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Critic's Notebook: Metro douses expectations on Union Station project

The agency is facing an identity crisis over its relationship to architecture and urban design.

April 27, 2012|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • One architectural team, EE&K and UN Studio, imagines a dramatically winged high-speed terminal joined to Union Station by a multi-level park.
One architectural team, EE&K and UN Studio, imagines a dramatically… (EE&K, a Perkins Eastman…)

Talk about raining on your own parade.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority coaxed Renzo Piano from Paris, Ban van Berkel from Amsterdam and a bunch of talented local architects from the far Westside and brought them together Wednesday afternoon at Union Station.

The occasion was the unveiling of six conceptual plans for Union Station and the surrounding neighborhood. Metro bought the historic landmark and an attached 40-acre parcel of land last year; it holds entitlements to build as much as 6 million square feet of new shops, offices and housing there, and it is running an international competition to find a master-planning team.

But even as Metro was trying to generate excitement and design-world buzz about the future of Union Station, which may one day serve as the arrival point for high-speed trains from San Francisco, it was busy trying to tamp down expectations.

The most contradictory statements came from Martha Welborne, Metro's executive director for planning, who has helped lead the Union Station effort. She talked up the talent in the room (which was considerable) and the potential of the project.

Then, while warning half-jokingly that the "procurement office" was sitting in the audience "monitoring" her every word, she said that the proposals we were about to see, which Metro dubbed "Vision Boards," weren't going to be considered in the selection process at all.

Wait, what? So the idea was to bring in the far-flung members of the six shortlisted teams, then ask them to publicly present ideas that will have no bearing on the actual competition?

Apparently, yes. That was precisely the idea.

A news release handed out by Metro was even more direct in making clear that the conceptual designs, which imagine how Union Station and downtown Los Angeles might look in 2050, were essentially a sideshow.

"The Vision Boards are not part of the formal evaluation process," the release stressed, "but rather a means to begin the public engagement process and ignite inspiration about Union Station as a multi-modal regional transportation hub."

Oh, Metro, nobody executes that cheerleading-hand wringing combo quite the way you do. And nothing says fully ignited inspiration quite like the phrase "multi-modal regional transportation hub" or references to the procurement office.

In a certain way, the Wednesday event made perfect sense. Metro is facing a serious identity crisis when it comes to its relationship to architecture and urban design.

Having focused for decades almost exclusively on running a public transit system for Los Angeles County, it is now trying to transform itself, thanks to its decision to buy Union Station and the surrounding parcel, into a major real-estate player. My sense from the outside is that there are major fissures within the agency about the wisdom of embracing high-design architecture.

Metro has overseen transit-oriented developments near some of its stations in the past, of course. But the scale of the Union Station effort dwarfs anything it has tried before. The tallest building in Los Angeles, U.S. Bank Tower, holds 1.3 million square feet. Imagine four or five similar towers ringing Union Station.

The reality is that some kind of zoning inventiveness or air-rights swap, allowing some of the 6 million square feet to be built outside the 40-acre site, is probably the only way this deal will ever come together. Metro's history in executing real-estate deals of that complexity is severely limited, which should give pause to the public and the competing architects alike.

And why 2050 and not, say, 2025? (Maybe because that would give the public a sense that these plans were actually tethered to reality and raise expectations Metro can't hope to satisfy?) Imagining downtown L.A. 38 years from now is by definition an exercise in wild conjecture.

On top of that, nearly every element that Metro is counting on to help revive this corner of downtown in the long term faces one or more significant hurdles.

California's high-speed rail initiative is in limbo, despite Gov. Jerry Brown's efforts to salvage it and trim its massive cost. The Los Angeles River revitalization plan awaits funding and more muscular political support. And plans to build a park spanning the sunken section of the 101 as it runs through downtown are in a preliminary stage — and carry a huge price tag.

Each of the conceptual plans calls for leaving Union Station virtually untouched, though some call for wrapping new towers on three sides of the 1939 building.

Among the six, the proposals that stood out steered clear of the "vision" trap altogether and suggested what the site could look like in 10 or 20 years rather than 40.

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