October 28, 2004 - From the October, 2004 issue

Dreams Are Falling Into Place for 'Reimagining' of Grand Avenue

A "reimagining" of Grand Avenue as the cultural and recreational regional center for Los Angeles is moving closer to reality. The joint-powers Grand Avenue Authority and the public-private advisory Grand Avenue Committee have chosen a development team (Related Companies) and are now holding community outreach sessions. TPR is pleased to present an interview with Jim Thomas, CEO of Thomas Properties Group and Chair of the Grand Avenue Committee, in which he discusses the shared vision for the project and offers an update on Grand Avenue's timetable.

Jim Thomas

Jim, please update our readers on the status of the Grand Avenue development process.

We have entered into an exclusive right to negotiate with Related Companies, and they have until approximately March of next year to come up with a project, which will be approved by the Grand Avenue Committee and the Joint Powers Authority and then submitted to both the City Council and the Board of Supervisors. They are in a very intense period to get all of that done in the time frame.

You are working with four parcels of land, two owned by the county and two by the city's Redevelopment Agency, plus the County Mall. In your discussions with Related, what are the expected development opportunities, the public goals for this project?

Well, there is a tremendous opportunity. First, to have a world-class park extending all of the way from the Music Center to the City Hall will be a tremendous asset for Los Angeles. We are pretty excited about the vision for a park that has been expressed and the public support that this has received. Further, the goal in the Grand Avenue project is to create an attraction for the entire metropolitan area, a place that will draw people from the valley, the east, the west, everywhere. It is a great opportunity for this city, and I think it has gone exceedingly well so far.

You personally have more that three decades of real estate experience in Los Angeles. You've obviously seen tremendous changes in the Downtown real estate market and in the city. Please elaborate for our readers about current development in Downtown Los Angeles.

As you say, we have made tremendous progress, and it is very heartening to see that – at long last – we are experiencing a big boom in housing downtown. That certainly is something that we have been hoping for for many years, and it is finally happening in a very big way. With all of the things that have gone on, with Staples Center and the new Cathedral, we have over $3 billion of investment in Downtown over the last several years, and it truly is becoming a 24/7 city. Right across the street from City National Plaza you have the most popular nightclub in the city, and the list goes on and on. I think we pretty much have reached a critical mass where things are starting to fall into place. The things that many of us have dreamed about for many years are finally happening, and it is very gratifying.

In your interview with TPR in January of 2003, you asked our readers to compare this project to New York's Rockefeller Center or Paris' Champs-Elysees. The Grand Avenue Committee talks about creating "a new Central Park" for Los Angeles. Given such lofty comparisons, one might ask what will make the results uniquely Los Angeles?

Well, that really is our challenge. That is the challenge that we put to all of the developers that submitted ideas, and that we have put to Related: How do you make this place something that is very special and is unique? That vision is easy to state, but how you accomplish it is really the task at hand.

The Grand Avenue project has been envisioned to be a regional center from the beginning. Downtown, from a real estate point of view, has obviously been hot recently, with the Elleven project [at 1111 South Grand Avenue], LA Live and the Staples Center, and projects to the east and west of Downtown. What might be the unique role of Grand Avenue in establishing Downtown as the regional center of a great metropolis?

Again, figuring out how to accomplish that is a challenge. There are ideas that have been put forth, but we are really counting on the developer to come up with more. One important factor is the design, so when you see it, it is not Rockefeller Center or Paris. It's Los Angeles, or it's Southern California. I am confident that the talented designers on the Related team can achieve that.

The other aspect is: What are the uses? What things do you put there to attract people that are uniquely Southern California? For example, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering building a new museum. That certainly is something uniquely Southern Californian and that potentially could be located on Grand Avenue. So, it's a combination of design and uses.

Jim, you are well aware that Bunker Hill offered a development opportunity not unlike Grand Avenue, but that the development team that proposed an imaginative project eventually lost out to a more common plan and team. Does that experience affect the way that the Grand Avenue Committee and Authority are conducting this competitive development selection process?


You bet. I was on the losing end; we came up with the plan that you referred to that the city fathers opted to pass up. So, I've learned from that experience, and I think that we have approached the situation differently this time. The proof will be when we get the project completed, but we certainly took lessons from the prior effort.

I think we have wide representation on the oversight bodies. We really have almost every conceivable point of view involved. We've had broad outreach programs and will continue to have them. You may have noticed in the news that seven outreach programs have been planned over the next two or three weeks, going all over the metropolitan area to get input into the project. So, there has been a tremendous outreach to get everyone the opportunity to give input.

Elaborate on the process utilized by the Authority and Committee to choose exclusive negotiations with Related.

One of the things we focused on early in the process was what the uses are that would make this place special. In thinking through that process, we decided that we could not first hold a design competition. We really needed to focus first on the uses of the area, and then focus on the design. I think that is a very important part of the process that we picked a team that focused on what the uses were and gave us great confidence about its ability to determine the uses, as well as its ability to create world class designs. The prior project you talked about on Bunker Hill was a smaller project, the uses were known, and so we were designing for predetermined uses. We didn't have that luxury with Grand Avenue because, as I've said before, to me and to most of us, the real challenge is finding the special uses that we want to bring to Grand Avenue.

What stakeholder interests need to be pulled together to make this ambitious development project work?

Well, we have been working at this process for over three years, and it took more than two years to get the joint powers authority set up. One of the things we recognized was that, to achieve the kind of project that we wanted to achieve, we needed to get both the city and county into a meaningful relationship where there would be authority to deal specifically with this project. As you pointed out earlier, with two of the parcels in the city and two of the parcels in the county, having one governmental body that could deal with them was of critical importance.

What would constitute success for Grand Avenue and when might we expect it to be built?

Well, the park is the project that hopefully will get underway in the relatively short future. Obviously, a successful park provides an amenity to the community, and we can measure that by people using and enjoying it. That is a relatively easy standard to ascertain for the park. As for the Grand Avenue project itself, to me the key part is the three to four hundred thousand feet of entertainment, retail, and special attractions. The test will be if it is, in fact, a regional draw that pulls in people from all over the metropolitan area. That, to me, will be the mark of success.

One last question, Jim. You certainly have your own development plate full with projects in Downtown Los Angeles, El Segundo, and elsewhere. Why take on the civic challenge of Grand Avenue?

That is certainly a question my wife has asked. The short answer is that the city has been awfully good to me, and I feel honored to have the opportunity to try to make a contribution.


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