Gehry Sees His Glass Towers Transforming Downtown L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Architect Frank O. Gehry plans to erect a translucent, glass-curtained tower rising 47 stories above his landmark Walt Disney Concert Hall as the centerpiece of the Grand Avenue project, a bold statement that would alter downtown Los Angeles' skyline and reinforce the civic center area as a hub of cutting-edge architecture.

His schematic designs, which have been eagerly anticipated in world architecture circles for months and are to be unveiled at a news conference today, call for two L-shaped towers, the 47-story structure and a 24-story building, at opposite ends of the block east of the concert hall.

The designs are for Phase 1 of an ambitious plan by developer Related Cos., philanthropist Eli Broad and top city and county officials to transform a part of downtown known as a 9-to-5 office community that turns off the lights at sunset into a vibrant place where people would live, shop and dine.

"I think that there is a desire on the part of the city and county to do something special there," Gehry said. "We are trying to make that happen, so that that connectivity would result in a sense of place that's bigger, that the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts."

The plans to be disclosed today will detail the initial step in a $1.8-billion, three-phase project, which ultimately would include eight condo and office towers, shopping arcades, a 16-acre park and a boutique hotel.

City and county officials see it as a way of tying together many of the cultural monuments that line Grand Avenue, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Music Center and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

"This area is not a thriving residential, high-end section yet," Gehry said. "It needs a mix of populations. It's got to be a mix of different age groups, economic groups and ethnic groups to really function."

The design attempts to connect the new buildings to the Disney Hall by installing a grid of light strings crisscrossing Grand Avenue, from the towers and pavilions to the hall. Also to that end, Gehry wants to repave Grand Avenue in a pattern of varying shades of stone, to create connections among the street, the buildings and the planned civic park nearby.

The taller of Gehry's buildings would be covered in a dramatic glass design. Preliminary models show either striped panels of alternating shaded glass or a pleated glass surface that looks like fabric folded around the building. The smaller building would have a more austere form, looking like a light-filled glass box.

Three shopping and dining pavilions would rise near the base of the two towers, mimicking the undulating lines and rough forms of Disney Hall but constructed of stone and glass rather than steel. Elaborate plantings of trees and other greenery on above-ground floors would create the effect of a hanging garden.

By placing the tallest buildings at opposite ends of the block and the lower ones between them, Gehry's design would preserve sightlines to Disney Hall, assuaging concerns that the project would essentially block the view from many points downtown.

Gehry's foray into high-rise design -- his first major retail development -- gives the project and the surrounding area an instant architectural cachet. Along with Disney Hall, Jose Raphael Moneo's cathedral and Thom Mayne's headquarters building for the California Department of Transportation, the plan creates a pocket of world-class building design in the city center.

Most large-scale downtown projects built in the last few decades have been primarily functional, said architectural historian Robert Winter. As a result, he said, downtown has suffered, "with all that money wasted on mediocre and sort of dumb architecture."

"There's very little good modern architecture in downtown Los Angeles," said Winter. He had not yet seen Gehry's designs but said he was "terribly delighted" by their possibilities.

The Grand Avenue project is part of a major renaissance in downtown Los Angeles, which after decades of decline has become a destination for professionals, artists and others, who are moving into long-vacant former office buildings-turned-lofts and new condos.

The completion of Disney Hall in 2003 helped spark downtown's revival.

And with 20,000 new residents expected in the next decade, officials hope this project will help provide services, including a market, restaurants and other businesses, that downtown dwellers say they need.

"We are working on designing the buildings in scale with what's around us, so we create an open village or community relationship to the buildings that exist," Gehry said. "And doing it in a California way, so it looks and feels like L.A., with plantings and trellises and stuff like that."

Gehry's plan is the latest in a long string of proposals touted by city leaders over the last six decades to improve the area around Bunker Hill. Once a charming if seedy residential district dotted with Victorian homes, the area was flattened by the city in the 1960s to make way for office towers and cultural institutions.

City officials have long talked of turning this part of downtown into a 24-hour district on par with parts of New York, Chicago, London or Paris -- without success.

It now falls to Gehry and his partner, Craig Webb, to create the "urban mix."

"This is an opportunity for us to expand the continuum, to shape the neighborhood," said Webb. "We're trying to respond to what is there now and what will be there in the future."

Related Cos., which recently completed the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, was signed two years ago by the Grand Avenue Committee, chaired by Broad. The park is included in the first phase, though designs for it will be unveiled later.

The second phase is to be built on the block south of Disney Hall, with preliminary plans calling for two 30- to 35-story residential towers, one five- to six-story residential building and more retail stores and parking. The third phase would go east of Disney Hall. Preliminary plans call for a 35- to 40-story residential building that would include some retail shops and possibly a 15- to 20-story building that would be be office space or condos.

Completion of a draft environmental impact report on Phase 1 is expected by summer, after which it will go before the County Board of Supervisors and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. The timetable for the rest of the project is less clear, though Related's contract states that it must begin Phase 2 by 2011 and Phase 3 by 2014. No architect has been selected for the second and third phases.

Related officials said they hoped to start work on Phase 1 -- on land that now has a multilevel parking garage -- late this year and complete the project in 2009. They have estimated that construction will cost about $750 million.

Financing for the project is complicated because the city and county own the land on which the first two phases are to be built.

Related is essentially leasing the land for 99 years. Last year, it wrote the city and county a check for $50 million, which is the projected rent the developer owes the agencies for Phase 1 and part of Phase 2.

The city and county plan to pour the $50 million back into the development of the park and street improvements.

Plans for Phase 1 call for a variety of pedestrian and vehicular entrances. A 50,000-square-foot market and a major bookstore would have separate entry-points; a light-filled elevator shaft and escalator lobby from the parking garage at the east end of the property would also take people into the development.

Webb said the designers' aim was "to create a unique L.A. building, with a focus on landscape and outside terraces," working with landscape designer Laurie Olin.

The taller tower -- projected to rise 600 feet above the pavement -- would include three rooftop pools as well as 250 high-end condo units, a 275-room hotel, a spa and an Equinox health club.

The second tower, at 250 feet, would include 100 rental units -- designated as affordable housing -- and 150 condominiums, as well as the supermarket at the corner of 1st and Olive streets.

The 47-story tower would extend downtown's skyline north, a trend that would continue if some of the other towers planned in Phases 2 and 3 are built. Gehry's building would be the 13th tallest downtown, 20 feet shorter than the 611 Place tower on 6th Street and more than 400 feet shorter than the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower, the West Coast's tallest.

The buildings would be Gehry's first skyscrapers in Los Angeles and among his first anywhere to reach completion if they are finished on schedule. Several other Gehry-designed skyscrapers are in the works, including some that are part of a large-scale project on the site of the Atlantic Rail Yards in Brooklyn, N.Y. for developer Forest City. But so far, no Gehry tower taller than 12 stories has reached completion, according to his office.

Robert Harris, professor emeritus in USC's School of Architecture, who had not yet seen Gehry's plan, said the project's first phase is "critical" to downtown's future.

If the project is successful, he said, it would be catalytic and "stimulate and encourage subsequent stages, and other projects by other people. It has to provide such an important experience that we notice it, we enjoy it, we remember it, we may even have a chance of associating symbolic meanings with it."

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