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OUTSIDE THE TENT

The Times rolls over for Grand Avenue pitchmen

February 25, 2007|Joseph Mailander | JOSEPH MAILANDER writes for MartiniRepublic.com.

IF YOU'RE wondering why you didn't know very much about the Grand Avenue project until it became a done deal, first consider its backers' relationship to the local pols and especially to the local fish wrap of record.

There's Eli Broad, whom everyone calls a "philanthropist" when they could just as easily call him a "billionaire suburban developer," who may even go so far as to buy this fish wrap of record. There's celebrity architect Frank Gehry, who, along with Broad, delivered Disney Hall 10 years late and $100 million over budget, with uncomfortable seats to boot, and yet somehow was rewarded with an avalanche of love from this paper. And there's Related Cos., the out-of-state developer (the one that gave New York City the not-so-beloved Time Warner Center) with the most golden of Los Angeles lobbyists in pocket, smoothing all the rough edges flat.

After Related Cos. won the exclusive right to negotiate the project two years ago, the subsequent Times coverage rarely analyzed its civic purpose beyond parroting Broad's promise to "give L.A. a heart." The paper almost never questioned the propriety of handing over one of L.A.'s most potentially sacred spaces -- the mall that runs between the Music Center and City Hall -- to the custody of commercial developers. And not just any old developers, but the same commercial hustlers who shoehorned so much retail space and "bland gigantism" (in New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's words) into Manhattan's Columbus Circle.

Instead of promoting civic debate, The Times covered banal civic financial arrangements, letters of credit, tax breaks, subsidies, rebates and City Council votes. The reporters mostly knocked on doors that were easily opened, quoting tangential people who speak in the deadly dull language of bankers and administrators. Spliced in was tired flackage from promoters, politicians and the occasional pundit. These were ground into fresh-looking news only on the occasion of new fait accompli civic actions to hurdle.

There were some cries in the wilderness along the way. In July 2005, an Op-Ed article by Martin Kaplan called for "a loving civic intervention" if the design process weren't made more open to the public. In response, The Times devoted some more space to the project in December of that year, calling for public input. This faux-charette ultimately only reinforced the idea that something needed to be done to the space; the fact that the city should cede land was a given. Now, of course, the only real "civic intervention" has been to certify the development team with subsidies, even though what will be delivered remains a question mark.

Other opposing views the paper published along the way, such as Times columnist Steve Lopez's and outside contributor Joel Kotkin's, only sounded helplessly naive. Theirs was the voice of a crotchety dad giving advice ironically, decades too late to matter. "There seems to be a lot of questions about what this is," The Times once unhelpfully quoted Kotkin as saying in 2005. And on Feb. 11, Lopez quickly devoted a gentler column to the project after having penned a more hostile one a couple days earlier, ultimately concluding that there is still time for enough "imagination" to make the project acceptable.

Had the coverage of the Grand Avenue project been framed even slightly differently, readers might have been more startled to learn that the City Council and Board of Supervisors have voted not only to let the very fattest of local and out-of-state fat cats do their thing on some of L.A.'s most choice downtown real estate, but to pay them to do so, rewarding them for 20 months of foot-dragging.

The Times treated the latest subsidy imbroglio as though the real estate across from Disney Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art were in a blighted urban enterprise zone, its custodians in need of civic hand-holding. On Feb. 3, the news pages gave project backers an enormous boost by hyping a city report that claimed the tax breaks were "indispensable for getting the high-rise development off the ground" and making such gifts appear to be business as usual: "Related [Cos.] has spent months negotiating behind the scenes for the tax breaks, an increasingly common incentive used by cities to attract catalytic projects."

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WITH THE KIND of humdrum press The Times has coughed up throughout the proposal phase of the project, readers have been conditioned to believe that they are expected to like handing over tax money and incentives galore, along with choice civic property, to the very plutocrats who have shaken down the city in the past. We can only hope that subscribers demand to watch the development's real design phase with stakeholder-level scrutiny, paying special heed to the park.

The Grand Avenue project's near-unanimous sailing through county and city government should give the Los Angeles Times pause and cause its reporters to reexamine their role as journalists. You who imagine yourself to be inside the tent: Monitor the design phase of the project very carefully and tell us what you see, not what the backers want you to see.

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