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Downtown booms, Civic Center fizzles

As a state building is razed, stalled plans for a courthouse there symbolize the stagnation in the area around City Hall.

July 28, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

The building has been reduced almost to rubble now. But for years, the former Junipero Serra state office building sat vacant and moribund at 1st and Broadway, a symbol of the more derelict aspects of downtown.

The once-bustling building was abandoned a decade ago, amid fears that it was seismically unsound, and had become a favorite destination for squatters, taking on the ripe stench of urine and garbage.

But for the last few months the 369,000-square-foot structure has been hidden behind a heavy green shroud, as workers have systematically demolished it floor-by-floor.

The property, slated to become a federal courthouse, is within a hub of construction activity downtown. To the west, the $2-billion Grand Avenue project will break ground this year. To the east, the new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters are taking shape on an old Caltrans site.

But unlike those projects, which seem to be on a fast track to completion, the courthouse has become for civic planners a bit of a cautionary tale about need colliding with fiscal realities.

It also underscores the fact that while downtown is in the midst of a development surge, the Civic Center remains a work in progress.

The area has been the focus of a spate of civic plans over the last few decades, most of which failed to materialize in any real way. Even now, government officials seem unsure about what to do with the patchwork quilt of buildings that surround City Hall.

In some quarters, officials have discussed elaborate land swaps among the different municipalities, so that, for example, future buildings can be located closer to their civic brethren. (The site of the planned federal courthouse, for example, is blocks away from two other federal courthouses. And the police headquarters will be separated from other LAPD buildings in the city center.)

In addition, Los Angeles County officials have been considering what to do with their Hall of Administration and Stanley Mosk Courthouse, which have seismic and asbestos problems. The design process for the 16-acre park that is part of the Grand Avenue project includes scenarios in which those buildings would be razed, their footprints integrated into the park and some of the offices moved to an office tower in the final phase of the project.

Robert Harris, professor emeritus of architecture at USC, said care needs to be placed on the design of the new Civic Center buildings.

He worries about the bunker quality of more recent government buildings. Designed in an era of terrorism fear, most have one entrance, few ground-level amenities and little truly public space.

"A part of what's missing is a really wonderful urban space -- so that as one comes to that center, one feels the quality, the dignity, the accessibility for government services," he said, "so that it's not just a convenience but symbolically democratic."

Thus a lot is riding on the proposed court building.

Originally, plans called for the largest federal courthouse in the nation -- "a shining example of sustainable design innovation" that would blend "environmentally progressive public spaces with traditional symbols of American courthouse design," according to the website of the project's architect, Perkins and Will.

Between 2000 and 2005, the federal government allocated about $399 million for construction of the 1.3-million-square-foot structure on land it bought from the state.

But with downtown booming, construction costs skyrocketing and an expensive war being fought overseas, the federal government has found that it can't afford to start construction. And so, although demolition continues, it's going to be a while before construction cranes arrive.

Gene Gibson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. General Services Administration, said the courthouse's construction budget is under review, "since market projections for construction are causing concern on the adequacy of the budget."

Neither Gibson nor representatives of Perkins and Will would comment on how the design of the courthouse would change, given the fiscal realities. One source familiar with the process said officials would eliminate an entire floor and possibly an interior atrium.

But design changes will take the courthouse project only so far. Officials will probably have to go back to Congress for further allocations to complete the process. Gibson said the GSA is now looking at 2009 for awarding the construction contract. Until then, the site will most likely sit vacant.

There are several reasons why the Civic Center finds itself at a crossroads.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents most of downtown, sees the broad spread of government office buildings across downtown as partly a function of a time when there was surplus office space in the area. Under those circumstances, government agencies leased space outside the Civic Center.

Size matters in terms of how fast a government entity can get a project going, Perry said. The city and LAPD, she said, because they are relatively smaller, can be "more reactive and move quicker" than the federal or county governments.

The public-private Grand Avenue project of cultural, retail, residential and business use -- whose preliminary civic-park designs are expected to be unveiled later this year -- could change that. Planners, who include noted architects and urbanists Brenda Levin and Mark Rios, have been assessing how to best build a park stretching from the Music Center to City Hall, with features for a wide range of Angelenos.

Harris, the architecture professor, said more rides on that than any other downtown civic process.

"To reorganize where everybody goes is a 50-year project," he said. "But making beautiful open space is already underway.... We can move forward."


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