June 2, 2015 - From the June, 2015 issue

Parker Center's Possible Demolition Sparks Interest in LA's Civic Center Master Plan

Last month, a group of civic leaders and land-use experts convened—at the suggestion of AIA-LA’s Director of Government and Public Affairs Will Wright—to discuss the future of Parker Center. They considered whether the former City of LA police headquarters should be preserved, and came to a consensus that Los Angeles’ 1997 Civic Center Master Plan requires updating. TPR offers edited selections from the conversation, moderated by TPR publisher David Abel and featuring LA Office of Historic Resources Manager and Principal LA City Planner Ken Bernstein, Cultural Heritage Commissioner Vice President Gail Kennard, LA Conservancy Executive Director Linda Dishman, CBRE Senior Vice President Phillip Sample, and Trust for Public Land California Co-Chair Dan Rosenfeld.


Gail Kennard

"I think there’s possibly a win-win situation for portions of the buildings to be conserved, and portions of the site that could be demolished. I think we can work out a compromise here, but I think it’s important to preserve at least part of that building.” —Gail Kennard

"About 90 percent of what was in [the 10-Minute Diamond] plan actually happened. The federal government is building a courthouse, the state built the Caltrans building, the city restored its major campus, the cathedral got built, and Metro built their headquarters. Those are big successes. Now, after almost 20 years, it is time to review and update the plan.” —Dan Rosenfeld

Will Wright: My objective in bringing people together was to ask where a civic conversation is happening about the future of the Parker Center. I realize it was omitted from the campaign between Councilmember Huizar and Gloria Molina, probably for a deliberate reason. However, I’ve been unable to recognize where the decision-making was happening within the city. I was hoping to curate some more awareness so that more decisions can be shared with everybody.

David Abel: Ken, given the purpose of this AIA-LA conversation, could you begin by sharing with us what votes the LA City Council’s PLUM Committee meeting took recently regarding Parker Center?

Ken Bernstein: PLUM, as you may know, is the Planning and Land Use Management Committee on the City Council, chaired by Councilmember José Huizar, who’s also the councilmember of the district representing the Civic Center. What’s been in PLUM is the proposed action on the Parker Center Historic-Cultural Monument application, which was approved by the Cultural Heritage Commission a few months ago, and has to go to the City Council for final approval.

The nomination was first heard last week in committee. Councilmember Huizar heard the item as a committee of one, since there were budget hearings taking place at the same time.  He expressed some support for further investigation of a partial preservation option, and asked our staff to come back this week with recommendations for perhaps a more limited Historic-Cultural Monument designation limited to portions of the building, possibly excluding the jail portion of the property.

In the interim week, it was discovered that, due to a procedural issue related to how the City Clerk had processed a 15-day time extension for the Council to act on this matter, the Council had actually lost jurisdiction over the nomination.  As a result, the PLUM Committee could not act on the matter and the nomination has expired.

But Councilmember Huizar announced in committee that, earlier in the morning, he had introduced a new Council motion that would do two things:

First, it would direct the Bureau of Engineering and other departments to work on a new alternative to be included in the Parker Center EIR that would look at a larger tower as part of the partial preservation option, potentially building on what is now the jail portion of the property.

The second part of his motion asked multiple city departments to begin work on, essentially, a Civic Center Master Plan.

He also announced a third element, which was not part of his written motion. Once further analysis on the EIR and, presumably, some work on the Master Plan has been completed, he expressed his intention to ask either the Cultural Heritage Commission or our department to reinitiate the Historic-Cultural Monument application. 

Gail Kennard: I’m vice president of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, and I voted to preserve the building. I advocate for adaptive reuse. I think there’s possibly a win-win situation for portions of the buildings to be conserved, and portions of the site that could be demolished. I think we can work out a compromise here, but I think it’s important to preserve at least part of that building. 

Linda Dishman: I’m the Director of the LA Conservancy. We have an opinion: Parker Center should be saved. One of the things that we always look for at the Conservancy is a win-win solution. How does the property owner or the client get what they need, and how is preservation served? The EIR did identify a win-win solution—not quite the same square-footage of the new construction. But I think there is now an opportunity to look at a fourth alternative for the site.

This is a very significant building. We feel strongly that not just the pretty buildings should be saved, and not just the buildings with happy history. We really need to have a full complement of buildings to tell the stories of the history of Los Angeles.

