January 22, 2004 - From the January, 2004 issue

Grand Avenue Authority Pressing Forward With RFP

For the past thirty years, creating a vital center for Downtown L.A. has been the elusive goal of planners and civic leaders alike. With last November's creation of the Grand Avenue Authority, the region finally seems on its way to establishing a central focal point. TPR recently caught up with Martha Welborne, Managing Director of the Grand Avenue Authority to discuss the major developments over the last few months and what to expect in the coming year. (NOTE: In the print edition of this interview, the headline on page 11 incorrectly states when the developer will be picked. Rather than in the fall of 2005, the Board and the Authority intend to pick a developer by May 2004.)

Martha Welborne

Martha, Sam Hall Kaplan, reviewing the Grand Avenue competition, begins very positively with: "The competition to hopefully transform Grand Avenue into a vibrant cityscape that at long last could lend a fractured Los Angeles a downtown focal point promises to be a grand affair." What's the status of the process to choose a development team to design and construct this grand affair?

We are in the exciting part of selecting the developer. From the initial set of eight qualifications we received, we've short-listed down to five. We're now about to issue the request for proposals to those five. When we get their responses, which won't be for a few months, we will then try to select one of the five teams that is submitted to undertake the development of this grand affair.

Sam's review focuses on the qualities of the five design teams, but as you noted in your TPR interview with us in October, your selection criteria appears to be less about design than capacity. In reviewing the responses to the RFQ, what is most important?

Especially in the qualification phase, but also in this next round, we are looking very carefully at the track record and wherewithal of the developers to pull off a project of this scale and capacity. The project encompasses 3.2 million square-feet-it's a huge project. Not a lot of developers, or even development teams, have done projects like that, and we're asking them to push the envelope and create a city center here. So, it is very important to us that the developers know how to pull it off, and also that they select the best designers for their team. But honestly, if we have an excellent designer but a developer that can't do it, then the designer is out. The design doesn't really matter if the developer can't pull off the project. So, we really need to protect the public interest and look for the quality and ability of the developer first.

When TPR interviewed you in October, the JPA had just been signed and the Grand Avenue Authority was just being formed. Now with the Authority in working mode, how whould you assess the authority's capacity to perform their intended role and responsibities?

The JPA is doing exactly what we imagined and wanted them to do. We have yet to appoint the one state ex-officio member because of all the changes in the state. But, the four voting members who are in place have convened three times so far and we have our fourth meeting later this month. From my point of view, the Authority has given us a whole new structure, because we now have a regular set of monthly meetings. Those meetings are driving our calendar, pushing us hard to advance the project. And, the public forum is a very important place in which to have these meetings and make decisions. So, I think it's working really extremely well.

Elaborate more on the Authority's stakeholders--the county, CRA, the city, and the private sector--and the Grand Avenue Committee? Give us a flavor of the decision making process.

The Joint Powers Authority board is made up of two members of county government and two of city government. The county representatives are Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is the chair of the Authority, and county CAO David Janssen. For the city, we have Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is the vice-chair of the Authority, and CRA CEO Bud Ovrom. The fifth, unappointed member will be a non-voting member. But, working under the JPA is the Grand Avenue Committee, which is legally established as a nonprofit. As the lead staff person, I am serving under both entities, the Grand Avenue Committee and the Joint Powers Authority. The real decision-making is in the hands of those four public members.

With five teams now under review, when can we expect the RFP to be approved and released?

The RFP will be reviewed on January 26th at our next JPA board meeting. We assume that it will be approved. As soon as that is approved and printed, it will immediately go to the five development teams that are short-listed. The teams will then have somewhere between eight and ten weeks to respond, the final due date has yet to be determined. Then, we will initiate interviews of all the teams and go through our evaluation based on the criteria that will be included in the RFP.

Can one expect the RPF process to winnow the field from five to one team?

The desire would be to go from five to one. However, we are leaving ourselves open to the possibility of whittling it down to a final two before making a final selection. None of us will know until we receive the proposals and have done the interviews exactly what the next step will be.

When we spoke in October, you mentioned that two objectives were going to be advanced by the Authority at the same time – the development project and a park. Elaborate.


