February 28, 1997 - From the February, 1997 issue

Catellus’ Ira Yellin Contends with Downtown’s Civic Center Potential

Ira Yellin has long championed a vision of a Downtown L.A. alive with commerce, culture and vibrant residential communities—a regional urban center. He redeveloped Downtown’s historic Bradbury Building, Grand Central Market and Million Dollar Theater Building into the mixed-use Grand Central Square. For much of the past year, he has served as Project Executive to the Los Angeles Archdiocese for the development of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Bunker Hill. In May of last year, Catellus Development Corporation brough him in as Sr. Vice President for Southern California Development, overseeing their significant Downtown holdings.

He shares his thoughts with TPR on the Civic Center Diamond plan, L.A.’s new Cathedral and the history and future of Downtown L.A.


Ira Yellin: “If Downtown L.A. were to suddenly vanish, the entire Southern California economic metropolis would collapse..."

Since Downtown is one of your specialties, elaborate for our readers on what remaining infrastructure needs to be put in place, what further steps need to be taken to make Downtown more viable and more vibrant? Will there be a "there" there in the 21st Century? 

Los Angeles is still an adolescent Metropolis, emerging as a major urban complex following World War II, only about 50 years ago. Add to that perspective the regional economic reshuffling and subsequent recession following the Soviet Union's collapse and the constant creative tension created by the absorption of new immigrants. It is no surprise that L.A. has, and will continue to have, growing pains. As we approach the new century, however, the Cathedral, Disney Hall, the Downtown arena and the Downtown stadium can all coalesce with new energy. 

Downtown can become a multifaceted economic dynamo for the entire region in the new century, but we will need the following commitments: First, we need to complete the MTA's regional transit system to truly tie the region together. Your readers should come to Union Station at rush hour and see the tens of thousands of people pouring off the commuter trains and the hundreds of buses moving through the Patsaouras Transit Plaza, onto the Metro system. Already, the rail system is working much better than any of us had anticipated. It will only get better as more of the segments tie together. 

We also need to develop an intra­Downtown rail system to tie together the USC/Coliseum area, the Convention Center, the Figueroa hotel corridor, Bunker Hill, Dodger Stadium, Union Station, and perhaps the Historic Core, Little Tokyo, and the Jewelry, Toy, Flower, and Fashion Districts. One could envision a monorail or a people-mover similar to what now exists at the Getty. 

The Pasadena Art Center or Cal Arts could be great partners in designing a 21st century tram system that could define the skyline outline of Los Angeles' Downtown; it could become a symbol of our great city. 

We need to support, as a community, further exploration and early development of a high-speed train. Think of a two-hour travel time between Downtown L.A. and San Francisco, and the hundreds of thousands of people beginning and ending their travels in Downtown rather than at LAX—pouring out of the train, into the Metro system and onto the streets. This alone would make Downtown the place to be. 

We also now have the historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a great Civic Center under the auspices of the newly-constituted Civic Center Authority. In the next ten years or so, millions of square feet of new, restored or rebuilt space incorporating federal, State, County and City government facilities will come on line. 

We have the unique opportunity—indeed, responsibility—to shape this expenditure of several hundreds of millions of dollars into a coherent planning concept. For once in our City's life we will be given the chance to create a humane and beautiful, as well as functional, center for our great democratic institutions. This should be the highest priority of our Civic and political establishment. 

We also need much more housing. In Downtown, especially, we need to build contiguous urban villages which could attract people who now live in better established parts of L.A. For example, near Grand Central Square there is the opportunity to fill in residential development between Second and Third Street all the way from Little Tokyo in the east to Bunker Hill in the west, creating a contiguous residential corridor—a pedestrian-oriented, living urban community. 

As you know, we developed 120 units of housing at Grand Central Square, and to my continual delight they are doing fantastically well. People enjoy living in an area in which we have provided character and community in their homes and surrounding streets. Grand Central is home to a wonderful mixture of people from all backgrounds, races, and economic levels, all living well. 

Finally, we need more old-fashioned Los Angeles and California optimism about ourselves and our future, and to give up the cynicism we have developed over the last twenty years. We need to believe again in the California dream. 

