November 19, 2003 - From the November, 2003 issue

Wayne Ratkovich Articulates Vision Of 'The Alhambra' As A Progressive Urban Village

What began as an ambitious plan for a new commercial campus has evolved into an urban village with few preceding developments. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Wayne Ratkovich, president of the Ratkovich Company, in which he discusses the vision for The Alhambra and how that vision has evolved over the past four years.


Wayne Ratkovich

Wayne, in 1999 you acquired and began renovation of The Alhambra campus. For the benefit of our readers, highlight the challenge you faced in '99, the nature of the campus, and your vision for what it could become.

The first challenge we faced was that building occupancy was about to drop to 35% of capacity, which is significant for a facility of one million square feet. The second challenge was that The Alhambra was not well known to the financial community. We had to bring in institutional investors and convince them that it was a good investment.

The original vision that we had for the property was to create a business park in a different form than exists throughout Southern California. We proposed creating a business park that would share common space, where the human environment would have a higher priority than convenient parking. That is unlike the conventional business park in Southern California, where individual buildings have their own entrance, landscaping, and parking, all in a separate parcel. Our project's vision proposed parking on the perimeter and the use of existing buildings to form the nucleus of an office park. Then, we would add new buildings over time as the market required-all in the same format around a common space.

Since we bought the property, our occupancy has increased very nicely and we're down to the last 15% of office space to lease. Over that period of time, a new vision for the property has evolved-that of an urban community.

Elaborate on that vision. How do you convey that vision to the clientele you seek as potential tenants of the campus?

If you step back for a moment and look at the concept, it is relatively new. We are going back into areas that were previously settled, using land more efficiently and bringing uses closer together. That is the basis of what we're referring to as an urban community-to bring a variety of uses together within the same property or project.

In our case, rather than continue to expand The Alhambra as an office park, at least on the scale that we had originally contemplated, we now are introducing a significant amount of retail development. And, we are in the process of doing a plan for a significant amount of residential development as well. The co-existence of the office and retail space, along with residential development and other services like day care and fitness facilities, creates the sense of an urban community. These uses are brought close together so one can presumably get around without using an automobile.

Elaborate on The Alhambra property and project, present and proposed-- how many acres, how many buildings, and the planned new development.

The Alhambra is a property consisting of a total of 45 acres of land, 20 separate buildings and one million square feet of office space. Approximately seven acres of the property are open on the west side of Fremont. The other 38 acres are in what we call "the Campus," which is on the east side of Fremont. The seven acres on the west side of Fremont will be a retail development connected to The Alhambra both physically as well as architecturally. It will consist of a major department store and a series of shops we're calling "The Shops at The Alhambra," which includes Starbucks, Jamba Juice, and similar kinds of tenants. So, there is going to be a major retail component supporting our office tenants as well as the surrounding community.

The final component of the project will be the development of residential on approximately ten acres of the site. We are going through a series of market, physical planning, and economic studies right now-to determine the best way to serve the residential development in Alhambra.

We're in the business of creating environments that are pleasing to people. We try to create both physically and socially pleasing environments. By doing so, we hope to create a productive and efficient commercial and residential community, eliminating the need to use a car to go to the bank, out to lunch, or to the dry cleaner.

TPR has carried a number of articles and interviews suggesting that local governments in California have little capacity to support public planning in collaboration with the private sector-a lot of negotiation and mediation goes on, but very little planning. How do you, as a private developer with such a large vision for urban infill, work with the public sector to plan and realize your goals?

These days, our first step-and we're doing it almost continuously-is to assess which cities share our view of the future. We are looking for cities that believe that the inevitable growth coming to Southern California can and should be used to improve our quality of life; that it's not an either / or proposition; we ought to be able to grow and improve the quality of life.

In a perfect world, a city would, as one of its primary duties, plan its future. Ideally, cities would say, "This is our community; this is the way we want it to be; this is the way we want it to grow. These are the quality of life issues that are important to us. And, therefore, this is how we want our land used." To the extent that we can find and work with cities that either have this approach or something close to it, this is where we are going to do business.

Well, have you found cities desirous of being the architects of their own future, Wayne?

I think we found one in Alhambra. The city of Alhambra has been very supportive as our plan and our vision for the property have evolved. They've been great partners for us, and we in turn have endeavored to be great partners for them. This is a community interested in ensuring it has a strong economic base, jobs for its residents, and a good quality of life for its citizenry-that's what we're about, too.

