Designer Roses and Lemons of '87

Kaplan also appears in The Times' Real Estate section.

Springtime downtown is harvest time for roses and lemons, which is what the Downtown Breakfast Club has labeled its annual awards for the best, and worst, recent design efforts in and around the center city.

And for me it's a time to sit back and comment on the choices, bearing in mind that the club is not a gaggle of critics, but rather a loose association of individuals in the development field who meet every month or so to ponder the drift of downtown design.

This year the club's coveted rose for the best new structure went to the Museum of Contemporary Art, at 250 S. Grand Ave., which sits like chiseled jewels at the base of an emerging California Plaza inviting exploration.

It was a predictable choice. Since opening last December the museum, designed by Arata Isozaki with an assist by Gruen & Associates, has garnered wide praise for the simple geometric shapes and lush finishes of its exterior, and the quality of the light and space of its interior.

In the category of the best new renovation, winning a rose was 818 West 7th St. A former furniture store (Barker Bros.) designed with a flair in 1925 in an Italian Renaissance revival style, it was converted with equal flair into an office building last year by the Hammerson Group.

Of particular merit, and worth a detour to view, is the restoration of 818's vaulted, marble-clad lobby, which as originally designed by the firm of Culett & Bellman is said to have been inspired by the Strozzi Palace in Florence. The respectful restoration completed last year was handled by the Feola/Deenihan Partnership.

In the club's inspired category of "other," the Bonaventure Hotel won a rose for renovating its Flower Street facade to make it friendlier to pedestrians. The renovation has made it easier to find the entry to the hotel and the shops there.

Winning a rose in the "good idea" category was the proposed plan to redesign Pershing Square. Now being refined, the plan features an undulating landscape based on a grid marked by "thematic modules" representing aspects of the city's history, life styles and geography. It is an imaginative design by the firm of SITE Projects of New York, which won the commission in a heralded international competition last year. Whether the plan will ever make it out of the club's good idea category into the best renovation category depends on the perseverance of the Pershing Square Management Assn. Until then, the troubled park unfortunately remains a space most people avoid.

Interestingly, both the park and the Bonaventure Hotel were previous recipients of the club's notorious lemon award; the park for its deteriorated condition and the hotel for its former Flower Street facade. Apparently it is possible to make lemonade out of lemons.

This possibility flavors the club's selection for a lemon this year. The award made Thursday went to the bulky, glaring white parking structure just east of the Harbor Freeway at 2nd Street, adjoining the ambitious Promenade development. It was designed by Kamnitzer & Cotton, with Abraham Shapiro & Associates, for the development team of Goldrich & Kest and Shappell Industries.

I found the choice surprising, for the firm of Kamnitzer & Cotton has produced some of the city's more sensitively designed residential complexes, such as the Vista Montoya development in the Pico Union area. With this in mind, and as a professional second-guesser, I thought I would see the parking structure for myself.

Recently expanded from 888 spaces to 1,052, the parking structure at present indeed is, in a word, ugly, just as the club implied with its award. Certainly it is in contrast to the relatively well scaled and detailed housing and commercial development it serves.

But while viewing this ignoble addition to downtown, I noticed that a few planters were being strategically placed on the raw structure. A call to the spokesperson for the developer revealed that the parking structure is not yet finished, and that extensive landscaping is planned to soften its harsh view.

Until then this picker will leave the club's lemon on the tree, to see if it ripens into sweeter fruit, as the developer and architects promise; or perhaps in time even into a rose.

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