September 1, 2003 - From the September, 2003 issue

One Year After His Passing, Ira Yellin's Words Remind Us Of His Eloquence & Integrity

The many contributions developer Ira Yellin made to the revitalization of Los Angeles seem even more significant on the one year anniversary of his passing. While he remains most often associated with his restoration of the Grand Central market and the Bradbury Building, there was much more. His articulate and resonant voice is missed. His moral compass, wisdom and courage are missed. His leadership and passion for community are sorely missed. TPR is very proud to honor his passing by printing this speech given by Yellin to a meeting of the National Association for Women in Construction in 1997.


Ira Yellin

When asked to speak tonight, I was given free rein to choose my topic. What I'd like to do then is to touch upon some of my frustrations as a citizen of Los Angeles who is involved, in direct and indirect ways, with construction in our city.

People always ask me why I did what I did for much of my professional career, rather than the more conventional, and lucrative, real estate projects. So, allow me to offer an answer by expressing some of my core beliefs. In a sense, they are unrelated, but for me, they somehow come together and motivate me in what I do. I would like to offer them as principles for you, and this association, to consider for your own professional activities.

One: That each person, in every generation, and regardless of their work, has a responsibility to help heal or renew their society for the benefit of the next generation.

Two: That there is nothing inconsistent, nothing immoral, and nothing impossible in enjoying the good life while still doing good.

Three: That the physical form of our environment-from our homes, to our backyards, to the street on which we travel, to the building in which we sit-has a direct and profound impact on the quality of our lives, individually, and collaboratively as a society.

And, four: That Los Angeles is still a young city-a post-World War Two metropolis-a city still discovering what it will be in the new millenium. Much of the final physical form of Los Angeles is yet to emerge and that your generation of architects, builders, and urbanists can, if you will, determine what that form will be.

Here, then, is my frustration: that each of us in this room, but especially builders and architects, their professional and technical schools, and their respective business firms, have in our era done a remarkably poor job, putting it gently, of selling the importance of the built or physical environment, of its extraordinary economic and social value, to the public and to our political leadership.

In times past, and in other cultures and societies, the builder/craftsman and the architect held a position of power and respect that made them central to important political and economic decisions. Perhaps because life has moved at a different pace, because other diversions and entertainment did not exist, people spent more time not only walking down a street or through a courtyard or plaza, but also in contemplating,, experiencing, and enjoying what the builder and architect created for them. Of course, we still do this, but only when we travel to and enjoy the great urban spaces and civic buildings of Italy, France, England, Spain or Mexico.

It was, I suggest, this shared experience and satisfaction in the built form of a city that helped also build a sense of community, helped people feel identified with their society and institutions, created civic pride, and nourished social stability. And, perhaps it is the lack of such experience and satisfaction in the built form of Los Angeles that prevents people from identifying with and respecting our civic institutions and that breeds social instability.

In our country, we see the effectiveness of the medical or insurance lobbies, the utilities, or the unions when they come together and determine the outcome of political and economic decisions affecting their professions and their professional values. But, rarely, if ever in Los Angeles, is this true of builders, architects, or urban planners.

In the construction-related disciplines, there is intellectual discourse in architectural academies and technical schools, and there is pragmatic discussion of contracts, of surety forms, and of union obligations in contracting firms. But rarely is there an effective, pragmatic, organized, or consistent impact on the public and political discourse that determines how and where hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent in creating the next layer of Los Angeles' physical form.

Ultimately, then, what I'd really like to say, is to ask that you, as a professional and business community, come out of your technical schools and academies, and out of your firms, and become more realistically involved in the daily political decision making process to help inform the public dialogue and to help guide the political outcome.

