May 30, 1996 - From the May, 1996 issue

Development & Urban Vision Merge at Last! Catellus’ Ira Yellin

San Francisco-based Catellus Development Corp. has a plan for the future of downtown Los Angeles’ historic core, and significant real estate holdings in the area. In the last few months, Chief Executive Officer Nelson Rising has begun staffing his Los Angeles office with some of the area’s most respected developers. Among these is Ira Yellin, developer of downtown’s Grand Central Square, and long-time proponent of downtown revitalization. 

TPR is pleased to present an interview with Yellin as he shares his vision and new role in downtown development.


Ira Yellin: "The quality of our lives, both individually and collectively, is very much a result of our built environment, of the total physical environment in which we move, live, work, and play."

Word is out that you recently expanded your professional horizons and responsibilities. Could you give our readers a brief update on what now is included in your real estate development portfolio?

Last year The Yellin Company undertook responsibilities to help in the building of the new cathedral for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, in joint venture with Keller Construction Management Services. This will be an important part of my on-going work. The Yellin Company will also continue in its management of Grand Central Square and the Bradbury Building. 

My new commitment however, is as Senior Vice President for Catellus Development Corporation, in charge of their Southern California operations. Here in L.A., we recently opened the MTA Headquarters Building at Union Station. We will be working to fully integrate the Patsaouras Transit Plaza and the East Portal into the overall operations of Union Station. We are in the process of beginning construction on the MWD Headquarters at Union Station. Other development activities in discussion include the location of a major sports arena at this regional transit center. 

Union Station itself will continue to undergo renewal and restoration to return all of its architectural quality. We look forward to connecting the station by a great plaza to El Pueblo across Alameda. 

The feasibility study for a NFL stadium at Dodger Stadium is a major Catellus undertaking. We will be issuing a definitive report to the Dodger organization in June of this year. We are exploring a variety of development and design-build opportunities throughout the region. There is a particular interest in the Civic Center and along the evolving transit system. 

We look forward to a major renewal and repositioning of the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood and the opportunities to realize increased values in Catellus' desert holdings.

In the most general sense, we will be working to maximize the value of our existing assets, employing our extensive transit and design-build experience and always relying on the enormous potential that exists in this great and creative, multi-cultural community. 

Surely it's a bullish sign of a Los Angeles real estate rebound that you're engaged in so many attractive development projects. Having survived So. California's real estate depression, could you share with our readers your thoughts on whether development in the City and County of L.A. has changed at all in the 90s? Do you have any advice on what it's going to take for a urban developer to be successful in the coming years? 

Los Angeles' bureaucratic structure has eased somewhat; there is a sense, within City Hall, that departments are trying to make things happen more effectively. The General Managers have gotten through to the staff level that they want to make the permit process work and we have Mayor Riordan to thank for this.

What has been disappointing is the slowness in actually changing laws, ordinances—the legal regulatory mechanism that often makes it difficult for well-intended staff to be more efficient, effective, and responsive. The governing regulations still require major attention. 

Throughout my career, it has always been my belief that most people are well-meaning and well-intentioned; they try to do their jobs. The failure is a system in which no one feels safe to take creative action on the maze of regulatory mechanisms which impede efficiency and progress. 

Your comments remind me of your public remarks after receiving the 1995 AIA Presidents Award for the Grand Central Square project. "This is an era", you said, "Where every development project is a confrontation and endless negotiation with a myriad of government offices, inconsistent regulations, and varying interpretations, where delay is the norm and Catch-22 the standard." Nearly a year and a half later, as we speak, has the development process been sufficiently reformed to avoid the above?

Not sufficiently reformed, but the process of reform has been initiated and is underway. I do not think that anyone, from the Mayor down, would suggest that the process is resolved. It took us decades to get to this point and it is not going to change within a year or two. There is clearly a long way yet to go if we are to capture the opportunities that have been going to surrounding communities, such as Santa Monica, Burbank, and Glendale, in recent years.

Many have hailed your historic core projects—The Bradbury Building, Grand Central Market, and Grand Central Square—as case studies in public/private partnership. What's the future of such partnerships in the region and in downtown? 

Partnerships are essential to the modern process of development. The requirement of significant capital, and the uncertainty and length of years in getting a project completed, creates the necessity for institutional involvement. One of the major institutions of modern society, as we all know, is government; it is too involved in every aspect of our life to be left by the wayside. 

