There was a time in Los Angeles, and not too long ago either, when progress meant bulldozing aging, out-of-style structures and replacing them with gleaming new buildings that better reflected the tastes of the moment. The Romanesque Revival City Hall that was too 19th century for the roaring 20s? Tear it down and replace it with a trendy Art Deco municipal tower. Out with the old and in with the new was the mantra. And why not? If there was any U.S. city that embodied the spirit of reinvention it was L.A.
Happily, the demolish-and-replace philosophy has itself gone out of style, to one degree or another. It is not entirely gone; tearing down bungalows to make way for supersized mansions is still a thing. In downtown Los Angeles these days, contemporary buildings exist comfortably next to vintage beauties. Just one example: The revitalized 140-year-old Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, now a restaurant and event space, sits across the street from the modern masterpiece by Thom Mayne that serves as Caltrans’ District 7 headquarters.
The creative retrofitting of some of L.A.’s old buildings has turned dusty ex-factories into clean, new lofts. The long-shuttered and neglected Hall of Justice on Temple Street was restored to its early 20th century Beaux Arts glory with 21st century upgrades.This is known as “adaptive reuse” and it honors the city’s history while serving the practical needs of the present.
It is a philosophy that the Los Angeles City Council should embrace when it considers whether to bulldoze Parker Center, the former LAPD headquarters on Los Angeles Street downtown. City staff is recommending razing the building to make room for a 750,000-square-foot office building for city workers. The alternative — preserving and renovating the 62-year-old Parker Center and building an addition as well — would cost $100 million more, according to a city engineer’s report.
But as preservationists and the city’s own Cultural Heritage Commission have argued, it would be a shame to lose this architecturally important building that figures so prominently in the city’s history. The City Council should find some way to save all or part of Parker Center — and surely there’s a way of doing that for a lot less money than the engineer’s report suggests.
Parker Center, named for LAPD Chief William H. Parker, was designed by Welton Becket, a well-known and prolific Los Angeles architect who also designed the Capitol Records building, the Cinerama Dome and the Los Angeles Music Center. It’s a classic example of midcentury modern architecture and projected the aspirations of the city to transform its corrupt police department into professional, respectable contemporary force. Some consider it unlovely, but its image has come to define the two contrasting visions of the LAPD of the late 20th century — the somewhat mythologized department that Americans watched on TV in “Dragnet” and “Adam-12,” and the soiled department brought low by the Rampart scandal and the Rodney King beating.
Council members should also push back on the city engineer’s cost projections and ask for more flexibility. It shouldn’t cost more to reuse an existing building than to start from scratch. Renovating the old Broadway department store building into state offices, for example, cost a third less per foot than constructing the all-new Ronald Reagan state office building a few blocks away.
The city’s estimates seem to assume that Parker Center must be restored to its original state and that a big new addition needs to be put on as well. Perhaps there are other ways to do it. Maybe the addition is not necessary. Or maybe some parts of the building could be preserved, such as the first-floor auditorium, while other parts are not. Maybe it is not essential to provide expensive under-the-building parking for staff.
It’s hard to image that so many downtown developers would be embracing adaptive reuse if it was so much more expensive than all-new construction. They recognize that there can be value in retaining and creatively using the city’s historical buildings, and the City Council should too.