Grand Avenue project: Uncertainty could be a good thing

The recent turmoil over the Grand Avenue redevelopment effort leaves a bunch of pretty basic questions unanswered.

For starters, who exactly is going to design a planned retail, residential and hotel complex across Grand from Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles?

The master plan that the joint city-county committee overseeing the project temporarily rejected last week — before changing course and extending its agreement with developer Related Cos. through Jan. 20 — was designed by the big corporate firm Gensler, with contributions from New York architect Robert A.M. Stern.

But Frank Gehry produced an earlier conceptual plan for that site, known as Parcel Q, and he sounds reasonably confident that the developer will soon put his firm, Gehry Partners, back atop the design team.

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A second question is whether Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, given her harsh criticism of the Gensler master plan, which she called boxy, uninspired and “fort-like” last week, still has major doubts about supporting Related as the site’s developer.

Finally, there’s the issue of whether Related’s California office and its New York headquarters see eye to eye on the future of the project. The developer’s California office and its president, Bill Witte, have shepherded the Gensler design, while Gehry’s upbeat assessment of his role follows a recent meeting with Related’s Manhattan-based founder and chairman, Stephen M. Ross.

Still, the recent uncertainty may turn out to be a good thing for the project and its architecture. It may make a lackluster or ill-advised design less likely to win approval or move uninterrupted toward construction.

And it will bring a fresh round of scrutiny to a development process that in recent months, as the long-delayed project gained new momentum after the recession, had faced far too little.

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Indeed, Related’s quiet decision to commission a master plan from Gensler and concepts for a residential tower by Stern seemed designed to get the project moving again with as little attention as possible.

The design that Molina objected to was meant to be preliminary — a master plan by Gensler for how buildings would be arranged on the site, not a final design. But the way they were presented doesn’t make that entirely clear. The digital renderings for Parcel Q included in the latest report to the authority are highly detailed architecturally, far more than is typically the case for a master plan.

Given the sleek, upscale and rather placeless look of those images, it’s not hard to understand Molina’s reaction. She has pushed from the start of negotiations with Related for the inclusion of affordable housing and other concessions.

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Strictly as a master plan, the latest version of the design is not significantly different from the one Gehry’s firm produced five years ago. It features a collection of high-end shops and restaurants opening onto Grand and crowned by a pair of towers holding hotel rooms and residential units, one along 1st Street and another along 2nd.

But it also hints at some ways in which the development was in danger of heading in the wrong direction architecturally.

The most obvious risk is that it will come to resemble an L.A. Live for Bunker Hill. Gensler designed a good chunk of that soulless, perma-bright enclave on the southern end of downtown, including a tower holding a J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. It is also working with New York firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro on a museum for Eli Broad on Grand Avenue that is expected to open next fall.

Bill Witte, president of Related California, stressed that it was county officials who requested the more detailed renderings for Parcel Q.

“We continued to reiterate to them that this is not architecture yet — it’s conceptual design,” Witte said. “It needs work. We knew that going in. We had no idea they would react as they did.”

Gensler declined to comment.

Further muddying the waters is the news that Stern, whose firm designed the new George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, has joined the project. Related and Stern worked together on the 42-story Century residential tower in Century City, a thuddingly conventional design that was completed in 2010.

From an aesthetic point of view, a Grand Avenue project based on a Gensler master plan and including buildings by both Gehry and Stern is difficult to imagine. Gehry’s work is formally expressive and exuberant, Stern’s carefully burnished and historically minded. Their personal relationship, though, is closer; Gehry has been a regular visiting professor at the Yale School of Architecture, where Stern is dean.

Gehry, who has been busy in recent weeks with events marking the 10th anniversary of Disney Hall, sounded sanguine about his relationship with Related officials and the process as a whole.

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“We’ll see what happens,” Gehry said. “If we do it, we’ll take the lead on the design. They understand that.”

Compared with its 2007 proposal for the site across from Disney Hall, the new Related master plan shows the effects of the recession. It calls for fewer residential units (430 instead of 488), a slightly smaller number of hotel rooms (250 versus 275) and less retail space (171,000 square feet compared with 250,000). The residential units will be mostly rental apartments, while the original plan called for mostly condos.

The relationship between the Grand Avenue Authority and Related, meanwhile, has grown less productive since the departure of Martha Welborne, who had been helping manage the project, for a job with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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In addition, Councilman Jose Huizar has replaced Jan Perry as the city’s representative on the Grand Avenue body. Those changes, sapping the group working on the project of much of its institutional memory, have had the effect of giving Molina outsize influence.

It seems clear that Molina, who was not available for comment, is unhappy that work on a city-owned parcel in the Grand Avenue redevelopment area, site of the forthcoming Broad museum and a Related apartment building, has moved ahead while Parcel Q, a county site, remains empty. In the original timetable Parcel Q was to be developed first.