Gail Kennard: There’s a whole additional piece of history that most Angelenos don’t know about: When the site where Parker Center exists now was demolished, it actually was part of the Little Tokyo community. There are members of the Little Tokyo community who have very strong connections to those buildings. I echo those urging us to do a Master Plan, so that whatever happens there, we incorporate that history of Little Tokyo.

This is also a huge opportunity for us to focus on the issue of police in urban areas. Los Angeles has come such a long way. Remember, Parker Center was not built as Parker Center. It was a police facilities building. It was only named after William Parker after his death after the Watts riots. We can talk about all those issues with race in Los Angeles that we are still facing today—what an amazing opportunity. 

Will Wright: I think you can’t really have an intelligent conversation about Parker Center without also having an intelligent conversation about the facility needs of the city and the Civic Center itself. The discussion needs to include all of the changes happening, especially the 1st and Broadway location, and what may or may not happen to the Federal Courthouse once the new courthouse is completed. To me, there are a bunch of moving parts. How can Parker Center fit into that broader conversation about what the city needs to operate as effectively as it can?

David Abel: Dan, can you speak now to the 1997 Civic Center Master Plan that you were so involved in crafting and implementing?

Dan Rosenfeld: The Ten-Minute Diamond Plan was the first Civic Center land use plan in about 30 years. At that point, there was a question as to whether we even needed a Civic Center. The days when people gathered in a town square at sunset to exchange gossip have long been replaced. There was a genuine question as to whether it was worth having a public place as a “civic center.”

The conclusion in 1997 was that, perhaps more than ever, given that the city is so diverse and dispersed, having certain symbols of our unity and democracy like the City Hall tower were perhaps more significant than before. Then, after 9/11, I think the significance of a place to gather was reinforced.

In the 1997 plan, we identified 6 million feet of government office space that were looking for locations. The federal courts were looking at Santa Barbara. The state was looking all over.

The plan encompassed a 10-minute walk from City Hall, which turned out not to be a circle. It’s a diamond because of the orthogonal street grid. It goes from the Music Center and DWP down to Little Tokyo, and from the Historic Core to Union Station. Those are the points. The sides touch the Financial District, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and El Pueblo. In a sense, the Civic Center is the glue that holds everything together.

About 90 percent of what was in that plan actually happened. The federal government is building a courthouse, the state built the Caltrans building, the city restored its major campus, the cathedral got built, and Metro built its headquarters. Those are big successes. Now, after almost 20 years, it is time to review and update the plan.

With regard to Parker Center, there are three aspects to the decision:

First, the cultural dimension is quite fascinating and important, and should be considered.

The land-use dimension is tough. Parker Center sits right in the middle of the block like a little spider. We built a jail on one corner, and an emergency bunker—the only building that’s less publicly accommodating than a jail—on a second corner, and then an underground parking garage on the third corner. It’s a very hard parcel to plan. It always has been.

The third aspect is economics. There’s always been a tendency in government to overstate the cost of restoring historic buildings, and to reject them because they’re dirty or old. They’re not as much fun.

I have a little experience with this: The Reagan building was built in ’92 for $365 a foot. Five years later, the state restored the old Broadway building for $125 a foot—a much older building, for a third the cost. More recently, I remember going with Bob Horii, the city engineer, into the historic Hall of Justice, which was the county’s analog to Parker Center. He looked up, said, “350 million dollars,” and walked out. That was about $900 a foot.  Eventually, the county restored that building for $300 a foot—a third of what he off-the-cuff estimated. The Hall of Justice needed seismic work, but we did it. Still, instead of reusing our older building for $300 per foot, the city built a new police headquarters, which I believe cost $1,000 a foot, at $400 million for 400,000 square feet.

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In terms of the basic economics of running the business of government, I think the city needs to look objectively at the true cost of delivering some portion of their million-feet space requirement in the existing Parker Center building.

Looking at the city’s space needs is a good place to start: Do we have the most advanced space planning? Is a million feet really the right number? It’s a big number. Having offices all over town, such as wherever Engineering is today—South Park—is very inefficient. No company would run its business like that. Instead, we should have one central campus, and all city employees (except those in regional service centers) should be close by. The city owns a lot of land in the Civic Center. First, a city space study should be done and then the Civic Center plan should be revisited.                          

