units are set aside for hotel rooms, condos and low-income affordable housing.

Related has touted both developments for their village concept, including shopping, homes, businesses and even subway stops in one sprawling development.

But New York Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff is quick to point out the inherent difference in the two cities.

New York "is a walking city. It's a mass transit city.... Creating these hubs of activity built around ease of access has been our time-honored formula for success," he said.

"That's obviously different from what you'll find in Los Angeles."

Architect Jeffrey Inaba, who teaches at both New York's Columbia University and Los Angeles' Southern California Institute of Architecture, says comparing the two projects underscores an inherent contradiction in L.A.'s effort to bring urban vitality to downtown.

Time Warner, he said, "is essentially suburban in its logic. The ironic thing would be that [Los Angeles], a city that is largely suburban, aspiring to have its first urban destination, would be copying an urban city that has a suburban destination."

Still, Related officials remain convinced that Grand Avenue will see the same success as Time Warner Center.

They are banking on Grand Avenue essentially priming the pump in the area, drawing more developers to build office and residential towers nearby. Grand Avenue, as they see it, would become the hub of a much larger development boom.

"During the first six to 12 months [of construction], you announce the tenants, and that builds a level of excitement, and people suddenly become believers," said Kenneth A. Himmel, president and chief executive of Related Urban Development. "What happens to the peripheral area is that anything with momentum, that is already going, accelerates, because of the quality and breadth and depth of the project."

It remains to be seen how much development Grand Avenue will spark. But LA Live, the sports- and entertainment-focused mega-shopping center rising a few miles south near Staples Center, could either complement or compete with Grand Avenue. Though the developers argue that the projects will benefit each other, both must become retail destinations in a region that already has many, including the Grove, Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and Hollywood & Highland.


On a recent evening, a crowd of people waited out a thunderstorm in the cavernous lobby of Time Warner Center. A boy played at the base of a female Botero sculpture, one of a pair titled "Adam and Eve" who stand guard in front of the building's central escalators.

Businessmen chatted via Blackberries. Out-of-towners, maps in hand, planned their next stops. Above, visible through the building's two-story glass scrim, Columbus Circle, and Central Park beyond, were illuminated by lightning.

When it was built, Time Warner Center was not universally embraced. Some dismissed it as architecturally boring, far too big for the neighborhood and too much like a suburban shopping mall.

But the center has proved more successful than many envisioned.

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