Built not to last -- yet still standing
Even before it opened in 1969, the “Erector set” parking lot at the corner of 1st and Olive streets downtown was one of Los Angeles’ most reviled structures.
Richard G. Mitchell, head of the Community Redevelopment Agency, complained that it was just another monolith of concrete, asphalt and steel atop Bunker Hill. The mass of girders and slabs, perched atop what look like stilts, “fights you,” Mitchell said. He predicted it would have a “depressing effect” on downtown.
Robert Bolling, president of the Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects, agreed, warning that the structure would have a “deleterious effect on the fabric of the city.”
At the time, the 1,062-car structure’s saving grace was that it was temporary. Planners promised the “portable parking structure” would be dismantled and moved somewhere else, replaced by a more fitting form of architecture.
But as with so many pieces of the L.A. landscape, it wasn’t that simple. The fact that it is still here “does say something about the mythology that all of Los Angeles is temporary,” author D.J. Waldie said. “Even something that is supposed to be temporary has hung around longer than many residents of the city.”
The city is full of examples of how Angelenos tend to take the impermanent and make it endure for the ages. The Olympic rings were meant to hang on the Coliseum only for the 1932 Summer Games -- but still adorn the structure. The Hollywood sign was erected to boost sales for a housing development in 1923. MOCA opened the Temporary Contemporary in 1983 as a provisional exhibition space at a downtown warehouse; it’s still in use. We end up relying on those symbols as pieces of our civic fabric, evidence of the fact that we have history and permanence.
The parking structure is officially known, in the bureaucratic parlance of Los Angeles County, which owns it, as “Parking Lot 17.”
For a generation of Southern Californians, the strange convergence of steel and asphalt has been the place where citizens parked before filing over to the criminal or civil courts nearby to serve jury duty. Over and over, proposals were made to replace it with a skyscraper -- only to have the plan fizzle and the structure remain.
Looking at it perched atop Bunker Hill, some confused it with a half-finished office building. And as the hill became populated with true architectural gems -- MOCA, the Cathedral and then Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall -- the “Erector set” became even more of a blight.
“It’s been such an eyesore, such a blot on the landscape,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and an expert on parking.
In a few weeks, workers will finally begin removing the structure. As planners originally promised, it will be replaced by something more architectural: a Frank Gehry-designed condo and shopping complex clad in glass, concrete and limestone.
The structure went up in a matter of months in 1969 as a quick fix for a pressing problem. A survey conducted in 1966 showed that more than 250,000 cars were entering the city center each day, but there were only 81,000 parking spaces.
The designer, engineer Charles Bentley, was marketing what he called a “revolutionary concept”: a low-cost portable parking structure that could be erected in a matter of weeks over an existing lot and taken down and moved as land uses changed. His $850,000 edifice was put together much like a child’s Erector set. Concrete floors had connectors embedded into them so that they could be easily joined to the support columns and beams.
“I was kind of fascinated by the whole concept,” said Samuel Wacht, the architect Bentley tapped for the project. “In some ways, it’s like a tract house: If you get one floor plan, you perfect the economic design of that . . . and you can repeat it and effect the savings.”
L.A. turned out to be the first major American city to try temporary parking buildings.
The county tapped Bentley to build the structure on the block between 1st and 2nd and Olive and Grand after watching his company, Portable Parking Structures Inc., build a similar edifice on the corner of what is now Temple and Judge John Aiso streets. (It too is still in use.)
L.A.'s cutting-edge parking concept won attention from futurists, who saw only one flaw. “Their appearance -- which is most charitably described as functional -- does not do much to improve the aesthetics of a neighborhood,” Time magazine wrote in 1969.
Criticism of the building’s austere design, Wacht said, is “probably a fair statement. . . . I guess in those days colors were not as important as they are today..”
But what’s important to remember, Wacht said, is that the structure wasn’t meant to be pretty; it was meant to be temporary. And as it turned out, the buildings were the product of a rather abbreviated era. Portable Parking Structures built only about two dozen of them -- none of which was relocated anywhere but the trash heap.
“The truth was, they tended to be somewhat ugly,” said Gerald Katell, a former president of the company.
The intervening years were not kind to the structure.
In 1999, the Downtown Breakfast Club, a group of urban planners, bestowed one of its Lemon Awards on “the terrible, temporary, Tinker-Toy Tower.”
After the Walt Disney Concert Hall finally opened across the street in 2003, the architectural firm Rios Clementi Hale erected a cable lattice on the northern edge of the structure, which eventually was covered over by a tangle of vines.
“A screen out of cables . . . paid a better homage to the parking structure than a block wall,” architect Mark Rios said.
By then, downtown L.A. was changing in a way that eventually would seal the structure’s fate. In 1969, few people lived downtown. Now, nearly 35,000 people call the city center home, and thousands more are expected to move into rehabilitated office buildings and new luxury lofts in the coming years.
For the last four years, city and county officials have been working with a private developer, Related Cos., to build a mix of retail, housing and a hotel on the lot. Forty years after it was conceived, a skyscraper finally will be built on the site -- two, in fact, designed by Gehry as part of the first phase of the Grand Avenue project.
And though few people may mourn the loss of the lot, it is, in its passing, serving again as a symbol of the city’s aspirations -- this time, for residential density in the urban core.
In moving the project forward, city and county officials touted the development’s proximity to transportation hubs, including a subway stop nearby. Parking will still be vital; the development includes five levels of underground parking.
Now, Wacht observed with a chuckle, one of his old USC classmates -- that would be Gehry -- is taking the county parking lot that he helped design into its next iteration. Gehry was one of those students, Wacht remembered, who was “in cyberspace. I was in the trenches,” he said.
Wacht himself is circumspect about the structure’s removal. He harbors no sadness. After all, he said, he expected it to happen decades ago.
Though the structure will not be relocated, it will in some sense be reused -- in a way that is in step with 2008.
Related plans to send most of it to the recycling bin.