Elaborate more on the pending Civic Center Diamond concept. How does this plan reflect and accommodate Downtown's changing needs? 

Following WWII, city planners, exhibiting the ideals of that era, reoriented the Civic Center to an east west axis to accommodate the placement of the Hollywood Freeway. Suddenly, the Civic Center was physically cut off from the Pueblo, the original birthplace of the City. The Civic Center was now on a steep hillside grade, making the walk from Main Street to Hope on the west very difficult. The mall was not only a somewhat sleep incline, but also isolated from views of the street. As we all know, this was at a time when the automobile and, notably, parking were paramount. There was little human orientation and no retail dimension. We still see large gaps between buildings filled with parking or tawdry construction. 

In the following years, there has been a slow decentralization, and a slow dispersion of government facilities throughout the greater Los An­geles community. The result is that government at all levels: Federal, State, County, and City is leasing or owning buildings at disparate locations rather than concentrating in any particular area. There was no economic rationale or efficiency in how governmental space was being occupied. 

More recently, government has begun to examine its real estate practices in a businesslike fashion and has realized that some centralization is economically efficient. The State of California, under Governor Wilson, was the first to undertake this examination and has saved a significant amount of money. The State has begun to effectively coordinate its needs in San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, and, now, in Los Angeles with the acquisition of the Broadway Department Store building for a new State office building. Mayor Riordan appointed Dan Rosenfeld, formerly with the State, to begin a similar analysis for the City of Los Angeles. 

Out of all of these different efforts, the new Civic Center authority was created with the mission of bringing together the myriad needs of all levels of governments and create greater functional and economic efficiency. All levels of government now understand that there are real benefits to operations being in proximity to one another. Given that charge, let us intelligently spend the money that will inevitably be spent, and place these buildings in a fashion that will createa coherent, workable, and beautiful civic presence. This is the wise way to spend our public money.

Finally, there is something about our economy and well-being that demands a Civic Center that celebrates the presence of democratic government. The manner in which we treat our public buildings and civic spaces reflects how we view our democratic institutions. You rarely see graffiti on a beautiful piece of architecture.

The ancient Greeks understood the importance of building not only their religious temples but their civic buildings with a degree of respect and importance. This quality has been lost in our time, and we have to reestablish a sense of quality in our democratic buildings. This is an unique opportunity we simply should not lose. It is, by the way, also good tourist economics. No city recognizes better than Paris the relationship between the tourist dollar and a pedestrian-oriented, visually beautiful city. 

What commitments do we need, and from whom, before ground can be broken to implement the Civic Center diamond plan? 

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We need, ultimately, a commitment to concept and vision. Each level of government has to understand the importance of the opportunity, which means each level of government has to give up an edge of independence. They will not be able to act unilaterally, in isolation and without regard to what their governmental neighbor is doing. 

Everyone will benefit. Government will have improved, shared facilities—garages, child care centers, conference rooms, auditoriums, among other things. The public will benefit as less money will be spent redundantly. We will all clearly benefit in having a civic presence of which we can be proud. 

I emphasize that this is a unique opportunity. No one is asking for new money. The money will be spent on new facilities regardless. Thus the political will and commitment are the most essential ingredients. Let us all willingly move in harness together to build these buildings in a fashion that a matrix takes hold, and we ultimately weave together a garment appropriate for the great metropolis of the twenty-first century. 

Let’s turn our attention to downtowns, in general. What is the future of downtown? Some economists say that economic growth is fastest furthest from the core cities. Others, like Joel Kotkin, have written that we need a new kind of downtown, with a different mix of employees and employers. With the presence of Catellus in so many downtown areas throughout the region and, the State, give us your perspective on the benefit and future of Downtown. 

I am not an historian or anthropologist able to talk about downtowns in general. I do believe that people need and thrive on human contact. There is great creative energy that comes from the direct interaction of people from diverse backgrounds engaging in diverse activities. Throughout time, the essence of human civilization has been found in the urban centers, the nexus of politics, commerce and culture. It is the catalyst for human creativity. 