The reasons are self-evident:

-This is your city, the place where you and your families are building their future;

-This is a city which is beginning to explode again with new economic and physical growth;

-And, with or without your involvement, hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars will continue to be spent;

-Here in downtown alone, there is Disney Hall, the Cathedral, the arena, the future of the Coliseum, perhaps a monorail tying the Coliseum, USC, and the convention center to the South, through Bunker Hill and the CBD, to Chinatown, Dodger Stadium, and Union Station to the North;

-There is the massive new civic center plan just about to unfold. Imagine almost five million feet of new or renovated space, almost two billion dollars of investment, that can forever remake the quality of life in our central city and make it an equal to any of the world's great urban centers.

At Catellus, where I work, there are plans for our next office tower at Union Station, as we begin the long process of developing our 6.5 million feet of entitlements. There is the ongoing work of restoring the beauty of Union Station to its 1930s grandeur, while we also plan for a future that includes a high speed train that can connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in a bit over two hours. And, there are new plans at Catellus to modernize our Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, and move toward the completion of the original project concept with the third or red building, but now a building for entertainment, multi-media, and other creative industries.

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In and around downtown, there are decisions to be made where residential communities should be built. In Grand Central Square, 119 of the 121 apartments are now leased, showing that people will live in the most dense and urban part of downtown Los Angeles if you provide an environment and sense of community for them.

Going beyond downtown, if I were to create a mandate for you, as the builders of Los Angeles, I would ask that you begin to look at things a bit differently. Help this city define goals for some of its primary physical features that can help to create our civic identity, our sense of who we are, and thus our sense of community. And then help us in building toward these goals:

-For all of the gateways, or places of entry into the city: LAX, the Port, the freeways;

-For the freeways themselves, one of our most pervasive and experienced built structures: their medians; their shoulders; their entrances and exits; their landscaping (which is fast being destroyed); for the walls going up along so many miles, walls that will be with us for the rest of our lives-look at them and tell me why need they be so ugly;

-For our beaches, one of this city's great and least cared for physical resources;

-For the Pacific Coast Highway itself. It could be as beautiful as any road alone the Riviera simply by removing utility lines and planting trees;

-For undergrounding utility lines and replacing them with trees. A good birthday present in the year 2000 for Los Angeles would simply be the greening of our major boulevards;

-For the design and construction of all public improvements on which we spend tens of millions of public dollars each year, not only for the buildings, but also for the street lights, for hydrants, for bus stops, for the Metro rail cars, for the choice of trees appearing on our streets, for every item of street furniture that fills the spaces in which we move and live.

Importantly, for the way we ensure the integrity of major public-private undertakings, such as Disney Hall, it seems to me that your professions should be a loud, demanding, and potent voice in protecting the quality and integrity of that project. Who says a Gehry design cannot be built in Los Angeles when they are built in major capitals around the world.

And, for the significant undeveloped or yet to be formally developed sites that can help define who and what this city is and wants to become:

-The old plaza in the El Pueblo, the birthplace of this city;

-The way in which Sunset Boulevard leaves downtown by the old plaza;

-And, how Sunset Boulevard meets the ocean-what a wonderful symbol this could be for our city. Look how we celebrate it-not by a fountain, or a plaza, or a great monument, but of course by a gasoline station.

What I am trying to say is that regardless of who we are, where we come from, or what trade we pursue, we share a common fate living in our society. But, we in this room also share the uncommon opportunity of building our community-in its physical form, and thereby, perhaps in its spiritual form as well. We cannot blame government, or the other person, for all that goes wrong around us if we do not make the commitment, in our daily work, to create the community that inspires and nourishes our children.

In conclusion, I see L.A. as just now maturing into a great urban complex, physically as well as socially. L.A. has lost the innocence of a past suburbia. It is still often suspicious of its many diverse peoples, but something good is beginning to happen. We are breaking boundaries and being forced to deal with one another. And, from this, we are beginning to create a new civic culture.

The creation of something new is always painful. But, you and I have the opportunity to help give structure to this birth, to mold the physical form, and thereby perhaps the soul, of America's first truly international city.

If we do this well, it will be a credit to our lives and our work, and the best legacy we can leave to our children.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.