DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In July 2013, the small Angels Knoll park on Bunker Hill and a public plaza at Fourth and Hill streets across from Grand Central Market were both fenced off. The park’s green grass died and turned brown. The plaza, which once drew neighborhood workers and residents to chat and eat lunch, still sits behind an expanse of chain link. 

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The closures stemmed from the dissolution of Community Redevelopment Agencies across California. The Los Angeles CRA owned the properties, and after its demise a so-called CRA successor agency began the convoluted process of selling its hundreds of assets. Most will be sold to private developers on the open market. 

Given the growth in Downtown Los Angeles, the plaza and park remain among the agency’s most valuable properties. Thus, it is one of just 10 sites around the city, and the only one in Downtown, where government officials are seeking to have a hand in the sales process. In January, the city entered into an agreement with the CRA successor agency to essentially be the middleman for a sale to a private developer.

That means a sort of mixed bag for Downtown. On one hand, the city can now help determine what gets built and who builds it. On the other hand, the agreement lasts for three years, plus a possible 18-month extension, and the properties could remain fenced off during that time, even as the rest of Downtown booms. 

“It’s one of those iconic pieces of land in town and it now has to be approached with a collective agreement,” said Hamid Behdad, a developer and vice chairman of the board that is overseeing the CRA successor agency’s property plan. “If the city has a good idea for the best development and can make an effort to facilitate a developer who has the same vision, it could be a great collaboration. If things go south halfway in, well, that’s another story.”

Tall and Dense

The site was once supposed to be the home of a third California Plaza skyscraper, following One Cal Plaza (completed in 1985) and Two Cal (1992). Those plans were felled by the recession of the early 1990s. In later years the park became a respite for Bunker Hill workers and was a key location in the film (500) Days of Summer. The plaza, also next to a Metro Red Line station, drew a mix of office workers on lunch break and homeless people. 

Local real estate experts say it is one of the last major development sites on Bunker Hill, which is why the city wants a say in what happens there, said Josh Rohmer, a principal project coordinator with the City Administrative Office. A working group composed of multiple city officials and departments, including the City Council, the CRA successor agency and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, is determining what would be best there. 

“We will work closely with local elected officials to craft what the goals are,” Rohmer said. “Hypothetically, a councilmember could suggest the site is best for affordable housing. Then we could put together a [Request for Proposals] to attract an affordable housing developer, for example.”

The city hopes to complete the initial assessment and launch a public bidding process for the land by the end of summer, Rohmer said. It’s unclear how much the plot will fetch, but early reviews suggest it is “north of $20 million,” according to Rohmer. It was originally acquired in 1961 for $2.7 million, according to CRA reports. 

In the meantime, Downtowners will probably have to expect the hillside and plaza to remain shuttered. The city could technically reopen the sites, but spending money to maintain the park and plaza is not likely considering the land will, in theory, get sold in the near future, Rohmer noted. The city could consider partnering with area stakeholders, such as a business improvement district, to run and maintain the sites, but that depends on someone being willing to provide the money and resources. 

Carol Schatz, president of the Downtown Center BID and the Central City Association, supports keeping the public spaces accessible, but expressed doubts about whether the BID or another group could afford to take on the responsibility. 

“I’ve gotten complaints from stakeholders around there, but nothing much has happened,” Schatz said. “Obviously we need as much green space as we can get, but this is a future development site and [reopening] it may be a financial burden on the city or the BID. That’s something we need to carefully evaluate.”

Schatz is among those curious about what sort of project will be pursued on the site, noting that Downtown is deep in a development cycle that has 14,000 residential units being planned. Both she and Behdad agree that whatever rises, it should be dense and tall. 

“There’s already a lot of entitlements on that site, so whomever pays for the site has to understand it should be a maximum development,” Behdad said. “Is hotel and residential the best combo or hotel and commercial office? The market has to determine that.” 

Fourteenth District City Councilman José Huizar, who will be a key player in the development discussion, expressed optimism that a diverse and inclusive project will arrive there.

“While we certainly want to see what proposals are brought forward for [the parcel], some sort of mixed-use high-rise development that provides linkage between Hill Street and California Plaza, as well as some public open or green space component, would be optimum,” Huizar wrote in an email. 

The Angels Knoll development won’t be the only action at the intersection: Developer Equity Residential has announced plans to build a 33-story apartment tower across the street on a surface parking lot. The Chetrit Group, meanwhile, is aiming to open the renovated 11-story Clark Hotel, at 426 S. Hill St., this year. 

eddie@downtownnews.com

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© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015