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Ira Yellin, 62; Civic Leader and Longtime Champion of the City’s Historic Core

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ira Yellin, a civic leader and longtime champion of downtown Los Angeles perhaps best known for his restoration of Grand Central Market, died Tuesday. He was 62.

Yellin, who had battled lung cancer since last September, died of complications of the disease at his home in Santa Monica Canyon. His wife, Adele, was at his side.

Aside from Grand Central, Yellin and a group of investors bought and restored downtown’s landmark Bradbury Building, the Million Dollar Theater and the old Metropolitan Water District headquarters, among others. He also led the restoration of the historic train terminal Union Station.

A small man who balanced a seemingly endless reserve of energy with a warm, engaging manner, Yellin spent much of his life bucking trends and engaging in a sometimes unconventional stream of new challenges.

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The son of an orthodox rabbi, Yellin graduated from Harvard Law School only to join the Marine Corps. He later left a successful career developing offices and shopping malls to try to revive the tattered, neglected stitch of buildings and streets that make up historic downtown Los Angeles.

In the last years of his life, he worked feverishly to sidestep cancer, refusing to slow down, pushing himself to finish a slew of real estate developments.

“I seem to always need to prove something can be done that people seem to think is an impossibility,” Yellin said in a recent interview. “I suppose that’s why I’m downtown. For all of its doubters, I’m determined to prove downtown Los Angeles can be a place of greatness. It can be wonderful.”

Highly regarded for his integrity and evenhandedness, Yellin was admired for such moxie.

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Los Angeles owes Yellin a “debt of gratitude” for his work downtown, Kevin Starr, the state librarian and an urban observer, told The Times earlier this year in a profile of Yellin.

He praised Yellin for his constant engagement with the historic core, the long neglected collection of landmark structures nestled in the shadow of Bunker Hill.

Yellin is an “urban pioneer ... [a man] unique for what he wants for the city,” Starr said.

Yellin was on a short list of developers who gambled on spending significantly to upgrade old office buildings and markets downtown in the 1970s and ‘80s, a time when most of the city’s commercial developers focused on near foolproof bets: creating skyscrapers on adjoining Bunker Hill.

The developer said he chose historic downtown because he had a “love affair” with the place, particularly so with Grand Central, a block-long menagerie of food and curio stalls open since World War I.

To him, the market--nestled next to a large complex of apartments restored by Yellin--embodied what Los Angeles could be: a locale brimming with the region’s diverse humanity, a place where Spanish and English and Asian languages mingled in the air with the smoky residue of papusas and fried rice and roast chicken.

Striding through the market a few months ago, Yellin remarked of Grand Central: “I’m always totally energized here. It just feels and smells and is utterly special.”

The market complex also proved somewhat controversial. Yellin and his partners were able to complete the rehabilitation only with the help of a $44-million bond package backed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

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When Grand Central didn’t generate the revenue Yellin thought it would--largely a result of downtown’s inability to fully recover from the early 1990s recession--some criticized the two public agencies for spending large sums of taxpayer money to aid a private developer.

Others said the market’s worth could not be measured in terms of the financial bottom line, that Grand Central was a catalyst sparking more building.

“If Ira didn’t show the beauty that could be uncovered, the activity that we are seeing in that area, it wouldn’t have happened,” former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer said in the recent Times profile of Yellin.

Feuer was referring to a raft of fresh construction in neighborhoods near the market, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall and a $171-million Caltrans regional headquarters developed by Yellin’s firm, Urban Partners.

Ever optimistic, Yellin insisted that pouring public money into the market had been a smart move, one that eventually would help historic downtown become the sort of proud, inspiring “place of unbridled energy” it was when he was a child.

Yellin was born near Boston in 1940, but raised in Los Angeles. As a boy, he was a frequent visitor to downtown with his father, a noted Talmudic scholar with a fondness for urban life and an insistence that his children follow the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, or repairing the world through good works.

Pushed by his family to focus on scholarly achievement, Yellin left to study at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, then at UC Berkeley, where he earned a master’s degree in law.

After wrapping up his education, Yellin in 1966 surprised many by joining the Marines--doing so, he said, to prove the ideas he held about public service weren’t just talk, and that a small man, a Jewish man, could bear up to the toughness of military life. He spent just over a year in the Marines before receiving his honorable discharge and returning to Los Angeles.

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From 1967 to 1975, Yellin worked as a lawyer at a Beverly Hills firm, all the while devoting considerable time to helping run a nonprofit legal advocacy group.

Restless and seeking a new challenge, he joined a prominent real estate development and management company, where he oversaw developments throughout the state and on Los Angeles’ Westside.

But the world of big, glossy buildings located far from downtown, many of them the sort of office structures known more for their coolly efficient design than for pulling the heart strings, never completely stirred Yellin.

In 1985, he said, “I decided to follow where my heart was.” He began his own real estate firm, Yellin Co., focusing on downtown and other dense areas of the city.

Yellin spent the rest of his working life consumed mostly by projects that revolved around restoration and revival of once grand architectural works and neighborhoods, some of them outside of downtown Los Angeles.

He helped create a downtown development blueprint for City Hall. He briefly joined the powerful real estate firm Catellus Development Corp., serving as vice president from 1996 to 1999, when he directed the restoration of Union Station. He served as the architectural consultant for downtown’s massive new Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels.

Through it all, Yellin never let his working life slow down his other pursuits, particularly those connected to the city’s cultural and political life.

Yellin was a friend and advisor to powerful city and national political leaders. His home was the site of frequent Democratic fund-raisers and social events benefiting liberal causes.

Yellin, who considered himself a “frustrated artist and architect,” served on the boards of some of the city’s premier cultural institutions, including the Skirball Cultural Center and the J. Paul Getty Trust, which oversees the Getty Museum.

Yellin also was a past president of the American Jewish Committee, which promotes religious tolerance and understanding, and a board member of several other civic groups.

“His love of the city and the way he has worked to make things better here, that’s what I think of when I think of Ira Yellin,” said longtime friend Ron Rogers, commenting on Yellin’s civic involvement.

Yellin’s friends were never more inspired than by his battle to beat lung cancer. Struck by the disease even though he never smoked, hardly drank and worked out with fervor, Yellin never indulged in self-pity and refused to be slowed.

Until the last weeks of his life, he continued to work as much as he could, shepherding projects at Urban Partners.

“He set a standard of uncompromised quality,” said Dan Rosenfeld, a principal in the firm.

Rosenfeld said that when Yellin finally stopped coming to the office, he worked from home, teleconferencing into a meeting with his partners just last Friday, eager and optimistic.

In addition to his wife, Yellin is survived by a daughter, Jessica, and a son, Seth, both of New York City; his mother, Dorothy of Beverly Hills; and two brothers, Dr. Albert Yellin of Los Angeles and Dr. Marc Yellin of Santa Cruz.

Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Simi Valley.

Yellin’s family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be made to the Westside Children’s Center, American Jewish Committee or Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center’s Palliative Care Program.


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