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Frank Gehry, Grand Avenue and the future of Bunker Hill

October 03, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic
  • A rendering of a master plan by architecture firm Gensler to develop the site across Grand Avenue from Walt Disney Concert Hall.
A rendering of a master plan by architecture firm Gensler to develop the… (Courtesy Related Cos. )

On Wednesday evening I took part in a panel discussion at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Mayor Eric Garcetti, Eli Broad, Frank Gehry and Los Angeles Philharmonic President Deborah Borda.

We were guests in a live on-stage version of the KCRW radio program “Which Way, L.A.?,” with Warren Olney and Frances Anderton as hosts.

The program was planned to mark the 10th anniversary of Disney Hall. But it was also meant to examine the future of Grand Avenue and long-delayed redevelopment plans for Bunker Hill being overseen by a joint city and county committee.

In that sense it turned out to be very timely; this week has brought a flurry of news about the fate of the project.

New York developer Related Cos. has won yet another extension from the committee, despite also getting a harsh rebuke from L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, its chairwoman, for the uninspired nature of the latest design for so-called Parcel Q, across Grand from Disney Hall.

New plans are due Nov. 25, and Related’s extension runs through Jan. 20.

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Well before the recession, Related hired Frank Gehry’s office to design a huge retail and residential complex for Parcel Q; after Gehry’s contract lapsed, the developer asked the large firm Gensler to prepare a slightly more modest master plan for the site instead, and the New York architect Robert A.M. Stern to work on concepts for a residential tower at the corner of 2nd Street and Grand.

Early this week Gehry told me that he’d recently met with Stephen M. Ross, the chairman of Related, and was fairly confident that Ross would put him back in charge of the design team. At the Wednesday panel Gehry’s tone went from fairly confident to entirely so; when asked how he might proceed if the job became his again, he said it wasn't a matter of if but when.

That confidence rubbed a few people the wrong way. There was at least one complaint on Twitter that the conversation had turned into “a lengthy pitch for why Frank Gehry should design Parcel Q across from WDCH.”

In fact, much remains uncertain. And much of the long history of Grand Avenue redevelopment efforts remains opaque to many Angelenos. In the spirit of clearing up at least some of that mystery, here's an FAQ on the state of the project.

What did the mayor say Wednesday night?

He appeared briefly to deliver some above-the-fray opening remarks praising Gehry, Borda and the hall. But his late-in-the-game decision to join the event and give the introduction can probably be read as support for Gehry. He is now fully engaged in the discussions between Related and city and county officials.

Does Gehry really have the inside track now?

It appears so. And that could raise hopes for a successful project, since Gehry knows the site well and has produced in Disney Hall the only building among Grand Avenue's architectural icons that has managed to exceed expectations. It might give Gehry a chance to design two towers -- his first high-rise buildings in Los Angeles.

I’m not crazy about the idea of having Gensler and Bob Stern design the new complex. But is Gehry the only other option?

An interesting question. Given the pressure Molina and other officials are now putting on Related, it seems unlikely that the developer could start with an entirely new design team. Gehry’s firm prepared a thorough design for the site, followed by the evolving Gensler-Stern collaboration. If Related is going to switch from the plan Molina temporarily rejected while also meeting the new deadline, it is far more likely to go back to Gehry, whose firm knows the project thoroughly, than to hire a firm that would have to start from scratch. I’d say a likely outcome is a Gehry-Gensler team: Gehry would lead the design effort with Gensler working in support as executive architect, as the firm is doing with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro on the Broad Museum. 

You and other writers keep referring to Parcel Q. Why is it called Parcel Q?

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the newly established Community Redevelopment Agency, in a burst of urban-renewal aggression, not only demolished or moved every single building on Bunker Hill -- more than 7,000 residential units altogether -- but also sliced off the very top of the hill itself to make it more level. The CRA then divided the hill into more than 20 huge parcels, or superblocks, and gave each one a letter, starting with Parcel A. The site bounded by Grand, First, Second and Olive is called Parcel Q. The site of the forthcoming Broad Museum is Parcel L. The original hope was that most of the parcels would be filled in by the middle of the 1960s. But many have stayed empty that whole time, or used for parking.

Is that what happened at Parcel Q?

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