For some, Pauley plan is blueprint for trouble

It was a perfect setting inside Pauley Pavilion, strands of blue and gold balloons stretching toward the ceiling, the school band striking up a tune.

As UCLA administrators announced last week that their aging arena would finally get a makeover, there was no hint of discord or controversy.

No one mentioned that a longtime university supporter had opposed the chosen design -- and had been ousted as head of a volunteer fundraising committee.

No one talked about the two prominent architects who had stepped forward in his wake to express their concerns.

The $185-million renovation suffers from "potential fatal flaws," according to Michael Hallmark, one of the designers behind Staples Center, who documented his opinion in an analysis sent to the University of California regents.

This criticism does not entirely surprise university administrators. Given Pauley Pavilion's status as a college basketball landmark, they expected reactions good and bad.

And so they are undeterred, confident they have chosen the best-possible option given limitations of cost and space.

"We want to get going on this as soon as possible," said Steven A. Olsen, the vice chancellor of finance, budget and capital programs. "Certainly there are going to be strong emotions about a project like this no matter which direction it takes."

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Starts and stops

Everyone agrees that, after more than four decades, Pauley Pavilion needs an overhaul.

Open spaces behind each basket leave too many fans disconnected from the action. Foot traffic clogs the antiquated system of vertical and cross aisles, with long lines forming at too few restrooms and concession stands.

Moreover, there is a sentiment that with USC opening the Galen Center in 2006, the storied Bruins program shouldn't have to play second fiddle in its own city.

UCLA could have afforded a new building -- the Galen Center cost $147 million -- but Pauley Pavilion's narrow footprint does not lend itself to modern design and administrators say they wanted to preserve a sense of tradition.

So they focused on renovation and in 2006 established a volunteer committee to help with fundraising and other aspects of the project. Its members, including sports industry executive Casey Wasserman, knew what they were up against.

Their starting point amounts to a 44-year-old concrete bunker sunk in the ground, too costly to remove, oddly configured to accom- modate everything from basketball to graduation ceremonies.

"You have to be willing to accept certain limitations," Wasserman said, explaining: "You are guaranteed not to make everyone happy."

Richard Bergman was made chairman of the volunteer committee. A UCLA student in the 1970s, he had a history of serving the school, most recently chairing a cabinet that helped raise more than $325 million for the College of Letters and Sci- ence.

"I've been working with UCLA for 20 years," he said. "I felt this was important."

Bergman participated not only in raising money, but also in design meetings where the university hired HOK Sport as its architect. When that didn't pan out, he was part of the process to switch to the firm NBBJ.

By last fall, while others on the committee supported the new plans, Bergman had grown dissatisfied and sought outside advice.

Frank Gehry, who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall, knew Bergman from the gym where they both worked out and agreed to take a look.

He subsequently contacted UC officials, saying he thought UCLA had "slipped away" from addressing the arena's most pressing needs.

"I just thought I should write the [UC] president because of Richard's concerns," Gehry said. "I was trying to help him make his point."

David Kahn, an alumnus and former general manager of the Indiana Pacers, also wrote, offering his experience with the construction of Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

"My sense was, there seemed to be some issues," Kahn said, adding: "I'm not part of any faction."

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Critical view

By far, the strongest critic of the NBBJ plan was Hallmark. He and Bergman had met when a UCLA contingent visited his $70-million renovation at US Airways Center in Phoenix.

Hallmark served as a consultant early in the Pauley Pavilion project and, when HOK Sport dropped out of the picture, he paired with another firm to vie for the job.

"People rallied around this particular [NBBJ] scheme and Richard was the odd man out," he said. "I think he asked me to get involved just to make sure he wasn't missing something."

Bergman's situation worsened this spring when he tried to convene the volunteer committee to discuss his qualms. The university -- believing the design had been adequately vetted -- refused to sanction the meeting and soon relieved him of his duties.

Bergman has since decided to redirect a $1-million pledge to another part of the university and, on April 14, sent a package to UC officials that included Hallmark's analysis, a report that started by focusing on how people circulate through the building.

Pauley Pavilion tends to clog because fans move about within the seating bowl. Modern arenas have solved this problem by adding concourses, wide outer rings that allow patrons to walk more freely, visiting restrooms and snack bars before re-entering the bowl through tunnels.

The NBBJ plan adds concourses of varying widths along three sides, with traffic redirected back inside the bowl along the western end.

"Just as in roadway design," Hallmark's analysis states, "turns and curves slow down movement, create confusion and frustration."

The architect suggests that the concourses are too narrow and that, by reducing the overall number of vertical aisles, NBBJ is making the rows in some sections too long.

He wants UCLA to convene a peer review of independent experts to revisit these and other issues.

"It's just a very convoluted plan," he said. "I would be shocked if you didn't get 10 sports architects to all render that viewpoint."

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Sticking with it

The Times tried to contact NBBJ but got no return call, perhaps because UCLA officials had previously stated that all communications about the project should go through them.

On May 1, in response to the Hallmark analysis, UCLA Vice Chancellor Olsen sent an eight-page letter to Bergman, reminding him that others on the volunteer committee supported the current plans.

"I feel confident that we've done a good job of addressing the issues that can be addressed," the administrator said in an interview.

The NBBJ design was reviewed by independent principal architects in late 2008, Olsen said, and concourses have been widened in some areas. As for adding a concourse along the west end, he said there is no room because of the adjacent Acosta Athletic Complex.

Olsen also asserts that the new row lengths will be comparable to those at the Galen Center and Staples Center.

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Money matters

There is a corresponding issue with the project.

The athletic department is developing a points system to decide who sits where, ranking big donors with fans who don't give as much but have come to Pauley Pavilion for decades.

Some longtime ticket-holders worry about being pushed aside and wonder if the renovation might have been stretched over more years to soften the money crunch in tough times.

Olsen offers a direct answer: Splitting the project into parts would ultimately raise the cost. A slow economy, he said, could result in "some really good deals in construction."

So administrators appear to have closed the door on major design changes, though they will consider smaller adjustments.

Toward that end, Kahn will visit from Indianapolis early this week. If nothing else, the former NBA executive can talk about living through an arena project.

During the construction of Conseco Fieldhouse, the pro franchise weathered criticism for its plans. Kahn recalls trying to build a consensus but noted "that's easier said than done."

More than anything, he believes, UCLA officials must be sure of their goals as they work through two-plus years of construction, pointing toward Pauley Pavilion's grand re-opening in the fall of 2012.

"You want to make certain that when it's finally done, most of those [negative] feelings will be eroded," he said. "Meaning people will walk in and say, 'Oh my God, they really did this right.' "

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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