Is this any way to build a city?
Earlier this month, when entertainment giant AEG released three designs for a downtown football stadium, the response from the media and the public focused mostly on the quality of the architecture. That was hardly surprising: The stadium proposals — by Gensler, HNTB Architecture and HKS Architects — were resoundingly mediocre. We were blinded by the bland.
But the stadium story has dimensions that go beyond design, and they’re worth examining even while keeping in mind that AEG’s NFL dreams may ultimately amount to nothing more than hype. Among the most significant is the path that AEG has taken to smooth the way for the stadium’s potential approval by city officials. It is not an approach that inspires much confidence about the way we think about and plan the Los Angeles of the future. It also rings with echoes of failed development plans of L.A.'s past.
Two parts of the deal, in particular, are depressingly familiar. One is that City Hall finds itself in the familiar position of reacting to, rather than guiding with any real foresight, a major development proposal that seeks to rewrite the planning rules downtown.
Another is the sheer overwhelming scale of the $1-billion stadium. Even as city planners have made a point of focusing, at least in theory, on a finer grain of civic improvements, such as urban-design guidelines released in 2009, in practice they continue to allow developers to shape downtown one mega-project at a time.
Along Grand Avenue, where construction crews will soon break ground on a new museum to hold Eli Broad’s collection of postwar and contemporary art, the drawbacks of that strategy — build a huge flashy project or build nothing at all — are clear. On the site at Grand Avenue and First Street where two residential towers by Frank Gehry were supposed to rise, for example, what we’re left with, as that development remains in credit-crunch limbo, is a flimsy-looking parking structure known as the Erector Set. Built in 1969, it was supposed to be temporary.
Now, in South Park, Tim Leiweke, AEG’s president and chief executive, has teamed with 36-year-old businessman Casey Wasserman on another high-stakes development gamble, in this case hoping a new retractable-roof stadium downtown will help lure the NFL back to Los Angeles. Though part of the site they have in mind — a 15-acre parcel between Staples Center and the Harbor Freeway — occupies city land, it was AEG, in private, that solicited design proposals from eight architecture firms, none of them particularly innovative. And it was AEG that trimmed that list of eight firms earlier this month to three.
It was Wasserman and Leiweke who settled on the site in the first place, though in recent weeks they have certainly kept city officials up to date on the progress of their stadium plans.
And those officials, eager for momentum on any major real-estate venture as the economy continues to sputter, have been receptive, to say the least. This is the case despite the fact that a section of the stadium site is already filled by the West Hall of the L.A. Convention Center, which would have to be relocated.
When I joined new Los Angeles planning director Michael LoGrande for an onstage conversation earlier this month at Occidental College, he brought up stadium talks between the city and AEG before I even had a chance to ask. It is clear that the planning office, though gutted by staff cuts this year, has been spending a significant amount of time weighing the downtown stadium proposal — even if that proposal is speculative at best, given that L.A. is still without an NFL franchise.
Once again, when it comes to the future of downtown, the city finds itself playing catch-up, responding to an ambitious private plan rather than putting intelligent, far-reaching planning rules in place that developers are then obliged to follow. For decades, of course, Los Angeles has shaped its architectural future in just this manner, with an absence of strong and coherent planning creating a vacuum into which powerful individuals — developers, moguls, patrons and even architects — have rushed. Even if the land in question is public, the initiative is usually private.
There are occasional exceptions to this rule, elected officials who move aggressively to build well-designed civic space. But for every Kenneth Hahn or Tom Bradley there always seem to be three or four Eli Broads or Rick Carusos putting an indelible if uninspired stamp on L.A.
By contrast, other cities, notably New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Portland, Ore., have breathed new life into the public sphere not by chasing giant developer-driven projects but by tending carefully to transit, bike paths, parks and other human-scaled improvements.
In certain ways the reactive planning Los Angeles is known for has benefited the city and its architects. It’s unlikely that the work of Gehry or Rudolph Schindler, to pick two examples, would have been able to develop as it did in a city with a more insistent kind of planning culture or a more actively engaged populace. As emerging architects they and many of their colleagues had a chance to build experimental projects largely out of public view. They took advantage of an architecture scene that was unusually resistant, if not entirely immune, to the leveling influence of philistinism.
But that Los Angeles no longer exists. The city has grown more congested and more vertical. What we need to boost civic life now is not a collection of groundbreaking individual buildings as much as a more sophisticated approach to urban design, public space and mobility. And stand-alone masterpieces grow scarcer in any case: Very little land remains open for new architecture within the city.
The unbuilt real estate that is available tends to be on the extreme outskirts of urbanized L.A. One such parcel is the site in the city of Industry, roughly 20 miles east of downtown, where developer Ed Roski is working on a rival NFL stadium plan with architect Dan Meis.
This changing Los Angeles requires a new planning philosophy, but so far the city, particularly under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has been slow to develop one. He and his planning directors — first Gail Goldberg and now LoGrande — have begun the painstaking work of overhauling the city’s many community plans, among other urban-design initiatives. But the mayor and his top advisors have also proved vulnerable, even more than politicians elsewhere, to the distracting appeal of the flashy mega-project.
As a result, over the decades, the extra-large deals always seem to get hammered out — particularly downtown — while a more thoughtful, forward-looking and comprehensive brand of planning continues to lag behind, underfunded and undervalued.