Phillip Sample: There is a lot of Class A office space that is currently on the market for lease. If we completed a survey, we could locate a million square feet easily. Cal Plaza II currently has 750,000 square feet available, and US Bank has over 400,000 square feet, just to mention a few. Both are within walking distance of the Civic Center and could be good options.  There might even be some purchase opportunities. Class A is currently selling around $350 per square foot, which is much cheaper than building new.

The City could also look into some of the adaptive reuse buildings that are on the market for lease. The Broadway Trade Center and the LA Times buildings could be logical plays.

There are a lot more opportunities for lease and sale in Downtown that could accommodate the size the city may need.  

Will Wright: It would be a big concern to me if the City added 1.1 million more square feet of office space. What would that do to the economics of Downtown? The commercial vacancy rate here is not what it should be. It should be much less than it is, so that we can inspire more investment in commercial offices right now.

I think Paul Keller said it best: a great indication of the true health of the economics of California and Los Angeles is what Class A office space is being built. No one can point to one.

David Abel: Dan, could you comment on how the ’97 master plan was realized, including who the sponsors were and how it was funded?

Dan Rosenfeld: The Civic Center Master Plan in ’97 cost $250,000. We hired Bill Fain, Roland Wiley, Steve Lewis, Doug Suisman, Charles Loveman, and a few others.

The county and the city cosponsored the effort, and we had the federal government as an observer because they couldn’t officially join. A big focus was on shared facilities, a little bit of which panned out. We could share vehicle maintenance, meeting rooms, food service, daycare, and other support services. We would all save money, which could be used to justify the expense.

It was a city-county master plan, with the state and the federal government watching, and Metro, MWD, and LAUSD there occasionally, as well.

I think we got a million dollars’ worth of work out of our consultants because they were inspired by the importance of what they were doing.

I think we can now declare an interim victory. The question, “Is the Civic Center still valid?” has been incontrovertibly underwritten. Governments have consolidated and have built new buildings in the Civic Center. The street environment still isn’t what it could be, but the residential environment downtown is much improved.

David Abel: What should be the scope, if there were an update to the plan? What should be the parameters of an updated study?

Dan Rosenfeld: My two cents is: Use the same boundaries. Grand Park is the centerpiece. Continue to define the Civic Center by a 10-minute walk. There’s already master planning going on at Union Station, so we should look at the tie between those.

David Abel: There’s a common thread here that says: We ought to have the vision for the Civic Center before we make the decision about the Parker Center.

Linda Dishman: It’s more complicated, too, because you’ve got the nomination for historic-cultural designation that’s in the middle of this process.

The city could designate Parker Center and still tear it down. That’s what happened with the Sixth Street Bridge. Making a decision about whether this meets the criteria for designation—which is how you’re supposed to look at this—can happen separately from the whole Master Plan. Certainly the Cultural Heritage Commission unanimously believes it does meet that criteria. 

David Abel: In addition to pressing the case for the designation, is the goal to press this case of doing an update to the plan?

Linda Dishman: Absolutely. The two are linked. I just want to say that the nomination can proceed independently, because this plan could take a while. Given that there was a technical issue as to why the nomination didn’t go forward, I just want to make sure that we don’t lose track of that.

Dan Rosenfeld: I think there are three tracks that should be followed simultaneously. If you do it sequentially, it’ll take forever.

First, we do need to address the Parker Center building. It’s a challenge to come up with the best scheme for some degree of preservation. If we can get 200,000 of the city’s million square feet in that building for a decent price, that takes a bite out of the need. Add 300,000 feet on the jail portion of the Parker Center site, and you’re halfway there.

Second, look at the nature of office space that the city needs. This is a very hard boat to turn. Everyone in the private sector is going to what CBRE is doing. If you’re not at your desk all day, maybe you shouldn’t have a desk. It will be harder at the city because of staff resistance.

Third, master planning. One of the challenges with the Civic Center Master Plan is that there are at least six different entities that own land. But the city does have five blocks, only two of which are optimized. The city should do something with the MOCA-JANM site, with Mangrove, and with the “Rafi Cohen” site—the old state office building site at 1stand Broadway. The city has within its domain, and without even talking to other governments who are sovereign and independent, the challenge of getting the best utilization out of that land.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.