They’re talking the walk

Times Staff Writer

Century City was envisioned in the 1960s as a bold experiment in urban planning -- a sleek, efficient “second downtown” of high-rise office buildings where the car was king.

Now the district is the focus of a new urban experiment designed to undo the sort of auto-centric design that marked planning in Los Angeles for much of the last half-century. The vision -- prompted by a looming boom in the construction of luxury condo towers -- calls for a greener Century City that would be less about driving and more about walking.

Anticipating the arrival of potentially thousands of residents, a task force of property owners, developers and planners is dreaming of more open space, rows of stately trees and a pedestrian loop that would connect the new housing with the vastly expanded Westfield Century City shopping center, office towers and a growing number of restaurants and cultural amenities.


The effort, now in the most preliminary stage, would represent one of the most ambitious attempts to remake a section of Los Angeles into a place where people could get to shops, restaurants and even offices on foot.

Century City has been a hub for entertainment companies, investment bankers and blue-chip law firms. Condo developers see an opportunity to get some of those people out of their cars by offering housing in the district’s core.

“Right now, Century City is a rabbit warren,” said Councilman Jack Weiss, who is spearheading the task force. “You have to know the secret path and follow a trail of bread crumbs” to get, for example, from Century Park East to the shopping center. Designed with a massive underground parking lot, the mall, until a recent remodeling, was difficult to reach from the sidewalk.

To Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the Los Angeles architecture and planning firm working on the project, the focal point for the re-imagining would be the intersection of Avenue of the Stars and Constellation Boulevard.

The median along Avenue of the Stars would feature trees recalling the grand boulevards of Europe. Public green spaces or pocket parks would dot what has been a landscape of glass towers and gray concrete.

Another key element would be a station for the long-envisioned “subway to the sea” from downtown Los Angeles that would transport workers and tourists into the area.

The idea of reworking Century City as a transit- and pedestrian-friendly center appeals to David Horowitz, general manager of the landmark Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, who often has to help guests navigate the district.

“From a hotel perspective, it would be the greatest thing possible for us to have that,” Horowitz said. “We’re trying to compete for group business with other cities when one of the fundamental things people are looking for is what’s walking distance to the hotel and what can you do at night.”

Included in the task force are representatives from key property owners and developers -- JMB Realty, Trammell Crow Co., Westfield, Related Cos.

“It is unusual that we’re all collaborating and working in conjunction with the city,” said Bradley T. Cox, managing director of Trammell Crow.

Beginning in the late 1950s, planners and architects laid out Century City on the 20th Century Fox Film Studios’ back lot “with the idea that it was a car city,” said William Fain, an urban design consultant working with the task force. Workers drove into below-ground parking garages, and elevators whisked them to their offices.

In retrospect, Fain said, the plan was flawed. “Century City was a sanitized environment,” he said. “The idea of separating pedestrians and cars was probably wrong.”

Residential communities planned for southern Century City were intended to have public open spaces with walkways that would ease passage between Pico and Olympic boulevards.

Instead, they became private, gated enclaves. Many other connectors, including pedestrian overpasses, called for in the Century City specific plan were never finished. As a result, the district’s long blocks -- some of them 1,000 feet or longer -- were daunting for pedestrians.

Increasingly, getting around by car isn’t easy, either. Long ago, planners anticipated that a Beverly Hills Freeway would run through the area, but it never materialized. Surface street traffic in and around Century City worsens by the year.

With a number of high-rise projects about to get underway, the consensus is that Century City needs a new direction.

On Avenue of the Stars, Related Cos. is tearing down the 32-story St. Regis Hotel, long deemed an eyesore, and will replace it with a 39-story tower containing 145 condominiums. Down the avenue at Constellation, JMB recently won city approval to build 483 condos in two 47-story towers and a 12-story loft building.

Across the street, Trammell Crow is preparing for Thursday’s opening of 2000 Avenue of the Stars, which replaced the Shubert Theatre and ABC Entertainment complex. Among the tenants that have snapped up more than 60% of the 775,000-square-foot building are Creative Artists Agency, Fidelity Investments and Comerica Bank.

Owners of some existing properties are already working to change with the times.

The landmark Century Plaza is in the midst of a $30-million renovation to refurbish its 726 guest rooms and suites. A planned second phase would revamp the porte-cochere and the lobby.

As now configured, the hotel’s sweeping driveway reflects the car-culture mentality of the Century City of old. Many guests walk down the driveway to get to the avenue, risking close encounters with vehicles.

Meanwhile, Westfield, the Australia-based owner of the district’s shopping center, has also proposed a $500-million project to raze two office buildings to create space for 260 high-end condos and additional shops.

Many obstacles to the “greening” project loom.

They probably would include revisions to the specific plan and a drawn-out time frame for any subway project. Money would also be an issue. A spokeswoman for Weiss said the work would have to be done with public and private funds, including some from property owners and developers. Already, property owners are forming a business improvement district that would maintain landscaping and other elements.

Nearby residential neighborhoods could present another hurdle.

“I have serious concerns about how much input the residents will have,” said Kevin Hughes, president of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. Several homeowner groups recently sued the city, alleging that it grossly underestimated the amount of traffic that the JMB project would generate.

Still, “greening” organizers are hopeful that their plan could work. It fits with other efforts around L.A. to create denser, mixed-use communities. Century City has a huge advantage because it already enjoys the skyline of a mini-metropolis, a desirable Westside location and a variety of attractions: eateries, shops, hotels and housing.

Bob Hale, the lead architect for the project, said: “This represents a unique and special opportunity.”