Music Center Prize Will Bring Sun Shades to Grand Park

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - With the success of Grand Park, which opened last summer, observers inevitably ask: What about the buildings on either side? What do we do with them?

They are referring, of course, to the massive structures housing the County’s Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, which is on the north side of the park and stretches up to Temple Street, and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, which is south of the park and fronts First Street.

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These buildings flank the popular gardens, fountains and coffee house of Grand Park. However, because of their age, condition and efficiency (or lack thereof), they are increasingly subjects of discussion. Still, despite the talk, no one has quite figured out what the County should do with its buildings.

In historical perspective, these two structures were part of the ambitious redevelopment of Bunker Hill that began in the late 1950s. Replacing an eclectic mix of Victorian homes, tenements, slums, former stables and brothels, City and County leadership leveled the slopes of Bunker Hill, planted the Music Center and the headquarters of the Department of Water and Power squarely on the summit, and created a classic mall lined by large County structures. The huge buildings were intended more as “frames” than as icons like City Hall and the DWP edifice. In this context, they have performed well. 

At the same time, the buildings today express an antiquated notion of government: massive, monolithic and sadly lacking in character. None of the transparency, public access or creative vitality of, say, the Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Caltrans headquarters (which, for the record, I helped develop with the firm Urban Partners) are reflected in this 1960s vision of Los Angeles.

In 1997, the County joined the City in drafting the landmark Civic Center Shared Facilities and Enhancement Plan, sometimes called the “Ten Minute Diamond Plan.” Under this plan, each sovereign government methodically upgraded its facilities, with new federal court and office buildings, new state buildings, and the gleaming restoration of City Hall. Now, the spotlight is back on the County.

Within the County “family” there is considerable dissatisfaction with these buildings. They are not exactly lovable. Adjectives like “Mussolini-esque” are not entirely misplaced. It is hard to imagine a vigorous argument that the buildings should be preserved.

On the other hand, given their central location, public transit access and the success of Grand Park as both a destination for visitors and an attraction for area workers and residents, any decision regarding these buildings should be based on rational and quantitative analysis, and not on personal emotion or taste.

The decision should include five methodical steps: 

1) The County should develop space standards for its employees. Recent innovations in the private sector have reduced occupancy needs to as little as 90 square feet per person, compared with well over 400 square feet per person in the current County buildings. Efficient space standards will reduce the size and cost of whatever option the County selects by a substantial amount.

2) The County should review its policies for employee and visitor parking, particularly with the now excellent transit access to the Civic Center. The federal government does not provide employee parking and saves considerable money as a result. The County should look at options that encourage employees to park remotely, carpool, use “Zip cars” or other rental efforts, and public transit. This will also reduce long-term costs.

3) The County needs to accurately calculate the cost of occupancy in its current buildings. This should be reported per square foot and per employee, and should be benchmarked against market standards and future alternatives. The price should include all costs of occupancy, including those which are “buried” in various departmental budgets.

4) The County should perform an objective analysis of the cost required to bring the buildings into compliance with contemporary building codes. This is important for the safety of employees and visitors. It is also a reasonable obligation, given that the County enforces these codes on others.

5) Finally, with this data in hand, the County can compare alternatives, including retrofitting the existing buildings, or replacing them at their current location or on alternate sites. This analysis should include an evaluation of front-end development costs, life cycle operating costs and qualitative benefits such as public transit usage and the image of government.

The County’s options will then fall into three groups:

1)Replace the buildings on site: This is not an attractive option because of the need for a “double move,” forcing thousands of County employees to leave for several years while work takes place, and then to head back to a modernized building. Such a tactic was necessary for the renovation of City Hall because of its iconic value, but it added considerably to the cost.

2)Replace the buildings at another site: This option creates several intriguing possibilities for reuse of the existing site. For example, tearing down the aged structures means one could expand Grand Park or bring high-density housing into the Civic Center. This would activate the park and the surrounding cultural amenities.

If the buildings are relocated, there are available sites in the Civic Center, although none seems to offer the stature and quality the County deserves. Relocating to the vicinity of Union Station, on the other hand, would squarely endorse the County’s commitment to public transit. It is worth noting that Metro is currently looking at what to do with the station and its many acres of surrounding property.

3) Repair and remodel: The County should carefully study the true costs of bringing the existing buildings up to contemporary codes, modernizing them where necessary and preparing them for another 50 years of public life.

The buildings need considerable work. More than half of the premises lack fire sprinklers, portions probably need lateral load stabilization, and the emergency alarm system is positively pre-Cambrian and needs to be replaced. On the positive side, the buildings are simple rectangles that can be occupied with great efficiency. In essence, they are three-quarters of a million-square-foot skyscrapers, laid on their sides.

Further, the buildings may have some historical significance because of their age, architecture and role in the development of our civic culture.

An analysis of all of these options needs to be dispassionately prepared and evaluated.

I would bet that the cost of upgrading, modernizing and refurbishing the existing buildings will be less than 25% of the cost of replacing them. This is based on recent experiences in which the State of California restored much older and more dilapidated historic buildings for about $125 per square foot. By comparison, the State paid more than $375 per square foot in 1994 to build a new structure. Even more sobering is the recent experience of the City of Los Angeles, which spent about $1,000 per square foot on its new police headquarters.

With each of the County buildings providing about 750,000 usable square feet of space, we can all do the math.

In any event, something needs to be done.

Dan Rosenfeld is a private real estate developer with 35 years of experience in Downtown Los Angeles. He recently served four years as Senior Deputy for Economic Development under County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013

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