January 1, 2003 - From the December/January, 2003 issue

Jim Thomas' Grand Avenue After Disney Hall

The Planning Report was pleased to sit down and talk to Jim Thomas and learn more about the plans and prospects for downtown's Grand Avenue. Chief executive officer of the Thomas Properties Group, with a long list of distinguished developments in Los Angeles and several other cities, Jim also has been involved in a host of local initiatives, and currently chairs the committee charged with redesigning the Music Center campus as well as co-chair of the public-private Grand Avenue committee. He was interviewed by Sam Hall Kaplan, the City Observed commentator for KCRW and contributing columnist to the Downtown News.

Why do we need a Grand Avenue Committee to re-plan the street and adjoining parcels and open spaces? Couldn't the City and County do the job?

Yes they could. But, I think a public-private endeavor such as the Grand Avenue Committee would generate more synergy as well as the private funds and vision needed to achieve something extraordinary, something Los Angeles needs and deserves.

Something like?

Think New York's Rockefeller Center, Paris Champs-Elysees, and then think of something distinctly L.A. The building blocks are there. First, the Disney Hall, the opening of which this year has prompted this effort, as did the need for a master plan for the Music Center. Then there is the new Cathedral, MOCA, the Colburn, the Civic Park. They all could be linked by a re-imagined and revitalized Grand Avenue and, along with the imaginative development of the adjoining city and county parcels, could blossom into a street and focal point long sought by Los Angeles. The potential excites me as a developer, as someone who works downtown, and as an Angeleno.

Sounds good. But as a developer, you know the pitfalls getting from potential, to plans, to actual places. Is this yet another pipedream for our lobotomized Bunker Hill?

No. it's not a pipedream. I know making it happen will be a difficult process. Grand Avenue is a very complicated situation. There already have been four or five efforts involving the avenue and Bunker Hill, some of which I have been involved in, which didn't happen for various reasons, including politics and timing. I believe the timing is now ripe, and so do the developers who have expressed an interest this project.

And they are?

They are the visionaries in this process. We are going to need them to make this happen, especially now given our economic doldrums and the local and state budget deficits. We have calculated that a properly orchestrated development would have an enormous economic benefit. We are talking here of a possible $1.2 billion in construction activity. And then there will be the continuing annual benefits, an estimated 16,400 jobs, $725 million in wages, and $100 million and more in taxes. This is all assuming that the four development parcels are planned and developed together so as to achieve their full potential, a classic situation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Your injection of the world "assuming" raises a critical issue. It would seem that it would be in everybody's interest that the avenue and its parcels be planned and developed in concert, not only for the economic benefits but also from a design point of view. The thought that the Avenue be piece-mealed and at best patched together as an afterthought concerns me, as I presume it also concerns you.

It does. And it also concerns members of the committee. Everybody wants this effort to work. That is why we have proposed a Joint Powers Authority composed of senior leaders of the City and County. The Authority would oversee the improvements to the civic park and streetscape, and coordinate all development. It would be assisted by the Grand Avenue Committee, which would also oversee the private company or companies developing the four critical parcels.

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Sounds cozy and, given the history of development in the Southland and, with all due respect, the involvement of the usual powers-that-be and the usual suspects, could be considered elitist and exclusionary.

We don't want it to be, and will make every effort to open up the process, and actively solicit input from the broadest public possible, the downtown community and beyond, to the valleys and surrounding cities. We want whatever development emerges from this effort, whatever mix of entertainment, retail and residential uses evolve, to appeal to and serve all income levels and interests.

So, what's the next step?

First and foremost, the formation of the Joint Powers Authority, which requires an agreement between the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and the County.

What are the prospects for that to happen?

We expect the agreement to be signed shortly, the Authority launched. The Grand Avenue Committee and its managing director, Martha Welborne, already are in place to assist in the planning and public approval process. In fact, we can't wait. The opening of Disney Hall this Fall is just going to be the start of that long awaited quest to lend Los Angeles that elusive center. I can see it in my mind, and I look forward to the day I can see it by looking out my office window here on Grand Avenue.

Spoken like an optimist.

It is that optimism that has made this city great, and will in time, when the re-imagining of Grand Avenue becomes a reality, make it even greater.

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