October 1, 2003 - From the October, 2003 issue

"Grand Avenue" Vision For LA's Downtown Pragmatically Advanced

Last month, the Grand Avenue Committee unveiled an ambitious new redevelopment plan for Grand Avenue that aims to create a long sought center for Los Angeles. The plan calls for the development of a cultural and civic district on Bunker Hill, complete with a civic park, pedestrian oriented streetscape, movie theatres, shops, restaurants, and housing. Now the real work – implementing the plan – begins. TPR recently caught up with Martha Welborne, Managing Director of the Grand Avenue Committee, to discuss this bold new vision for Grand Avenue and how the plan can be realized.

Martha Welborne

Martha, describe for our readers the compelling vision for the recently announced Grand Avenue Project.

The compelling vision is to finally create the center of downtown-a place that's active day and night, and is both a civic gathering place for organized performances and concerts and outdoor venues as well as indoor entertainment activities. We envision a place that attracts people from all over the region, where there are attractions like nothing else in the region

Why is now the right time for this plan? And, who are the Grand Ave. stakeholders who will implement the plan?

There are four remaining parcels here on Bunker Hill, all of which are owned by the government. We're trying to develop them in a way that brings the most value to the residents of the region. There's just so much investment in the civic and cultural centers downtown, as well as the growth in housing, and we're just building on that.

The agreement to form the Joint Powers Authority called the Los Angeles Grand Avenue Authority was signed by the CRA and the county. The most significant stakeholders are the city and the county, because they are the landowners. The state is also very interested because they have a lot of property in this neighborhood and have invested a lot in the current streetscape improvements on the two blocks of Grand Avenue between Temple and Second.

Why did you need a JPA and what does it facilitate?

We feel that creating a JPA is the best way to create a development in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The JPA allows us to look at all these parcels as a whole rather than looking at each one individually and building it out one after the next. This allows us to imagine an even better project.

Given the grand vision, it's fair to ask: what will you consider ‘victory?'

Victory will be mobs of people down there for special events, lots of pedestrians walking on the street, people not thinking twice about taking the subway to get there, and overall, just creating a real urban setting. Victory is more people living on Grand Avenue and just going down the street to a restaurant. Victory is also people that right now work in Cal Plaza or Wells Fargo Plaza leaving their cars there and walking down the street to a performance at Disney Hall or the Music Center.

Now that the JPA has been formed and appointed, how do you go from A to Z? More precisely, how is the JPA going to support achieving the grand vision?

Two things are going to move at the same time: the development project and the park. They are connected, but they are also separate. The developers are probably going to be development teams, because there are over 3.2 million square feet that are allowed to be built on these parcels, and the mix of uses is broad enough to appeal to different kinds of developers who do different kinds of work. We imagine development coming back to us with their architectural proposal. But first, we're going to follow the CRA's typical process. We're going to go out with an RFQ to developers first, asking for qualifications. The door is open to anybody who wishes to submit a proposal. We will then review them based on the criteria set up in the RFQ (past work of developer, the financial wherewithal, design attitude, etc.) We will short list out of the submissions down to three-to-five teams depending on the respondents. The short list will then get a more full-blown request for proposals, an RFP, and then we'll pick.

This project stands on the shoulders of decades of work on building a 24/7 downtown, with this site being the gravitational center. How is this history manifesting itself in your project's grand vision? What's the connection, the nexus, between all that past work and today's efforts, if there is one?

Well, in many ways, it's just that we're finally building out the visions that have been there forever. In looking through the history of this part of town and having done of the planning work that we've done to date, it is just shocking to look at the hill when it was cleared-there were about three or four buildings sitting here for so many years-and the growth marching up the hill from Fifth Street, building by building. As growth started coming up from Fifth Street, we're finally moving closer and closer together, and from both sides. There are more high-rises, and probably more housing, than was originally proposed in the 30s and 40s. But, I think it's taken the city this long to grow and fill in and be ready to fulfill this vision.

Is it your intent to ask the finalist for architectural plans and a detailed financial analysis? Or, is there a simpler and better way that you have put together for making a decision and moving forward rapidly?

