Ira Yellin

Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is project director at the Hajjar/Kaufman New Media Lab. He interviewed Ira Yellin at the developer's home in Santa Monica Canyon

The battle over the fate of the earthquake-damaged St. Vibiana Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles remains unclear. Cardinal Roger Mahony wanted to raze the building to make way for a new cathedral complex. But on Monday, the cardinal announced the new cathedral will be build elsewhere--probably several blocks west of the current site. While that may not have pleased preservationists, who have been engaged in an often acrimonious battle with the archdiocese to save the old cathedral, it was welcome news to those involved in the redevelopment of downtown. The cardinal had threatened to move the project outside of downtown, perhaps even outside the city. To developers trying to reclaim the area, keeping the new cathedral project in the city's central core represents an important victory.

For three decades, efforts to revitalize the downtown, and make it a place where people can work, live and play, have met with less than overwhelming success. They've been stymied by sometimes arcane building codes, lack of financing and the general indifference of much of the city's population--who can easily find things to do closer to home. But, against all odds, some have succeeded in maintaining and restoring some of the city's oldest and most interesting buildings.

The Grand Central Market on Broadway bustles, and down the street, the Bradbury Building shines. Both these properties have been restored and reinvigorated by developer Ira E. Yellin, who has concentrated his energies on rebuilding in downtown Los Angeles. Yellin, whose projects include the renovation of the Million Dollar Building on Broadway, worked with the archdiocese to select Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo for the new cathedral project. He believes the new $45-million complex will be a powerful symbolic and tangible component in the future of the city's center.

Yellin, 56, recently took a position as senior vice president in the giant Catellus Development Corp. Catellus is working on a 50-acre office-retail development around Union Station, and is studying the possibility of building an NFL arena next to Dodger Stadium. But Yellin remains committed to working on his own projects in downtown. He is worried that the fight over St. Vibiana's may create bad blood between preservationists and developers. But he sees a bright future for downtown Los Angeles.

Yellin is married and the father of two grown children. In an interview at his Santa Monica Canyon home--originally built for actress Delores Del Rio--he talked about the importance of urban spaces, the unique qualities of Los Angeles' downtown and his vision of how the city will mature.

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Question: What's the basis for your attraction to downtown Los Angeles? Why have you devoted so much energy to working in an area where development is so much more difficult than in other parts of the city?

Answer: . . . I love architecture. It's my favorite art form--and in downtown there is so much richness, so much texture and so many layers of human society. We've destroyed a lot, but we still have a lot.

There's the whole area of the historic core of downtown Los Angeles that, to my amazement, so many developers have avoided. Perhaps I am less naive now, having worked there for 15 years, but there is still a wealth of history there, and also great economic opportunity. It's an area that was overlooked by all of the major developers . . . .

Q: Downtown Los Angeles is very different from the downtowns of Eastern cities. How do you classify downtown Los Angeles, and how is it unique?

A: First of all, Los Angeles has been many different cities. At one time, it saw itself as a little pueblo village. At the beginning of the century, it saw itself as a small, Eastern-style city. But it has only been a megalopolis since World War II. In analyzing the city, I always begin with that assumption--that it is a postwar metropolis. It began to realize its physical form with the advent of the automobile. It sits in a basin that has no real geographical limits, other than the ocean to the west, and its great expansion took place in the 1950s and '60s, when everybody had to have their multiple cars and individual homes in the suburbs. It was during that period when Los Angeles came to represent everything we thought of as modern. But we are still a very young place--essentially a 40-year-old city.

If you try to project forward 100 years, I think you will have a Westside that will be highly dense in population; you'll have a downtown that will be substantially ethnic and very vibrant and creative, and I believe the avenues, like Wilshire and Beverly, which connect downtown with the Westside, will become increasingly like the great boulevards of Manhattan. They'll go through generations of higher and higher density and traffic patterns. But, right now, we are a very young city, barely in our adolescence. We'll never be New York because we are evolving in a whole different time, but this city will grow and change.

I believe people--as much as they want their lawn and their trees--still want an urban connection. That's why places like the Santa Monica Promenade have become so successful--people want to be where others are, to look at and be looked at, and so forth. That's why I think cities will continue to thrive--because we are a social animal.

Q: For several generations now there have been efforts aimed at drawing people into downtown, and many have not met with success. Why has it been so difficult to get people to use downtown, and what are some other approaches that might work?

A: Downtown still doesn't have the critical mass that makes you feel it is a place you need to be in order to be connected or part of the community. There are so many alternatives that seem closer, safer or whatever. The fact that the city is so dispersed keeps a sort of centrifugal force going that takes us everywhere but to the center. Still, I'm impressed by how many people are going downtown and doing things.

But downtown is still difficult for people to understand. People may know the Music Center and MOCA at one end, the Temporary Contemporary at the other, perhaps the Central Library and Pershing Square. So that's a little box beginning to form. As that box begins to fill in more and more, with more places to eat, more shops and nightclubs, then it becomes ever more understandable, and more attractive.

Then there is the attraction of diversity. In our Grand Central project, we have more than 70 of our 120 apartments rented, and the diversity is everything I hoped it would be. There's a wonderful mix of income, ethnic makeup and lifestyle. That creates an interesting kind of energy, and people are really enjoying it. That's one building block, one of many it will take to really bring downtown to life. I'd love to put a jazz club in the Bradbury Building--just one more piece to start filling in and giving texture to the streets.

