A Downtown Resource in Danger

Thom Mayne, architect of the new Caltrans building in downtown Los Angeles, is the winner of the 2005 Pritzker Prize.

This is a plea for the mayor and the Los Angeles City Council to take a stand on the controversy threatening the Southern California Institute of Architecture. L.A. is in danger of losing this institutional resource for downtown and its future. Known as SCI-Arc, the cutting-edge architecture school based in a former freight depot represents the prototype of an institution that resonates with energy and creativity.

I was one of the founding members and have taught there, so I know firsthand. The school is an urban catalyst and a place of intellectual and creative capital. It constructively critiques L.A. and promotes its development; its potential as a city resource should be nurtured.

As it is, however, SCI-Arc may become a victim of its own success. If city officials back away from their commitment to the school, it probably will be forced to leave downtown, largely because of the rising land values it helped to foster.


How did we get to this point? In 2001, the city of Los Angeles gave the school a $1-million subsidy and a $500,000 loan to relocate downtown from Marina del Rey. It did so in keeping with the tradition of enlightened city planning, which uses public funding to encourage desired cultural, retail and residential development in formerly blighted areas.

The school took root in the neighborhood as a tenant, bringing hundreds of young people into the once-abandoned area. Consequently, support services have flourished and housing demand has increased. When SCI-Arc moved to the old Santa Fe Freight Depot, there was a plan for the school’s site and three adjoining parcels that included access for people and cars and student housing. Then Richard Meruelo, a major downtown industrial property owner, bought the three parcels. When relations with Meruelo soured over his plans, the shared property concept was threatened, and the school moved to protect its site by buying it. Now Meruelo and SCI-Arc are fighting over who will be allowed to buy the parcel, with a trial set for May 18.

Meruelo has withdrawn offers to settle the matter, unless SCI-Arc agrees to unconditionally support whatever project he decides to build on the adjacent parcels, a project that might require zoning changes. SCI-Arc had agreed to two proposals for Meruelo’s sites. But he now demands that it sign off on any development he chooses. How can an institution dedicated to architecture agree to that?

This has turned into an expensive battle, one that the nonprofit school can hardly afford. It is unconscionable that SCI-Arc might be forced out of the downtown site it pioneered if the developer, the city and the school cannot find a solution that honors the intent of the original incentives granted by L.A. to bring SCI-Arc downtown. The players who brokered the original agreement understood that a vibrant, creative institution is precisely the cornerstone that the development of this important downtown area requires.

The city is a profound and comprehensive human creation. It is a collective work born of the expressions of culture, society and the individual. All of us share this experience in some way, and recognize when cities touch us: San Francisco, New York, Boston and the European cities that Americans love to visit and admire (but, strangely, are unable to utilize as models back home).

Downtown Los Angeles finds itself in an interesting moment, as a young city experiencing a renaissance comprising two principal components. The first, a market-driven enterprise, includes Grand Avenue, Staples Center and the thousands of new residences in construction or planning phases. The second, a humanistic enterprise, is embodied by nonprofit, public institutions such as MOCA, Disney Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

The success of public-private collaboration depends on active civic players. While the private sector focuses on economics, the public sector’s role is to champion a humane cultural environment. Action in support of a cultural institution is commonplace in other cities: Take, for example, Mayor Richard Daley’s support of Chicago’s cultural life with the new Millennium Park, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s championing of Christo’s public art piece in Central Park.

I implore our planning department, officials, neighbors and local businesses to support SCI-Arc’s desire to buy its parcel, without being coerced into unconditional support of development that may harm the future of the area. L.A. depends on institutions such as SCI-Arc. We need dozens of SCI-Arcs if we expect to create a Los Angeles with the compelling draw, richness and heterogeneity of the world’s great cities we so admire.