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In L.A.'s nucleus, changing Times

June 27, 2008|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when the Los Angeles Times' presence in downtown Los Angeles was a symbol of the possibilities of a burgeoning city.

Ten-foot-high murals in the building's Globe Lobby, commissioned by the Chandlers, touted the role of industry and the newspaper in the life of great cities. "The newspaper is a greater treasure to the people than uncounted millions of gold," a caption underneath reads. "There is no dimming. No effacement."

That was 1935 -- at the peak of downtown Los Angeles' role as the undisputed power center of Southern California. The murals are still there, but today, the mood inside the Globe Lobby is dimmer.

The announcement this week that Tribune Co., which owns The Times, is considering selling the paper's downtown offices is the latest sign of a decades-long corporate disappearance from the city center. Arco, Standard Oil, First Interstate Bank and many other big corporations that once called downtown home are long gone.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 01, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Standard Hotel: A list in Friday's California section, with an article about the possible sale of the Times building, named several former corporate buildings in Los Angeles that have been put to new uses and said the Standard Hotel building once housed Standard Oil. The building was home to Superior Oil.

And jokes about the Times building eventually becoming condos -- while unlikely any time soon -- aren't as preposterous as they might seem.

In the last decade, the city core has shifted, with many people moving into new high-rise condos and luxury lofts in historic buildings.

Nearly 40,000 people now call downtown home. And many of the former headquarters for downtown L.A.'s biggest names -- including Barker Bros., Westinghouse, Standard Oil and Nabisco -- have been converted to serve that new population.

The residential boom has remade downtown L.A. into a hip district. But some urban thinkers say there is something profoundly depressing about the falling fortune of big business being turned into theme and atmosphere for condos.

"In the big sweep of things, this is just part of the dynamism of urbanization and urban life," said Greg Hise, a historian and USC professor. "That said, people ought to stop and think about what kind of city they aspire to and what would be appropriate symbols of a good and just city."

When the first piece of the Los Angeles Times' headquarters, a Gordon B. Kaufmann-designed Art Moderne building, opened in 1935, the 1st and Spring streets location, cater-corner from City Hall, represented the power wielded by the newspaper and the Chandler family that owned it. Harry Chandler, then the president and general manager of Times-Mirror Co., declared the building a "monument to the progress of our city and Southern California."

But in fact, wrote author Joan Didion in the New Yorker, "a great deal of Los Angeles as it appears today derived from this impulse to improve Chandler property. . . . Union Station and the Los Angeles Civic Center and the curiosity known as Olvera Street are where they are because Harry Chandler wanted to develop the north end of downtown, where the Times building and many other of his downtown holdings lay."

But downtown began to decline after the suburban boom that followed World War II. For a while, The Times seemed immune, growing into one of the largest and most respected newspapers in the nation.

Over the decades, four more buildings were added to the original Times building. The newest of those buildings, added by architect William L. Pereira in the 1970s, harbors such a deep chasm of public disdain that when the urban website Curbed L.A. hosted its first "Ugliest Building" contest last year, Times Mirror Square came in second.

In the early 1990s, executives at what was then Times Mirror spent two years considering a move out of the downtown headquarters, and were on the verge of moving the company about five blocks to the southwest. But they decided to instead renovate and retrofit the aging complex -- a process that is ongoing.

Portions of the building emptied after Tribune Co. bought the paper in 2000 -- so much so that the complex has become a popular location for filming.

In an e-mail Wednesday to employees, Tribune Chief Executive Sam Zell said that the Times' headquarters, 750,000 square feet of space, is "underutilized." He continued that "it's in our best interests to maximize the value of all our assets."

That decision struck some developers and observers as a sound business decision.

Carol Schatz, president of the downtown business improvement district, said that in the last decade, "property values [in downtown] have at least doubled."

"This is not a shocker," she said. "The only thing that is important to me is that The Times stays downtown."

A change in the city law allowing adaptive reuse of underutilized buildings launched a conversion craze downtown in 1999. Since then, a number of headquarters buildings have undergone dramatic conversions. The former Herald Examiner newspaper building -- once housing The Times' arch rival -- is also supposed to be converted into a mix of housing and retail, although a shaky real estate market has delayed that project.

But what might happen to the Times building is a little harder to gauge, said developer Tom Gilmore.

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