Wilshire Grand Week: The Man Who Built the $1.2 Billion Tower

Christopher C. Martin, CEO and chairman of Downtown-based architecture and planning firm AC Martin, has been working on the Wilshire Grand since 2008. The tower will be dedicated on June 23.

DTLA - Demolition of the 1952 Wilshire Grand Hotel began in October 2012, and the work has been nonstop ever since for Christopher C. Martin. As the CEO and chairman of venerable Downtown Los Angeles architecture and planning firm AC Martin — its legacy goes back to designing City Hall — he has personally overseen each step of the process in creating the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River. It all builds to Friday, June 23, when the 73-story tower with a budget north of $1.2 billion is dedicated.

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“I’m very anxious to have the public come in. I’m exhausted. I’ve never worked so hard,” Martin said last week with a low laugh. “We have a lot of employees working fast to install furnishings and ready the spaces. In the middle are somewhere around 50 inspectors from different city agencies.”

Amidst the final hustle, Martin found time to talk with Los Angeles Downtown News about the origins of his partnership with developer Korean Air and its parent company, South Korean conglomerate Hanjin International, the (many) changes to the early plan, and why the tower is a legacy project for the city. 

Los Angeles Downtown News: How did you first meet and begin discussing this project with Yang Ho Cho, chairman of Hanjin Group? 

Christopher Martin: The talks actually began in 2008, when Chairman Cho came by my office. We’re both graduates of USC, which is how I had gotten to know him. I visited him in Korea, and he also visited me here. He had purchased the Wilshire Grand, and he asked me what he should do to upgrade it. I remember him saying, “I want a four-star hotel, but it feels like I have four one-star hotels.”

We did six financial design studies to see what would raise room rates. One route was to clean it up and repaint. That wouldn’t do much. Another was to do that, plus gut the lobby. You couldn’t touch the office and hotel spaces, because it was all poured concrete. The bathrooms were tiny, for instance, but couldn’t be changed. The last option was to tear it all down and entitle it for the max possible space. That’s what he decided. 

Q: How did the design change during the planning process?

A: We partnered with Thomas Properties, who did entitlements for a concept that had an office tower and a hotel tower, two phases. Completed in March 2010, that plan had unanimous City Council support. But we realized we couldn’t do 1.5 million square feet of office because there wasn’t a market for it. Meanwhile, there was demand for more than 650 hotel rooms. Our entitlement plan allowed us to be flexible, and combine everything into a one-phase tower. In January 2012, Chairman Cho said that’s what we would do: 900 hotel rooms on top of about 400,000 square feet of office.

Q: A big turning point was when AC Martin took over project management duties from Thomas Properties. Why did that happen?

A: Chairman Cho had asked me to do the development planning once, which I declined. He asked again some time later, and I declined again. The third time, in 2012, was different.

My son, Patrick Martin, died on January 3, 2012. I was devastated — this was a project we were going to do together. So I felt I needed to throw myself into a lot of work. I accepted taking on project management, but said I will do it personally for the duration of the job, at no charge. I expected to do six trips to Korea as part of this work. It turned out to be 43 trips, in the end. 

Q: AC Martin has unique expertise building in Downtown L.A., but were you worried about the seismic requirements for a slender, super-tall structure?

A: No. Our family has done so many high-rises in Downtown that we see the seismic protections as a solvable problem. Technically, it was going to be difficult, and it required innovation, but we have so many tools. We just don’t know what. The mat foundation, buckling restraints and 73-story concrete core were all unique advancements of technology. That advancement was exciting to me, as a gearhead architect. 

Q: Many people were surprised to see the entire tower light up recently, which is a feature you never see in Los Angeles skyscrapers. 

A: Every time we had an opportunity to go a step further, Cho didn’t just allow it — he showed us examples, including of a lit-up Eiffel Tower. At first I thought, “That’s neat.” Then I realized he actually wanted us to do it.

We haven’t really grasped how sensational the LED lighting on the skin of the building is going to be, because we’ve never modeled the ideas. Yes, it can do different colors, but it can also do incredible animations. City Planning needs us to tone it down, for safety reasons. But on the grand opening day at about 8:30 p.m., you’ll see a countdown clock. Chairman Cho will hit the button and the building will explode with a two-minute digital fireworks display. There’s a lot of options.

Maybe in the future, if the Dodgers hit a home run, the logo can go off and people will know they scored. 

Q: How do you think the Wilshire Grand will impact not just its tenants and guests, but the city as a whole?

A: I was very excited about attracting an international client into L.A. to make a capital investment. L.A. is the ideal locale for Asian investment. We need to show that you can come here, get entitled, design and build and have the project delivered on time and budget. We demonstrated that. Time is more expensive than steel and concrete, remember. People observed and are following suit.

You’re seeing direct results of the investment around Seventh and Figueroa, as excitement for the Wilshire Grand has made it an even more dynamic area. The residential market is getting deeper. The Bloc is coming together. We also have 16 million people who will see this building, and we want every one of them to say, “I want to go down there for a drink, or an event, or a meeting.”

eddie@downtownnews.com

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