In 2004, developer Related Cos. and architect Frank Gehry won a public bidding competition to develop a massive mixed-use project on Bunker Hill. Last week, it finally broke ground.
The 15 years in between were filled with ups, downs, a devastating recession, changes in design, a revolving door of financing partners, shifts in the political leadership overseeing the project, and even the brief departure of Gehry.
Yet through it all the New York-based Related Cos. remained, and though the current $1 billion, two-tower development is smaller than a $2 billion vision broached before the recession, company executives were ebullient as they gathered under a tent set up on Grand Avenue on Monday, Feb. 11.
“You are about to see a project unfold unlike anything else you have ever seen in Los Angeles,” Related Urban President and CEO Kenneth Himmel said before a crowd of political, civic and business leaders on Monday, Feb. 11.
The project is rising on a parcel at the southwest corner of First Street and Grand Avenue that previously held the so-called “tinker toy” parking structure. Related fenced off the site and began razing the structure in November.
The Grand will stand across the street from another Gehry-designed building, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It will be a block north of The Broad museum.
The project was touted by Gehry as a key addition to the long-gestating vision of Grand Avenue as the city’s artistic corridor. The street also holds the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Music Center’s trio of cultural institutions, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
“It’s just another piece of the puzzle for Grand Avenue,” Gehry said in an interview with Los Angeles Downtown News. “It’s the continuation of the big vision that a lot of people had, led by Eli Broad.”
Broad, who formerly chaired the advisory committee for the Grand Avenue Authority, the joint city and county panel that originally awarded Related Cos. the contract to develop the site, has long championed Grand Avenue as a destination for the arts. Broad helped open MOCA, which debuted in 1979, and built his $140 million art museum on the street.
During Monday’s ceremony, Broad called The Grand the “crown jewel” of Grand Avenue.
“This is a historic day,” Broad said. “The culmination of a dream some of us had almost 40 years ago, a dream to transform Los Angeles into a major cultural capital of the world with Grand Avenue being the centerpiece.”
Related expects to open the project in 2021.
The Grand will create two towers on Bunker Hill: a 39-story edifice will hold 436 rental units, with 20% set aside for affordable housing; and a 20-story building with a 309-room Equinox Hotel, as the exercise chain gets into the hotel business.
The project will also have 176,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, including a movie complex, spread across multiple levels and arranged around a Central Plaza that looks out toward Disney Hall. There will be 1,063 parking spaces.
The project is envisioned as a cultural and entertainment anchor for the Grand Avenue corridor. It will include a public plaza with permanent and temporary art installations. Related executives proposed projecting images onto the exterior of Disney Hall.
Stephen Ross, chairman and founder of Related Cos., called The Grand an important step for Downtown, but added that projects that will rise around the development are just as important.
“This will be the heart of it but what will grow around it, that is what downtowns are really made of,” Ross said. “This project will bring a kind of style to Los Angeles that will be a total upgrade.”
Gehry’s design features towers that in certain segments resemble stacked blocks, with the buildings getting thinner the higher they go. Still, it is a downsized version of what was originally proposed.
The project is rising on parcels owned by the city and county. That led in the early 2000s to a bidding competition, with a collection of teams vying to earn development rights. When Related won the project, then-County Supervisor Gloria Molina pushed for a clause in the development agreement requiring Related to update the public space between the Music Center and City Hall, even if the bigger project was delayed. That proved fortuitous, and although the recession hit, Related paid $57 million to create Grand Park, which opened in 2012.
Related originally sought to build a 1.3 million-square-foot mega-development with 2,600 housing units, 449,000 square feet of retail, a grocery store and a health club. Initially, rather than an Equinox, plans called for a 48-story Mandarin Oriental Hotel with 295 hotel rooms and 266 residential units.
Original plans called for a 2007 completion, though that was delayed amid the effort to secure financing. That date was eventually pushed back to 2011, but the entire proposal was dashed during the Great Recession.
The project remained dormant, and when Related began dusting off plans, it brought out new designs with a different architect. Those were roundly criticized and eventually Gehry returned to the fold.
In 2016, Related secured a $290 million investment from China’s CCCG Overseas Real Estate Pte. Ltd., otherwise known as CORE. In November, Related announced a $630 million construction loan from Deutsche Bank, which allowed the developer to plan a groundbreaking.
Ross said that despite the hurdles, Related always believed in the potential of the Grand Avenue corridor.
“Downtown has such great possibilities, and when you think about Barcelona, with its great architects, where people go there just to visit, if you could do something across from the Disney [Hall] it would add such a great importance to Downtown Los Angeles that people would come here from across the world just to see it,” Ross said. “That’s why we hung out and prevailed.”
During the morning event, Mayor Eric Garcetti noted that the project was announced during his first term on the City Council. He said it was important not just to get The Grand off the ground, but to make sure it is built in the best way possible.
“We planned it many times, and to actually be here today is pretty surreal,” Garcetti said.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose First District includes Downtown Los Angeles, said that accessibility in The Grand is a key issue for her office. She also cited the number of local jobs that will be generated by the project.
According to Related, The Grand will generate an estimated 10,000 jobs to the region during construction and afterwards, and will create $397 million in tax revenue for the city. It will generate another $68 million for the county over 25 years.
The Grand is the biggest splash in a wave of projects rising along Grand Avenue. A block to the north, the Music Center is in the midst of a $40 million renovation of its plaza, which is expected to finish on Labor Day.
The Colburn School, which sits just south of the site of The Grand, has plans to build its own Gehry-designed project on a block bounded by Hill, Second and Olive streets.
©Los Angeles Downtown News 2019