Frank Gehry, Grand Avenue and the future of Bunker Hill

Times Architecture Critic

On Wednesday evening I took part in a panel discussion at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Mayor Eric Garcetti, Eli Broad, Frank Gehry and Los Angeles Philharmonic President Deborah Borda.

We were guests in a live on-stage version of the KCRW radio program “Which Way, L.A.?,” with Warren Olney and Frances Anderton as hosts.

The program was planned to mark the 10th anniversary of Disney Hall. But it was also meant to examine the future of Grand Avenue and long-delayed redevelopment plans for Bunker Hill being overseen by a joint city and county committee.

In that sense it turned out to be very timely; this week has brought a flurry of news about the fate of the project.

New York developer Related Cos. has won yet another extension from the committee, despite also getting a harsh rebuke from L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, its chairwoman, for the uninspired nature of the latest design for so-called Parcel Q, across Grand from Disney Hall.

New plans are due Nov. 25, and Related’s extension runs through Jan. 20.

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Well before the recession, Related hired Frank Gehry’s office to design a huge retail and residential complex for Parcel Q; after Gehry’s contract lapsed, the developer asked the large firm Gensler to prepare a slightly more modest master plan for the site instead, and the New York architect Robert A.M. Stern to work on concepts for a residential tower at the corner of 2nd Street and Grand.

Early this week Gehry told me that he’d recently met with Stephen M. Ross, the chairman of Related, and was fairly confident that Ross would put him back in charge of the design team. At the Wednesday panel Gehry’s tone went from fairly confident to entirely so; when asked how he might proceed if the job became his again, he said it wasn't a matter of if but when.

That confidence rubbed a few people the wrong way. There was at least one complaint on Twitter that the conversation had turned into “a lengthy pitch for why Frank Gehry should design Parcel Q across from WDCH.”

In fact, much remains uncertain. And much of the long history of Grand Avenue redevelopment efforts remains opaque to many Angelenos. In the spirit of clearing up at least some of that mystery, here's an FAQ on the state of the project.

What did the mayor say Wednesday night?

He appeared briefly to deliver some above-the-fray opening remarks praising Gehry, Borda and the hall. But his late-in-the-game decision to join the event and give the introduction can probably be read as support for Gehry. He is now fully engaged in the discussions between Related and city and county officials.

Does Gehry really have the inside track now?

It appears so. And that could raise hopes for a successful project, since Gehry knows the site well and has produced in Disney Hall the only building among Grand Avenue's architectural icons that has managed to exceed expectations. It might give Gehry a chance to design two towers -- his first high-rise buildings in Los Angeles.

I’m not crazy about the idea of having Gensler and Bob Stern design the new complex. But is Gehry the only other option?

An interesting question. Given the pressure Molina and other officials are now putting on Related, it seems unlikely that the developer could start with an entirely new design team. Gehry’s firm prepared a thorough design for the site, followed by the evolving Gensler-Stern collaboration. If Related is going to switch from the plan Molina temporarily rejected while also meeting the new deadline, it is far more likely to go back to Gehry, whose firm knows the project thoroughly, than to hire a firm that would have to start from scratch. I’d say a likely outcome is a Gehry-Gensler team: Gehry would lead the design effort with Gensler working in support as executive architect, as the firm is doing with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro on the Broad Museum. 

You and other writers keep referring to Parcel Q. Why is it called Parcel Q?

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the newly established Community Redevelopment Agency, in a burst of urban-renewal aggression, not only demolished or moved every single building on Bunker Hill -- more than 7,000 residential units altogether -- but also sliced off the very top of the hill itself to make it more level. The CRA then divided the hill into more than 20 huge parcels, or superblocks, and gave each one a letter, starting with Parcel A. The site bounded by Grand, First, Second and Olive is called Parcel Q. The site of the forthcoming Broad Museum is Parcel L. The original hope was that most of the parcels would be filled in by the middle of the 1960s. But many have stayed empty that whole time, or used for parking.

Is that what happened at Parcel Q?

Yes. In 1969 the CRA hired an architect and an engineer to put up a parking structure, now known colloquially as the Erector Set or the Tinker Toy lot, that was supposed to be temporary. It is now almost 45 years old and still in operation. We keep seeing ambitious plans to replace it, but it keeps surviving. It’s tougher to kill than Rasputin.

The committee overseeing the project could still reject the Related plans and cut its ties to the developer, right?

Yes. 

And what would happen if Related were fired?

It’s certainly a possibility we should be talking about. It would mean more delays for the project, which has already been in the works for a decade, but also a chance to open up a conversation about new architects and a new range of options for that part of Bunker Hill.

What kind of options? 

Up to this point one of the biggest obstacles to developing that piece of land has been its sheer scale. Nobody has been willing or able to break that huge parcel into chunks and develop it in pieces. Look at the rest of downtown: the real renaissance has happened in the Arts District, along Broadway and in other locations where merchants, architects and developers have the chance to try things out at a small scale or reuse existing buildings. Meanwhile, up on Bunker Hill, we still have an all-or-nothing formula for each of the superblocks: either we’re going to have a gigantic project by a prominent architect or we’re going to have no construction at all. Maybe there’s a way to try a different planning approach, which would in turn open up chances for smaller, younger and more experimental firms to take part.

Do you think there’s really a chance of that happening?

Theoretically, it could even happen with Related and Gehry still in the picture. If I were planning czar I’d push for some version of the following scenario at Parcel Q: Give design control back to Gehry, but have him design just one tower or some smaller structures on the site. Then divide the rest of the huge parcel among two or three younger or less-famous L.A. firms that deserve a shot at this kind of high-profile project. (Some names: Kevin Daly, Johnston Marklee, Barbara Bestor, Frederick Fisher, Koning Eizenberg, Lorcan O’Herlihy. And maybe, as long as we're conjuring up wish lists, a young architect from outside L.A., like Andres Jaque, Tatiana Bilbao, Junya Ishigami or the firm SO-IL.)

And bring in a really good landscape architect so that the open-air center of the project could stitch some connections down the hill toward Broadway. To be clear: Related is not at all the kind of developer likely to support this kind of approach or mix of architects; it would be a threat to its control over the final outcome, not to mention the budget. But these other scenarios are worth talking about. The ultimate goal would be to reverse-engineer the superblock so that it can have the richness and variety of a regular city street.

I’m tired of hearing about Grand Avenue. Doesn’t it suck up too much attention from politicians, developers and the media?

Certainly when you have Garcetti, Gehry and Eli Broad all on the same stage talking about contemporary architecture and urban planning in Los Angeles, that’s news. But I see your point. Somehow the rest of downtown has managed a remarkable renaissance in recent years without the kind of attention, political support or subsidy that Bunker Hill has received. It is possible to give a part of the city too much attention, to over-plan and over-promise and throttle the life out of it. As I noted last night, Grand Avenue’s original name, in the 19th century, was Charity Street, and over many decades it has received remarkable public largesse that hasn’t quite translated into urban-planning success. If we continue to award it subsidies, they should be directed at improving the connections between the buildings and from those buildings to Grand Park rather than to more parking garages. (The most damaging myth about Grand Avenue is that it doesn’t have enough parking. It has too much parking.)

Still, I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game: I think we can plan for the future of the L.A. River and Union Station and Broadway while also trying to improve Bunker Hill. And this is a part of the city we need to get right, even if it takes another two or three decades. Given the opening of Grand Park and the forthcoming Broad Museum, and the arrival of a Regional Connector subway stop by the end of the decade, some major infrastructural pieces are falling into place. The challenge, as ever, is making the street somehow more than the sum of its expensive and disconnected parts.

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