December 30, 1991 - From the December, 1991 issue

L.A. Coliseum Renovation Process Unites Developer, Preservationists

The Los Angeles Conservancy (preservationists) and Spectacor Management (developer) have renovated the L.A. Coliseum. Philip Scott Ryan, senior partner and lead trial attorney at Kelly, Ryan and McAuliffe, and James Robinson, senior land use attorney, lay out the 12 months of collaboration to achieve this unusual partnership.

The words “developer” and “preservationist,” when placed to­gether, conjure up visions of impla­cable foes locked in irreconcilable conflict. And indeed, developers and preservationists often find themselves at odds over planning and develop­ment issues, clashes which can be traced to conflicting objectives. 

Yet, over the past twelve months, a collaborative effort between the Los Angeles Conservancy and Spectacor Management Group on the Los An­geles Memorial Coliseum renovation has created a model of how commit­ted engagement can effectively eliminate the normally adversarial re­lationship of developer and preserva­tionist. 

Conflicting Objectives 

Developers are concerned with realizing the greatest profit on their investment by availing themselves of the highest and best use of a piece of property. They generally believe that the renovation and reuse of historically significant structures is less likely to result in a project which maximizes the economic potential of the land. Because historic facilities are consid­ered functionally and economically outdated under presently prevailing developer standards, developers frequently reach for the demolition ball and start from scratch. 

Preservationists, on the other hand, focus less on the profit moti­vation driving the process of growth than on their view of quality of life in the community. Their perception of what was or is colors their vision of what might be. Developers are often viewed as money-grubbing land bar­ons who fatten already-bulging wal­lets at the expense of the nobility of the past. 

Conversely, developers, faced with Byzantine regulatory schemes, strident no-growth movements, vac­illating political officials, and turbu­lent financial and real estate markets, frequently view preservationists as “little old ladies in tennis shoes” dedicated to destroying our very American way of life. 

Through these divergent prisms of apparent interest, developers and preservationists often readily accept that conflict — often brutal and always destructive — is inevitable. Yet if one probes a bit deeper and reflects more soberly, this conflict is neither certain nor irreconcilable. If one focuses on the process itself, a hint of sensible resolution appears. 

The candid engagement of pres­ervationists and sensitive developers is a prescription for capturing our valued past while growing as a dynamic community. One recent and noteworthy example of how coop­eration, rather than conflict, can mark the relationship between developer and preservationist involves the design process for the proposed renovation of the Coliseum. 

The Coliseum Process 

The process began in August 1990, when Spectacor (the managers of the Coliseum) accepted an invita­tion to appear before the Los Angeles Conservancy. At this event, the Conservancy presented a stunning slide presentation of the Coliseum’s history from pre-construction to the present. The presentation ended with a photograph of the present Coli­seum juxtaposed with the ruins of Delphi. Don Webb of Spectacor ended his comments with words that commenced a collaboration which undoubtedly no one in that room anticipated. “Help us preserve the Coliseum so that it does not become like the ruins of Delphi,” said Webb. “We need you to guide us, we need you to preserve this as a living monu­ment.”

The Conservancy responded im­mediately, requesting Spectacor and the Mayor to convene design work­shops to explore alternative design concepts. Spectacor immediately re­alized that the workshop should not be used to appease the Conservancy, but rather to include them fully in the design process. 

The workshop contained within its very structure the dynamic which would weld developers and preser­vationists into collaborators. For just as Spectacor had divorced itself from the doctrine of highest and best use, the Conservancy accepted the chal­lenge to create a design which satis­fied the pragmatic requirements nec­essary to modernize the stadium to a 21st Century facility. 

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The Design Workshop 

The workshop brought together a carefully balanced team of experts representing the fields of sports design, architecture, structural engi­neering, preservation architecture, urban planning and historic resource assessment. The four days of the workshop identified the important historic preservation issues, enlightened Spectacor and its architects on the historic significance of the Coli­seum, and tutored the preservation­ists on the programmatic needs that the renovation had to satisfy. While the educational element of the workshop proved useful, it was the commitment of Spectacor to a con­tinuation of an ongoing design process with the Conservancy that proved decisive. 

Five conceptual designs were developed during the workshop. Spectacor then directed its architects, HNTB, to develop detailed design plans of all five designs so that they could be taken back to the Conser­vancy for study and criticism, fashioning designs that would wed pro­gram with preservation. If the Con­servancy had not previously been convinced of Spectator’s commit­ment to preservationist principles, this additional effort assured Spectator’s collaborators that they would have meaningful input. 

Each meeting with the Conser­vancy and with the Conservancy’s Task Force (which was formed to participate in this process and was chaired by Bill Delvac), produced new and better designs. And all the while Spectacor’s historical architect, Brenda Levin, proved an architec­tural Henry Kissinger, prodding the preservationists, cajoling the devel­oper, and keeping the parties engaged enthusiastically in the process. 

The Fruits of Collaboration 

From the workshop in December 1990 to the public presentation of a design in November 1991, every design, modification and new concept was presented to the Conservancy. Every suggestion, critique, and con­cern expressed by the Conservancy was studied seriously, analyzed thoroughly and more often than not incorporated into the design to be evaluated in the environmental impact report. 

The dialogue was so complete and unencumbered by preconceived ideas that it eventually became un­clear even to the participants which aspects of the design were authored by Spectacor and which ideas came from the Conservancy. For months, the Conservancy Task Force pounded on Spectacor to preserve the tunnels con­necting the yard level to the seating in the lower bowl of the Coliseum. The Conservancy eventually got their tunnels, not because they were persuasive or even right, but because Peter Luukko of Spectacor found that saving them would be cost effective. The process of mutual and enthusiastic engagement had caused the preservationists to save the developer money and the developer an opportunity to save the landmark.

Lessons from the Coliseum 

The results achieved during the collaborative Coliseum renovation design process were remarkable and may not be replicated in every project. There will undoubtedly be cases where the preservationist and the developer cannot resolve their differences. But if they fail to en­gage in a creative process of dia­logue, these differences, real and imagined, will erupt into debilitat­ing controversy. 

The design for a preserved Coli­seum suggests that Spectacor and the Conservancy appreciated Win­ston Churchill’s admonition that, “it is better to jaw, jaw, than to war, war.”

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