Urban centers have changed since the initial movement away from agricultural communities hundreds of years ago, and they will continue to evolve. I believe that the need will always remain, the intent will supplement, but not replace the desire for direct people contact. 

Catellus believes strongly in the future of California, of Southern California, and of Los Angeles. We believe that L.A. will be the dominant metropolitan economy in the U.S. as we move into the twenty-first century. Our commitment to urban centers is based on those values and beliefs. 

Additionally, since Catellus has significant properties in urban communities throughout California we have a self-interest—I believe an enlightened self-interest—in the evolution and growth of these centers. 

Downtown L.A. produces the greatest number of jobs and the largest percentage of taxes generated in this region. If Downtown L.A. were to suddenly vanish, the entire Southern California economic metropolis would collapse; it is the central switchboard for much of what happens in the five-county Southland region. The tragedy is that not enough people who are part of the media or decision making world live here, have a stake in it, or can speak about it knowledgeably. Obviously, again, we need more permanent residents in Downtown who can call it home, and represent its interests.

Downtown Los Angeles is going through a long transition. Most of us who are asked these questions are members of Anglo communities, living in the Valley, West L.A., the South Bay or Pasadena. However; the three or five mile ring around Downtown is predominantly Latino, with a large and growing Asian minority. As these and other ethnic communities achieve greater political prominence and power, Downtown Los Angeles will come into its own—and, I suspect, it will be an economic and political power with a very different composition. It will be fun to watch and experience this transition. 

In your May 1996 TPR Interview, at a time when you still expected to see the new Cathedral on the site of the old St. Vibiana’s, you said “The Cathedral will have a direct and immediate impact on the renewal of the historic core, and thereby the health or Downtown. It will entice people, events, and investments in the area surrounding the site forever. Values will rise and the quality or people in the area will dramatically improve." Now that the Cathedral will rise on Bunker Hill, a half mile away from the original historic site, what is the prognosis for St. Vibiana's, for Los Angeles Street, and for the rest of the historic core? 

I've often said that, in many ways, the historic core is really the rotting core of Downtown. Until the center is reborn, Downtown will continue to be infected and suffer. The historic core is also, however, the most humane and interesting part of Downtown. It has the greatest potential to be a real pedestrian-oriented, residential community. This is an opportunity that we have almost reached on numerous occasions, but we seem to repeatedly lose it. 

Cardinal Mahoney's original decision to locate the Cathedral in the historic core was a daring, controversial, and profound act in support of renewing and building the community. It was a commitment for which the Cardinal never received full credit. 

The opposition to Cardinal Mahoney and to his commitment to build the new Cathedral on the historic site was unwise and near-sighted; it was, and remains an inexcusable loss of an historic opportunity to regenerate an entire area, with dozens of valuable historic buildings. In one act, the new Cathedral would have brought life and human activity up and down the streets of this decaying urea. 

Retention of the existing St. Vibiana’s building as a boarded, abandoned relic is, for me, a victory for ideologues who totally lost the vision not only of regenerating the greater Downtown community, but indeed, of truly saving the historic streets and buildings to which they profess their commitment. 

The prospects for the old St. Vibiana site at Second and Main are unclear. There are some hopeful realities nearby. The most important is Times-Mirror's decision to remain in its historic location, and to upgrade its important edifice. This was a critical decision for the area. Additionally, Governor Wilson and the State's commitment of resources to renovate and occupy the Broadway building is another building block that will help the area. Beyond this development, we need to look to the new Civic Center plan to introduce new uses into the area. 

In the meantime, we should embrace the Cathedral in its new location as a source of renewal and revitalization for that area. I can see a residential community revolving around the new Cathedral, perhaps from Ft. Moore on the north. across the top of the Civic Mall where the County buildings now sit, and on to Bunker Hill. A new 24-hour residential-retail community could be created around the Cathedral, the Civic Center and the all-important Disney Hall. The Cathedral and Disney Hall can be two jewels that will bring a luster to Downtown as we enter a new Century, and will encourage and guide us to continue building the future of this still young metropolis.

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