As we approach the century's end, however, a major problem is our lack of confidence in government. We are a culture which has lost confidence in the ability of government, at all levels, to be effective, efficient, and straight forward with us. It is a mindset that is damaging not only to our economic lives, but, even more importantly, to our social stability and democracy.

The work in which I am most interested, has to do with community building, and that inevitably means that I must be committed to working with government in creative and mutually supportive ways. 

You have often commented on the vital role of the Historic Core in Los Angeles' future, and on the importance of downtown's health. What will restoring and developing St. Vibiana's Cathedral contribute to downtown, the Historic Core, and the region?

I believe that the health and well-being of downtown L.A. remains critical to the long term stability and prosperity of Southern California and possibly the whole state. I also believe that downtown L.A. will never be healthy and will never evolve into a great urban core, until the historic core is both renewed and integrated into the modern city. Left alone, it's a rotting core that infects the whole city. 

The Cathedral has both a functional and symbolic importance. Symbolically, the building of a cathedral is a rare event in human history; it is an expression of the best and noblest aspirations of the human spirit, both individually and collectively. 

The process of conceiving, designing, building and adorning the new cathedral involves so many aspects of faith, culture and civilization. To have this occur in our lifetime and in our city, and on the outset of a new century, is a powerful affirmation of the human spirit. I believe Cardinal Mahoney is undertaking this task as a commitment to the renewal and maturation of L.A., as well as meeting the religious needs of the largest Catholic population in the United States at the outset of the Third Millennium of Christianity. 

On a functional level, the cathedral will have a direct and immediate impact on the renewal of the Historic Core and thereby on the health of downtown. It will entice people, events, and investment in the area surrounding the site forever. Values will rise and the quality of life and the attractiveness of the area will dramatically change. 

We see the cathedral as becoming the center of a mixed commercial and residential community that will emerge from the east, out of Little Tokyo, and moving from Cathedral Square to the West through the Historic Core and into Bunker Hill. We are actively promoting the development of affordable and moderate income housing, and there are numerous housing groups already engaged in discussions with us. 

The cathedral, in a very real sense, is a catalyst for major urban renewal in the surrounding blocks. By the time the cathedral is dedicated in 2000, we believe the surrounding area can already be taking form as an urban village of real character and quality in the heart of downtown L.A. In retrospect, we will see that the Cardinal's decision to build the new cathedral in downtown, rather than in more easily understood or attractive locations, is a bold and creative decision that will have an enormously beneficial impact on the future of the Historic Core and on all of downtown. 

Elaborate for our readers what your role is in the Cathedral project and its status? 

My title is Project Executive for Cathedral Square. I serve as representative for the Archdiocese in dealing with the many disciplines that are involved in the conceptualization, design, and ultimately, construction of the cathedral. Keller Construction Management Services is my teammate in all of these endeavors. 

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We are now administering the process of land acquisition on the block of the existing church and on alternative blocks as well, in the event that we cannot acquire the remainder of the St. Vibiana block. 

We are also administering the architect selection process. From almost fifty architects, we are now down to five semifinalists, with the final selection due by late May. 

The five architects have been given a sketch exercise on which to work. It is the creation of a shrine for the veneration of Father Junipera Serra at the site of his statue by the old plaza. The purpose of the exercise is simply to have the opportunity to interact with the architects, to dialogue with them, to see how they think and how they deal with the various problems and issues we have presented. 

Returning to your challenging remarks to the members of the AIA in 1995, you said: "My complaint is that each of us in this room, but especially architects, architectural schools and firms, have in our era done a remarkably poor job, putting it gently, of selling the importance of the architectural profession, its extraordinary economic and social value to the public and to our political leadership." Is this still your position? Is there anything going on in your current endeavors that offers hope that architects, their professional schools and firms, or even design critics writing for the media in Southern California will rise to your challenge? 

My statements of last year still reflect my views; it is something I believe in strongly. The quality of our lives, both individually and collectively, is very much a result of our built environment, of the total physical environment in which we move, live, work, and play. 

It has always amazed me how often we run to Europe and love the towns of France or Italy. We take thousands of pictures of plazas, fountains, or quaint streets. No matter who we are, from where we come, or from what economic or social background, we all love these environments. Yet we return to the U.S. and seem incapable, especially in L.A., of creating similarly satisfying environments. 

