March 1, 2010 - From the February, 2010 issue

Century Plaza Hotel To Be Preserved; Developer, LA Conservancy Agree

When Next Century Associates announced plans to demolish the Century Plaza Hotel, preservationists quickly mobilized to save the 1966 hotel. This month, in a surprising agreement that could become a model for similar developments in the future, the L.A. Conservancy and developer Michael Rosenfeld struck a historic deal to preserve the hotel while integrating it with a new, mixed use environment. The following is a TPR exclusive interview with L.A. Conservancy Executive Director Linda Dishman and Next Century Associates Managing Director Michael Rosenfeld.


Linda Dishman

In a TPR op-ed written by you in August of 2009 you stated, "Preserving the Century Plaza Hotel offers an extraordinary opportunity to create a model for sensitively adapting car-oriented planning to today's pedestrian oriented goals." Have you met your goals with the announced decision by the developer to preserve and restore the Century Plaza Hotel?

Linda Dishman: Absolutely. We are thrilled that the developer has come forward to preserve the Century Plaza Hotel. By working with the developer and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the project will be mixed-use with a lot of pedestrian access, all of which will feature the historic Century Plaza Hotel as the centerpiece.

It's been six months or more since your op-ed appeared. Give our readers some insight into the negotiations that resulted in the developer's decision to preserve and restore the Century Plaza Hotel.

Thanks to the incredible leadership of Councilmember Paul Koretz, who asked all of the parties to come together-Next Century Associates, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Los Angeles Conservancy-we sat down in November to figure out how to preserve the hotel as part of the project. To developer Michael Rosenfeld's credit, he came to these meetings looking to preserve the hotel. The tenor of the meeting wasn't to show why; it was to figure out how. As a result of a lot of meetings, we have the parameters for what will be a very exciting project for Century City, in terms of both historic preservation and mixed-use development.

Elaborate on this success story. What did Century Plaza win? What did it lose?

The preservation groups, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the L.A. Conservancy, were very focused on the Century Plaza Hotel. We were guided by a list of character-defining features that the Office of Historic Resources under Ken Bernstein developed; there were 17 features identified. A lot of our conversations focused on those 17 features. We're really pleased that over 90 percent of those features are being preserved as part of the new project.

What hotel features will be preserved?

The exterior of the hotel is very intact. You have the concrete; you have the aluminum panels; you have the aluminum sliding glass doors and windows. On the interior there has been tremendous change over the years, as is typical of a post-war hotel. Interior remodeling occurred every five to seven years, which is standard in the hotel industry. So there's very little historic fabric on the interior. There's some, and we were able to preserve it, but there's not as much as at the Biltmore, for example.

Our efforts focused on the exterior. Of great concern and interest to us was the aluminum featured on the building-not only is it architecturally interesting and part of the image of the hotel, but the hotel was funded by ALCOA. Much of the early development of Century City was funded by ALCOA, and the original buildings had extensive use of aluminum because they really wanted to showcase their product as part of their investment in Century City. There is that direct linkage between something that's historically tied to the building and the architecture itself. We felt that the aluminum was very significant and should be retained as part of the project. That said, aluminum has a shorter lifespan than brick or old-growth redwood, for example, which we are more familiar in dealing with. There was a lot of research done as part of our conversations with the developer and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to make sure that aluminum can be retained and preserved, rather than replaced. The good news is that apparently the preservation and restoration of aluminum is a growth industry, because aluminum has a lifespan of about 40 years and it gained its greatest popularity in the '60s, so there are a lot of buildings that are going to need the services of these craftspeople.

How does the conservancy's successful effort with the Century Plaza differ from the lack of your success with the Ambassador Hotel? What differentiates the two preservation campaigns, in your opinion?

The biggest differences between the issues of the Century Plaza Hotel and the Ambassador Hotel are the will of the property owner and local political leadership. In the Ambassador we saw that the LAUSD did not want to save the hotel and did not want to have a serious conversation about saving the hotel, and the political leadership, whether it be the school district board or other elected officials, just did not have the will to find a solution.

The difference with the Century Plaza is we had very strong political leadership from Councilmember Paul Koretz, who used his position as councilmember to ask the parties to come together, sit down, and figure out if it was possible to save the hotel. To the credit of Michael Rosenfeld, the developer, he came to those meetings with a very open mind and a very keen intellect, focused on trying to solve the problem of how we incorporate this historic hotel into the new development. While we had many conversations with LAUSD that we thought were going to be productive, it was just a charade. In this situation these were meaningful conversations-because there was the will, there was a solution.