Q: How important is the construction of the Cathedral Square project to the future of the historic core?

A: I'm convinced there will be nothing as important in my lifetime as the construction of a great cathedral in the middle of this area, which everybody has basically abandoned. It's a profound statement of commitment by a major institution that this is an area worth being in, living in and caring for. Then there is, of course, the huge economic investment which a new cathedral will bring. It will become a place of pilgrimage, attracting people from throughout the country, and the world. And it will inevitably lead to people looking at the surrounding blocks in a new light. We're looking at the possibility of creating housing developments in the area--that simply wouldn't happen if the cathedral isn't there. That's why the possibility of the cathedral project moving from downtown to somewhere else would be an absolute disaster.

Q: You've said you don't feel St. Vibiana's is architecturally significant, but there are many who feel it is historically significant. Why do you feel it's OK to tear it down?

A: It was a lovely building, but it was poorly built. It originally had a certain integrity, but that integrity was almost entirely destroyed by remodeling, first in the 1920s, then even more so in the 1950s. From a historical standpoint, it does represent part of our 19th-century legacy, but if one is interested in the history of architecture in the city, there are two buildings on Main Street by the same architect that are in better condition and, because they are pure, better represent the work of that architect.

The old cathedral is significantly damaged--that is not just some sort of political position. Our estimates are that it will cost $15-20 million just to stabilize the building. The Conservancy claims it can be done for $5 million, but they have never shown us their plans. The only thing they have said is that their scheme would build braces on the outside of St. Vibiana to hold it up. But that is not an acceptable solution--it wouldn't maintain the integrity of anything, and it would be a horribly compromised product.

But to return to your question. I don't believe that everything that is old should be saved. The ability of the human mind allows us to make distinctions, and to decide what is truly valuable in our past, and what is not. We live in a real world and we need to balance the loss of the old cathedral against the good a new cathedral can do for blocks and blocks of historic buildings in our city's core . . . .

Q: Because downtown is so diverse in ethnicity, how do you shape developments, like the Grand Central Market, to reflect those cultural diversities?

A: When I acquired Grand Central, it was 1985, and I was a little bit naive. I thought I could mold and shape it in an image that I had in my mind. I found out very quickly that it is the people who use the site who will determine what it is you can and cannot do. So I spent a lot of time looking, listening and learning. And I found that the fact that most of the customers are Latino, that doesn't really make any difference. The Latino community ultimately wants what I want, and that applies to all the communities in our city. Everyone wants an interesting environment, everyone likes the sense of community, and good architecture. For instance, I took out all the florescent lights and replaced them with old neon--the Hispanic community likes that as much as the Anglo community. So the essence of my belief about the city is that while we may have different cultural beliefs and backgrounds, we all want the same basic things out of our lives.

Part of my love for downtown is that it is the ethnic melting pot of this very diverse region. It's the one part of the city that belongs to everybody. It's the one place where every community has a piece of the turf, walks the street--and walks it as if they belong there. To me, that's strength and energy, and that's why downtown will ultimately be successful.

Q: How important will the subway and other new transit systems be to the future of downtown?

A: Downtown exists because it is the locus of a huge transit infrastructure. Thousands of people already come into downtown each day on Metrorail. Thousands more will join them as subway stations open. Imagine what will happen when the Blue Line from Pasadena opens. Ask the people who now drive. If they could get on a clean, safe subway car, go into Union Station and then take the Red Line into downtown--why not? I wish I could do it from Santa Monica. I would love to sit in a subway and read the paper, or whatever. We already have one of the largest bus systems in the world, based at Union Station. Add to that a fixed-rail system along the Alameda Corridor, from the port at San Pedro into downtown, and you have a really amazing infrastructure.

But we still need to create a significant and understandable way of defining and connecting points within downtown together. I see something developing between Dodger Stadium, in the north, and USC, in the south. There's got to be a way for people, once they get into that area, to get around and connect comfortably. It could be a monorail, or a 1960s-style people-mover. Whatever technology we use, we need to build a way for people to move quickly from point to point within the downtown area.

Q: Finding new uses for old buildings is still something of a strange concept in Los Angeles--though it's quite common in many other cities. Why is that so?

A: Los Angeles has an extraordinary wealth of good and even great architecture. Much of it isn't downtown, and much of it is abandoned or largely unused. The problem is the building and safety codes. On the whole, these codes have served us very well. Compared with other communities, we've had remarkable success in life safety within our built environment. However, our codes are also very rigid, and they are not adaptable to older buildings. So you get caught in endless Catch-22s. That delays you and runs up so much cost, you can't justify the expense. So what we need desperately in this city is a separate code which deals with historic buildings and creates a menu of opportunities--ways to meet your public-policy objectives in creative ways. If government would make a commitment, you'd find plenty of people willing to take the risk of developing older buildings for new uses.

The other thing we need to do is to define an area, and include some incentives for people to come into that area and develop properties. So that, over a period of time, you can develop a critical mass so that you see an environment starting to happen. That's what took place in Pasadena's Old Town. Each building that was redone had an impact, and led to another being redone, and on and on. We need to create an area like that in downtown. Offer some property-tax breaks, whatever, and watch it happen.*

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