Funding gets Grand plan going

Times Staff Writer

Armed with $100 million from Dubai and a refined design plan, officials Monday said construction will finally begin next month on the Frank Gehry-designed residential and shopping plaza along Grand Avenue that is considered a linchpin to downtown L.A.'s revitalization.

The announcement comes after months of delays and questions about the viability of such a massive development in the midst of L.A.'s real estate slump.

But those doubts were eased significantly Monday when the government agency overseeing the redevelopment approved the investment of Istithmar, a fund controlled by the royal family of Dubai.


The fund stepped in with $100 million after one of Grand Avenue’s big early investors, California Public Employees’ Retirement System, exited the project, saying the organization was already too heavily invested in the downtown real estate market.

The investment from Dubai gives the developer, Related Cos., the money needed to secure construction loans -- allowing it to finally tear down a parking structure across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the first phase of the development will be built. The $2-billion plan calls for shops, condo towers and a boutique hotel -- as well as a civic park -- on city and county land on Bunker Hill.

“There will always be challenges on this project.” said Bill Witte, chief executive of Related California, which is overseeing the project. “But we feel very good about where it is now.”

Construction was expected to begin last fall, but the time required for design development and project approvals caused delays.

A lot is riding on the project. Grand Avenue is seen by downtown boosters as a way to bring night life and an upscale feel to the city center.

Russell Brown, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and executive director of the Historic Downtown business improvement district, said he had been hearing for months concerns that Grand Avenue was in trouble.

“But any large project takes a while to work things through,” Brown said. “In many ways, these haven’t been routine delays. To be able to go through those hurdles, in spite of that uncertainty, expresses a great amount of confidence in downtown, and in L.A. I think it’s going to be an amazing event.”

Craig Webb of Gehry Partners said details of the project were fleshed out from the initial schematic design. Those refinements, he said, included figuring out the facades of the project’s two towers, doorway locations and stonework patterns -- “pretty specific stuff.”

The towers -- which would house residences as well as a Mandarin Oriental hotel -- would be “skinned” with a combination of glazing, stone and precast concrete.

In addition, Webb said, “we’ve been working on the interiors of the apartments, getting into very fine details about the kitchens and the bathrooms -- all the stuff that makes a building go together. The full building from top to bottom.”

Now, Webb said, another firm will take the designs and translate them into thousands of pages of construction documents.

Two aspects of the design -- the landscaping and public art components -- are still in the works, Witte said. He said he expected the Grand Avenue Authority, which is made up of city and county leaders, to consider those elements in May.

Plans for a public park that is part of the project’s first phase are also in the initial stages. Officials hope to unveil a proposed schematic design for the park at a meeting in late April, where they also plan to discuss how the park will be operated and programmed. Witte said he expected construction to begin on the park this year.

There remain skeptics who wonder whether downtown L.A. is being overdeveloped with condo projects. In addition to Grand Avenue, there are a slew of residential towers rising around Staples Center, a 76-story tower proposed next to Pershing Square and other older office buildings being renovated for apartments.

In the last year, about a third of all proposed housing developments downtown have been put on hold or canceled. They include the 50-story Zen tower on 3rd and Hill streets, the Mill Street Lofts in the industrial district, the multitower Metropolis off the 110 Freeway and the conversion of the former Herald Examiner building.

At the meeting Monday, some officials noted downtown’s changing landscape.

“We need to continue to wish ourselves good luck,” said L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

The three-phase Grand Avenue project ultimately could include eight condo and office towers, retail stores, a boutique hotel and public park. The first phase includes two towers at opposite ends of the block east of Disney Concert Hall -- set that way to preserve sightlines to the venue from many parts of downtown. The taller tower -- 48 stories -- would include rooftop pools, 264 high-end condo units, a 289-room Mandarin Oriental and an Equinox health club.

The second, 19-story tower would include nearly 100 rental units -- designated as affordable housing -- and 126 condominiums. Phase one also includes the civic park northeast of the concert hall.

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 two blocks east of the concert 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 with office space or condos.

Brown said he had recently returned from Bilbao, Spain, where he saw the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum and a trolley system built throughout the city. Brown, who has been working on a similar street car system for Los Angeles, said the trip convinced him of “the extent to which significant architecture and public spaces can really revitalize whole city centers.”

He predicted that the public park and Grand Avenue’s retail spaces, which could potentially include a gym, bookstore and grocery store, “will start to pull together parts of the community on the northern part of downtown that have never been there before.”