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Frank Gehry unveils design for Watts children’s center

Gehry-Watts center
Architect Frank Gehry is surrounded by children at the unveiling of his design for the future Watts campus of the Children’s Institute.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Parents examined floor plans, carefully perched on easels. Community leaders circled a three-dimensional model, peering at its collection of tiny block-sized buildings with shiny roofs.

Politicians, philanthropists and families gathered Saturday for the unveiling of the designs for a new $35-million campus planned in Watts by the Children’s Institute Inc., a group that serves children coping with poverty, violence and trauma.

Award-winning architect Frank Gehry, whose firm provided the work free of charge, spelled out his vision for a piece of property that extends nearly two blocks. The two-story structures will fit the neighborhood, Gehry told the audience, offering a scale and a “body language” that is residential in nature.

“I know it’s going to stand out. I can’t help it,” said Gehry, known globally for such eye-catching works as Walt Disney Concert Hall and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. “But I’m trying to make it fit.”

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Participants in the event sounded thrilled at the prospect of having a striking piece of architecture go up near 103rd Street and Compton Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s most important intersections. Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino said the campus, when completed, would show residents that “they deserve world-class design.”

Buscaino and others said the Children’s Institute project is one of several signs that new services and amenities are coming to the neighborhood, which recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the historic civil unrest that erupted in 1965.

David Moss, president of the nonprofit Harold Robinson Foundation, said he and others are looking for a location in the neighborhood to set up a music conservatory, similar to one that exists in Silver Lake. Buscaino talked up the coming of a new sit-down restaurant run by chef Roy Choi on 103rd.

Children’s Institute Inc. set up shop in Watts in 2007, occupying space that had previously housed a county health center. In 2011, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas helped the group obtain a free lease and an option to buy the site, which it now owns.

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Groundbreaking on the new campus is expected by 2018. So far, the Children’s Institute has identified roughly half of the funds needed to construct the project, said Nina Revoyr, the group’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“Our last campaign was $22 million. We raised it in four years, and we raised it in the middle of a recession,” she said. “But it is difficult. It is heavy lifting.”

Once the project is completed, the new campus will serve an estimated 5,000 children and their family members per year, specializing in services for children who experience trauma. The facility will also offer art classes, computer training, cooking courses and other activities for youth throughout the community.

Gehry’s designs received positive marks from I’nella Douglass-Scott, a community outreach coordinator for the Molina Foundation in Long Beach. She called the project innovative, saying it would boost neighborhood morale.

“It’s beautiful. It’s attractive. But most importantly, it will serve more children,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

David.zahniser@latimes.com

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