Both parts have been included in the set of requests that we have issued: both the RFQ and the RFP. So, we are, right now, asking that the development team focus on both the park and the development project and tell us how they can be intertwined. As you know, when we talk about this, in no case do I mean that the park would be developed with buildings. It will always be a park. But, the notion is that the park would be programmed, managed, secured and maintained over time, making it an active and successful space. To make a park a successful space takes work; it doesn't just happen naturally. And so, we are asking that the development teams think about both sides – both the buildings and the parks – and come back and give us their response to how those two are intertwined and how their designs are compatible.

Speak to how this ambitious master planning/development effort is being staffed – the people working with you.

The staff here is still very slim. David Malmuth was hired as a consultant in September, and he is a well-known developer who has worked with Disney and TrizecHahn. He's working with us three days a week. And then I've hired one staff person, Krisztina Tokes, who is my right arm and a very capable young architect and planner. Other than Jim Thomas and Eli Broad, that is the current staff. We also have hired a few consultants with the approval of the JPA. We do have lawyers on board, and we are also working with Keyser-Marston to do some of the financial analysis of the packages that were submitted to us. We are also working closely with County, CRA, and City staff each step of the way.

Sam Hall Kaplan, in his review, made an instructive reference to the Bunker Hill competition 20 years ago in Los Angeles. Then politics arguably trumped vision and architectural talent when time came for a development team to be selected. You are now managing a like selection process you assert will be based on merit/qualifications. Address the political dynamics of maintaining the integrity of such a process.

Well, politics these days are complicated, as everybody knows. But also, things have changed a lot in twenty years. And, there are a whole lot more policies and in some cases regulations in place that we are following. For example, conflicts of interest statements and things like that just didn't exist twenty years ago. And right now, I'm sure we're driving every consultant and every developer crazy with the need to get them to sign off on certain forms that are just inevitable when you're dealing with government these days. Also, the competition twenty years ago was very much a design competition, which is not really how we are casting this.

As I said earlier, this competition is rooted more on the track record of the developer and their ability to do the project. Design is clearly very important, but we want to make sure we have the development side lined up. I think a lot of politics has to do with talking to people and making sure you know people's interests, and you know the public interests. So, we're doing a lot of communicating, trying to cover a lot of bases and to unearth all of those interests before we get too far down the road.

To close, you mentioned in October an ambitious two-year time frame for selecting and qualifying a development team for Grand Avenue. Are you hitting your own benchmarks? Is it still a two-year time frame?

It's still a two-year time frame. We are hitting the benchmarks. That's also why we are pushing so hard to get through all of this. I think a lot of people were surprised that we so quickly issued the RFQ a month after the JPA was formed. By September 2005, we want what we're calling an implementation plan-a plan that has both the financial deal and the pre-schematic level design thinking of the whole project. That plan needs to be approved, it needs to go back to the county Board of Supervisors, back to the CRA board, and back to the City Council. Of course, the JPA board must also review and approve it. We want to go back to all those entities because it's a very important decision and we want to do that in September 2005. The document that created the JPA calls for the implementation to go back to them in 2005. So if we select the developer in May, that gives the developer a year and four months to complete that implementation plan. That is a tight timeframe, but that's why we're trying to move so fast to select somebody now – to get them on board and working. But also, to some extent, the city has waited for a long time for these parcels to be developed and for the civic center to come together. We don't want to put that off either. We want to keep moving as fast as we can.

World Trade Center site and the freedom tower on it in New York has been well covered in New York and in the national media. This is Los Angeles' comparable project, even though it's not quite as large. How do you distinguish or compare or contrast what we' re trying to do here in downtown Los Angeles with what's being done at the World Trade Center site?

The similarity is that it's a multi-site, high-rise design problem right in the heart of the city, and that's why a lot of people are thinking of them in the same way. We are soliciting both development teams and design teams. At the World Trade Center, the Port Authority had already leased the space to one developer, so the decision they faced was more design based. However, the biggest difference between the two projects is the tragedy that happened there, the memories of all the lives that were lost and the memories of the buildings. There is so much to grapple with at the World Trade Center from a design point of view. Our sites have been sitting vacant since the 1960s. There were no tragedies. The moving of the mansions in the urban renewal era is the only comparison, and it's a very different comparison.

A positive comparison is the way the attention on design and architecture was focused on the World Trade Center project. As an architect, I found that terrific and fascinating. To get a real public dialogue going about design is great. I wouldn't mind doing that eventually, but first we've got to do the responsible thing and pick the right developer. It's going to be great to engage in an open public dialogue about the actual design of the park and the buildings, especially once we know what is feasible to build and what the market will support.


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