In LA, in the 80's, you were a pioneer in the revitalization of downtown. We do this interview on the official opening day of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, some weeks after the announcement of the Grand Avenue plan. What are Downtown LA's pospects for creating a vital urban environment? What's the upside, what's the downside, and what are the real challenges?

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The challenges are considerable. First, notwithstanding the fact that we are urbanizing, it is very difficult to live in Southern California without dependency upon the automobile. However, lots of cities are dependent on cars-New York is dependent on cars. But, New York's cars are shared cars-they're called taxicabs. Here, we have our own personal, private automobiles and we take them with us. When you look at a concentrated development pattern, almost as much space is needed for automobiles as for human beings.

The second physical challenge in downtown Los Angeles is simply the size of the blocks. Here, the blocks are very large compared to the walkable blocks that exist in other urbanized environments. And, you run into historical Southern California living patterns that are difficult to reverse.

Finally, the schools are going to be an issue with the development of downtown. You may be able to get young people to come into downtown to live and work, but sooner or later, a lot of those young people are going to want to raise families. Where will they send their children to school?

The upside is that these challenges are somehow overcome and the kind of urban center that we would all like to see in downtown Los Angeles will materialize.

The largest city builder in the LA basin is the LA Unified School District, building some 200 projects over 700 square miles. What must happen and what isn't happening with respect to the role they play as a city builder to complement your vision of urban infill villages sprouting up in this basin over time?

It's interesting that you call them city builders. If I were asked to create the ideal circumstance, it would be one in which the school district would recognize how critically important the role of schools is to our society. Recognizing the importance of educating our youth, the constraints, precedents and requirements for facilities construction need to be relaxed. It doesn't have to be in a pre-cast form decided by bureaucrats in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., or any place else. It should be decided right here in Los Angeles. There should be an open mind as to how we create schools in neighborhoods that help to reinforce and serve those neighborhoods better.

Someone smarter than I said, "You really don't need architects or developers or anybody else to fix our cities. The only thing you have to do is fix our schools and our cities will get fixed by themselves." That's how important schools are.

Wayne, you're aware that critics have noted that, whether it's transportation, education or parks, the public sector tends to work in silos and tends to be unfettered by the responsibilities of a private developer to mitigate their impacts when they come into a neighborhood. What are the livability costs of the public sector continuing such silo-like land use and planning practices?

It's a model that will not work to create the kind of city and educational system and the type of neighborhoods we're talking about. It won't happen. You have a school district that operates independently of the city in its entirety. Where is the planning director of the City of Los Angeles in that process? Los Angeles is blessed with a very capable planner in Con Howe, but we don't use him and his department as we should. I would bet that he's not an integral part of the school building process and he should be. Isn't that the way our neighborhoods should be planned? Isn't it the city's responsibility to plan a future? Isn't it the city's responsibility to create great neighborhoods? And, within great neighborhoods are great schools. But, you can't have that when people are operating so independently of one another. In business, we would say this is business model that doesn't work. It's guaranteed to fail.

Wayne, no interview with you should end without noting that you began the modern revitalization and reinvestment in downtown 25 years ago. Ira Yellin followed, and now a whole host of others follow Ira. What are Downtown L.A.'s developmental prospects?

My sense of downtown is that within the ring of freeways that encircle the downtown area is a regional center of great strength and vitality. That's where government is. That's where a whole series of trades-toys, fish, flowers, fashion, produce and jewelry are located. That's where the legal profession is based; and to some degree, the financial center remains. Region-serving uses work very well. When you wish to reach markets to the north, south, east and west, downtown works well.

However, a lot of what is in downtown should have been stretched along Wilshire Boulevard, where it would have fit more comfortably and have created a great boulevard for Los Angeles. Had that been done, we would have had a great boulevard and we also would have had a very vital and energetic downtown. It wouldn't be a downtown that looks like New York, Philadelphia, Boston or San Francisco. It would be uniquely Los Angeles.

The vision of a high-rise downtown and the exploitation of the community redevelopment act that enabled the creation of that vision, in my opinion, is not the right fit for Los Angeles. When you have what I consider to be the wrong vision for the wrong reasons, you make big mistakes. And, that's what has happened in Los Angeles.

If TPR comes back to do an interview a year from now re The Alhambra, what will you be talking about?

We'll be talking about the opening of a new department store and The Shops at The Alhambra. We'll also be talking about housing that is under construction and a project in which the office space is at least 90% leased.

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