From our perspective this is a really good model of political leadership from the council office and private leadership through the developer. We're seeing more of these historic post-war buildings with opportunities to incorporate new construction because the lots are so much larger than what we see on a downtown lot, for example, where construction is lot line to lot line. This is very similar to the CBS Columbia Square project, where the historic buildings that front Sunset Boulevard are being preserved with new development behind. We're going to be seeing more of that.

Next Century Associates Managing Director Michael Rosenfeld TPR Interview

LA Conservancy's Linda Dishman has already commented on what a delight it was to work with you in finding common ground on preserving and restoring the Century Plaza Hotel as the centerpiece of your Century City development. How will the hotel be integrated into your mixed used project?

Michael Rosenfeld: The property is comprised of about 5.75 acres, and we had always envisioned a mixed-use project that would promote a number of the new planning ideals that have emerged over the last 20 or 25 years that weren't present in the '60s when Century City was conceived and this property was originally built.

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Our goal was to create a mixed-use environment with public plazas that promoted pedestrian connectivity, activated the street, brought people back into the community, and created a vibrant gathering place that is great for the project, the property, and for Century City as a whole by connecting other elements of Century City together through this property, which is at the center of Century City. The greening plan of the city of Los Angeles referred to it as the "heart" of Century City. We saw a very unique opportunity to do something with a vision that was consistent with the planning ideals for Century City.

We also enjoyed what we considered to be a great working relationship with the Conservancy, The National Trust, as well as the council office. We've come together and merged these ideas to preserve the hotel as the centerpiece of this mixed-use environment. At this juncture, the hotel serves as the gateway to the mixed-use development that will occur on the property, with the Century Plaza Hotel remaining at its center.

Elaborate more on how hotel will be incorporated into your development. What's the value proposition that makes the preserved hotel a practical asset for your Century City project?

In bringing the hotel property current with a detailed historic renovation to a four- or five-star configuration, and moving forward with some residential, we were able to really utilize the hotel as an asset within the project, where our original plans were to have that area become an open public plaza with new towers that would have incorporated those uses. Now we're really using the hotel property to achieve many of the same goals, and in many respects maybe achieving higher values, from a design perspective, in maintaining the hotel as a core to this overall mixed-use environment.

Linda Dishman pointed out that the city's Office of Historic Resources compiled 17 features of preservation for the hotel, of which your present plan will meet 90 percent. How were you able to incorporate these preservation features in the new design?

We maintain the integrity of the property, both from an architectural perspective as well as from a site perspective, and came up with detailed protocols for the preservation of those key elements of the building and the site while being able to accommodate our overall development objectives for the project. As stated in our joint press release, the ability to have sufficient additional development activity on the property to support our overall vision is critical to our success in preserving the hotel and to achieving these preservation goals.

What are the practical challenges of integrating the hotel's preservation with your plans for new construction?

There are a number of challenges from an overall site utilization perspective-as well as from a design perspective-in merging these interests to create a plan that encompasses the new development while maintaining the hotel as its centerpiece. From a logistical perspective it presents certain challenges as well as from integration of the elements. The great design team that we brought together, both preservation architects as well as our architectural and engineering team, has come up with some very innovative concepts that accommodate our mixed-use development goals but also deal with some of the servicing issues on the site, from parking to how the facilities will interrelate.

What firms are now on the design and construction team you've assembled for the project?

From a preservation architect standpoint we have Marmol Radziner. Our design architectural team has been led by Harry Cobb of Pei, Cobb, Freed Partners as well as Gensler, as I said, merging the interests. It really was an overall, collaborative design team. We also have Rios Clementi Hale who worked on site design and landscape; they were the leading force in the greening plan. Merging the community goals, the city's objectives, our design objectives, and preservation goals with this team was very gratifying.

What's the timeline for your mixed-use Century City project?

We're looking at a 12- to 18-month process for the city process. Development would take three to four years.

Lastly, will the hotel close during the development phase?

Our goal is to keep the hotel open as long as possible, if not entirely, by phasing the renovation project. We're just going to have to see logistically if we are able to do so. Our current intention is to keep the hotel open throughout the process or to minimize the amount of downtime during the renovation.

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