Unfortunately, in the U.S., and especially in LA., we have never really made a conscious commitment to the public or civic realm in planning and building, to the feel of a street or the look of a lamppost, to those small details that affect the quality of our lives, both economically and emotionally. 

Returning to real world of development and growth, what do you expect the role of Catellus and its developments in L.A. to play in catalyzing economic vitality downtown and in the metro area? 

Catellus has significant assets throughout downtown L.A. and on the west side of the city. Its CEO, Nelson Rising, deeply believes in the economic importance of downtown to the entire Southern California community and sees the cultural diversity of metropolitan L.A. as one of the great strengths of our city. Nelson is good for Southern California, for Los Angeles, as well as for Catellus. 

We expect to use our resources in a way that will prompt the evolution of community wherever we do our work. With Catellus' history evolving from the railroad systems, and with the hub of all the major transportation systems of the region at Union Station, we want to use our history, knowledge, and assets in a high-quality development for a 21st Century city. We will look at all of our assets with a new and hopefully creative eye. 

For example, we plan to make our Pacific Design Center part of L.A.'s burgeoning urban entertainment and multi-media world—a West Hollywood jewel for the entire City—and to realize the untouched, recreational and environmental opportunities from Catellus' vast desert holdings. 

More specifically, what are, for example, your development goals for Union Station as a Catellus connector to El Pueblo and Olvera Street? 

Quite simply, to work with others in renewing this area as the City's birthplace. The site of the City's beginnings, with all of its historic architecture and its continuing cultural life, should be a source of civic pride. Our eventual goal is to place parking in front of Union Station underground

and to create a great people-oriented plaza connecting Union Station to El Pueblo. 

Ira, as a leading Los Angeles city builder, now endowed with the resources and experience to move forward on your larger visions, share with us which communities for you offer inspiration and what development projects serve as instructive models? 

The experience that I know best is Boston. I was born and spent much of my life there, and I visit there frequently. I have seen the extraordinary evolution of its central city, from a slum area, far worse than what exists anywhere in downtown L.A., to one of the most vibrant, urban-oriented, human-friendly environments that exists in the U.S. 

Around Fanuiel Hall and Quincy Marketplace, but also in other sections of the city, developers and government have melded the old and the new very effectively in a true human scale, that is friendly to the pedestrian. Boston is an example of what can be achieved when the city knows where it wants to go and has both the leadership and a political system to take it there. 

Barcelona, Spain is another. Barcelona used the Olympics as a vehicle to recreate the best of the city. It is an example of understanding the human and thereby the economic value of great architecture and civic spaces. 

Comment on your Catellus responsibilities to help plan for a sports arena and new stadium in the downtown area. Why is it important and what do you see the value-added being if you were to be successful? 

They are important to the City of L.A. because they represent enormous revenue opportunities that this city simply cannot afford to lose—it would be unconscionable to allow either the new stadium or the new arena to go outside of city boundaries.

Since they will be built somewhere, they should surely be built within the L.A. city limits. Where else should they go but in the downtown area, where they can easily connect into our new transit systems and help support downtown hotels, restaurants, and other retailers. How can we justify spending billions of dollars for fixed rail transit if we do not use this system to access such major venues?

There is another consideration which for me relates to what makes a "city" a "community", and that is building places of connection between people. A 21st century Dodger baseball/football venue; a great arena at Union Station; a Convention Center with a world class convention hotel (which is what it really needs); a Coliseum that is America's premier soccer stadium—all tied together by understandable and accessible transit—and all of this crowned with Disney Hall and a new Cathedral for the City of the Angels—and we will be ready for the 21st century. 

I want to conclude by giving you an opportunity to be philosophical. In the AIA acceptance speech you also shared a vision: "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 suburbia although it still remains suspicious of its many people." Could you elaborate? 

We all grew up in L.A. during a time of innocence, This was a fairly uniform City in the '50's and it is obviously a very different city now. These differences frighten some but I believe they are our greatest opportunity. 

One of the reasons I like downtown L.A. is my belief that it is the common meeting ground for all of the people of this city. It is the one part of this megalopolis that does not belong to any one group; it is not of one color or of one economic level. Everybody walks its streets, and ultimately, everyone intermingles and has a piece of the turf. This is both the excitement and potential not only of downtown but of all of Los Angeles. It is our future.

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