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Plan to demolish building on Wilshire Boulevard is opposed by L.A. Conservancy

The conservancy says the 1965 Columbia Savings building at La Brea Avenue is worth saving. Area residents worry that a planned 482-unit apartment and retail complex would add to congestion.

December 02, 2009|By Cara Mia DiMassa
  • The Columbia Savings building at Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue was most recently a church. A 482-unit building is planned for the site.
The Columbia Savings building at Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

The stretch of Wilshire Boulevard between downtown and the Miracle Mile was for decades a center of commerce, with buildings once occupied by such business powerhouses as Union Bank, Texaco, IBM and Getty Oil.

In more recent years, it's been transformed into a residential hub, with a construction boom of mid-rise condo and luxury apartment buildings.

Yet for all of the momentum -- more than two dozen residential developments either have been completed or proposed for the corridor -- a backlash is now gaining steam, and it's centered on a mid-century former savings and loan building at Wilshire and La Brea Avenue.

The squat building, with a ribboned facade and a stained-glass skylight, is an example of a type of architecture that was prevalent in the years after World War II, when financial institutions pushed for bold buildings to symbolize their own emergence from staid practices and reputations.

Preservationists have joined with some residents in an effort to save the structure, which they consider architecturally significant, a gem of Modernist design that the public has only recently begun to appreciate. They have filed a request with the state of California to give the building landmark status.

Some residents are backing the request, saying the boom in mid-rise apartment complex construction along Wilshire has gone too far.

But the developers say that the building's significance has been overstated and that the neighborhood would be better served with the 482-unit apartment and retail complex they have proposed for the site.

Dale Goldsmith, a land-use attorney representing BRE Properties, the building's owner and developer, said the project "will reflect the demographics of the area."

At a hearing of the Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee on Tuesday, Councilman Dennis Zine called the project "well worth it for the community."

The committee approved the developer's plan Tuesday, sending it to the full council for final approval, which is expected as early as later this week.

But that, said Mike Buhler, the Los Angeles Conservancy's director of advocacy, is short-sighted.

He said that the city failed to consider the historical significance of the building and that the developer could put the structure, which is only a portion of the block that BRE wants to develop, to an alternate use such as a restaurant, store or gym rather than demolish it.

"We were surprised that the draft environmental impact report refused to recognize the building's significance in any way," Buhler said.

Should the building be recognized by the state as architecturally significant, the city would have to go back and reconsider that as a part of the environmental impact report. A hearing on the state matter is scheduled for Jan. 29, and the conservancy is asking the city to delay a vote on the Wilshire-La Brea project until after then.

The Columbia Savings building, which opened in 1965, is at the center of the conservancy's "60s turn 50" initiative.

The effort recognizes a class of buildings in Los Angeles from that era whose significance has not been widely acknowledged.

The building, which most recently served as a church, isn't mentioned in the city's definitive architectural guide, and the City Council overturned a recommendation by the city's Cultural Heritage Commission supporting the application for state landmark consideration.

The BRE design for the block, bordered by Wilshire, La Brea, Sycamore Avenue and 8th Street, calls for a public pocket park as well as undulating edges and double rows of trees -- all efforts that Goldsmith said were aimed at softening the building's effect on the neighborhood and keeping it from being too monolithic. A previous proposal called for a structure at Wilshire and La Brea to be 17 stories; that was scaled down to seven stories after community objections.

The back-and-forth over the project comes on the heels of a profound change in the Wilshire Corridor, with sleek glass-and-steel towers being added to the cityscape while formerly shuttered office towers have been rehabbed as residences.

Goldsmith said he's worked on five projects in the area, and BRE finished the 5600 Wilshire project, just west of La Brea, earlier this year.

Because Wilshire is considered a transit corridor -- with rapid bus lines and Metro stops -- and because it's one of the few places in the city where high-rise towers are allowed, many developers see the changes along the boulevard as a symbol of the city's evolution.

The economic slowdown has had little effect on their progress, and longtime residents worry that the growing number of people along the corridor will put added pressure on transportation and infrastructure that is already struggling to keep up.

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