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Build a better downtown

Design competitions leave too many good ideas out of the mix.

November 18, 2006|Richard Weinstein | RICHARD WEINSTEIN, a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA, was dean from 1985-94; he was on the jury for Disney Hall and administered the competition for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

THE SHAPE OF downtown Los Angeles is still in our hands because we are a young city and have room to grow, even at the core. At the same time, the city has an unmatched record of missing opportunities to become its own place.

On Friday, the state announced Hargreaves Associates as the winner of a design competition for a park at the Cornfield -- 32 acres of land north of Chinatown. The proposal is thoughtful and interesting, though constrained by the rules of the competition.

But what the Cornfield competition really points out is how infrequently we are choosing from the best available options, some of which may lie outside the limits of a narrowly conceived exercise. Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne, working with the East Coast firm Field Operations, proposed a visionary scheme: Build a new Dodger Stadium in the Cornfield near the adjacent Gold Line and, in Chavez Ravine, create a small city of housing on 60 acres, with 205 acres added to Elysian Park. The financial transactions involved would have funded the new parkland and restoration of the Los Angeles River bordering the Cornfield at lower cost to the state and city.

Some thought the idea outrageous. It was certainly wholly outside the rules of the competition, and it left many questions unanswered. But it raised precisely the big questions that should have been asked about the Cornfield development.

Where were the city's policy people as the state put the Cornfield in play? This land -- abutting a Metro Line train, Chavez Ravine, Elysian Park and the L.A. River -- represents a continent of opportunities. Whenever a big, juicy, empty piece of downtown land is involved, there should be a scramble not just to fill it but to see what can be leveraged by its development.

The same is true of the Civic Center. Redevelopment plans there will succeed based on what happens to the outmoded Stanley Mosk Courthouse and the county Hall of Administration, which are likely to be vacated in the future. And yet a new park going south toward City Hall is already being designed to fit between these obsolete county buildings. This shortsightedness may preclude the highest and best plan for the whole area, including the blocks opposite Disney Hall that are being designed by Frank Gehry.

Competitions can energize the conversation about who we uniquely are as a city. This was the case with Disney Hall, the Orange County Great Park and Millennium Park in Chicago.

Granted, sometimes the contests backfire, such as when a designer proposes an idea outside the rules. That was the case in 2001 when Rem Koolhaas was chosen to build the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art, while his rivals bitterly imagined what they might have proposed if they also had ignored the brief. (His scheme proved unworkable, and the commission ultimately landed elsewhere.)

For a competition to work, the process must be well conceived, the jury must include professionals who know the game and its administration must be fair.

The best way to run competitions for large-scale projects is in two stages. The first, an ideas competition, would identify overlooked potentials, like the ones suggested by Mayne and Field Operations. At that point, political, civic and community leaders would decide which of the proposals, if any, should influence a second stage. We then could be confident that all options had been explored, that no good idea was lost to punish us with regret later.

Unfortunately, when a vision matching Los Angeles' potential has emerged in the past -- as it once did in the Olmstead Plan for parks and landscaped boulevards, or when promising plans for Bunker Hill emerged in the late 1980s -- we have settled instead for mediocrity.

Today, fragmented and overlapping jurisdictions -- the city, county and state -- have created the noir into which good ideas disappear and that weakens our resolve to reject the second rate. The only remedy is charismatic leadership by a mayor who can overcome the inertia of small ideas. Antonio Villaraigosa must put urban design on the agenda and bring to the policy table those who know how to do it, like his new city planner, Gail Goldberg.

Those who continue to wish Los Angeles were more like someplace else should think instead about how to take advantage of what we might become.

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