We have not written the RFP yet, so I can't answer you for sure. But I have been on the other side of the fence, and I know how painful it can be to put a whole lot of money behind a project that you don't win. At the same time, we want to protect the public interest and make sure we know what is in the minds of the team that's going after the project. They've got to have the tenacity to do it, and they've also got to have enough vision to be able to find the magic elements that will really make the downtown special.

Is it the intent to pick one master developer, conceivably with multiple components, or to go with multiple developers/teams?


The plan is one master developer. As I said, it could be a team of developers that is working together to be the master developer. There are some development firms that we've already talked to that are big enough, have done projects of this scale and have components within their own entity that do the different types of work. It will probably be built out over time, and they could come in with multiple design teams. We're not trying to tie their hands in that regard. That, again, will be part of their vision.

There's a common perception in the development community that these grand projects too often get bogged down in politics, with minutiae and requirements to meet narrow interest group or social objectives. Some would argue that at the end of the day, you really don't get to build out or implement a grand vision; the winner more often is reduced to proposing an anthill. What's the real ambition here: anthill or Mt. Olympus?

What you're saying is that often projects become the victims of politics. In this case, you could say that what we did first is put the political structure in place to make sure that we had a shot at success. There's never a guarantee, but we're going to work very hard to smooth the way and funnel the energy so that everybody's interests, including the property owner's, are considered.

What's the estimated cost of building out this Grand Avenue project and how will the price tag be shared between public and private sources? Who's contributing what?

The total estimated cost is $1.25 billion. That includes the development projects, the street improvements and the park. If you break it down, over $1 billion of that figure goes for the development project for the four sites. The remainder of it, a little less than $200 million, goes for the public improvements, which includes the park and street.

The bulk of the funding will come from conventional real estate finance sources. There may be a parking revenue bond issue that helps support the development project as well as the parking under the park. It has a revenue stream attached to it, so it may be money up front, but it's not really a permanent contribution.

You mentioned earlier in the interview that there were two phases to the project: the four parcels and the park. Tell us how they're connected and how they're not connected.

First and foremost, the development and the park will be connected programmatically. To create a great place here, there are going to be events in the buildings and there will be events outside of the buildings. Understanding what's happening on this street, and in the existing venues-the Music Center and Disney Hall-is all going to be a part of making this a great place. For example, if there is a wonderful new performance place in the park that draws thousands of people, they'll need places to eat. There will be restaurants; there will be jazz clubs. So the way a person functions on the street is going to be not just in one spot or another, they're going to move from place to place.

Are you asking in the RFQ or in the RFPs for the responders to address the park issues/needs?

We are talking about the park in the RFQ that goes out to developers for the four parcels. We aren't asking for their ideas on it, we're simply saying that it's a big component of this part of town and that the future for that park will be better than the current state of the park. So, we're describing it as part of the context, but it's not integrated in the development at the moment. A separate RFQ will go out for park design.

Martha, tell us about your role in this staffing/managing this project.

The Grand Avenue Committee, in many ways, will be staff to the JPA board. The JPA board will be the decision-makers in all cases, but they need staff to do their homework for them. I am now building up a staff. I have been functioning on my own with consultants under me as needed, but we're now flying high and dancing as fast as we can. We're going to keep the organization lean, but I'm going to bring a few staff members on board so that we can formally play our role as staff to a JPA, which is a big responsibility.

David Malmuth has been hired as a development consultant to me and the committee to help on the development side. While I'm be focused on the design aspects of all this, as well as the political aspects, crunching development numbers is not my expertise. David brings a huge amount of expertise in pulling off major projects and creating visions for them. His role here will be to work on the client side with the developers and to understand their language and translate back and forth.

What should we expect, as far as a timeline, over the next twenty years?

The first action will be getting the RFQ out, and you should expect that at the end of October. We hope to have a developer selected during the first quarter of next year, and then we'll move on to design and getting a plan approval. We'll need to go back to the Board of Supervisors, the City Council and the CRA board for the approval of what we're calling the implementation plan, which will be the developer's vision. We'll do that within two years. After that, it's serious design work, and then you are into construction, which is most likely to be in phases. It depends on the market, obviously. The park will be happening at the same time on a slightly different process, because it's not as straightforward as issuing a call to developers.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.