Monday, June 19, 2006

Grand Avenue The New... Columbus Circle? Uh... I Don't Think So....

The Los Angeles Times article on how Grand Avenue will become LA's version of Columbus Circle is understandably skeptical, however there are points raised by both Related and the article that need to be discussed - and debated. The good news is that this project is NOT the suburban, mall like, enclosed space that is Time Warner Center. It is also not the sterile, ugly architecture that is Time Warner Center.

The other good news is that this does not need to be a stand alone, separated from the rest of downtown project that the article infers it is doomed to become due to its unique geographical - and topographic constraints.

First, the opening of the article:

Hello, Columbus: An L.A. Street Looks to a New York Circle

Developer sees the vibrant Manhattan hub as a model for Grand Avenue. Replicating its upscale atmosphere would be a challenge.

By Cara Mia DiMassa Times Staff Writer June 19, 2006 NEW YORK

Wedged between Lincoln Center and the theater district, Columbus Circle had long been known as an urban landmark inexplicably lacking the hustle and bustle of the rest of Manhattan. But two years ago, developer Related Cos. opened the 55-story mega-complex known as Time Warner Center here - and, largely as a result, the area has been transformed. The "mini-city" boasts some of New York's most expensive restaurants as well as luxury condos, a five-star hotel, a Whole Foods Market and, soon, a museum - all within a few blocks.

Related is now preparing to break ground on another mega-complex: the $1.8-billion, Frank Gehry-designed Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles. When people ask what Grand Avenue will look and feel like, the developers at Related often point to Columbus Circle.
But a visit to Manhattan makes it clear that despite some similarities, replicating the upscale atmosphere and vibrant pedestrian life of Columbus Circle is going to be a challenge. The circle, though once sleepy, had a large, well-heeled residential population living nearby and is located within a quick walk of Central Park, Fifth Avenue's shopping district and Broadway.

By contrast, Grand Avenue is on Bunker Hill, on the far north side of downtown. The area is home to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art, but it is a long uphill walk from other local institutions, including the Central Library, Staples Center and the increasingly trendy South Park district.

Time Warner Center's shops feed off a much denser array of offices and residential buildings than Grand Avenue's shops would. In Columbus Circle, the upscale businesses are sustained both by residents who live nearby and workers at the center's namesake company, media titan Time Warner. Though Grand Avenue will have some office space in its third phase, most of the high-rise units are set aside for hotel rooms, condos and low-income affordable housing. Related has touted both developments for their village concept, including shopping, homes, businesses and even subway stops in one sprawling development.

To begin with, the shopping areas and restaurants of this project almost all open to the outdoors. Even the second and third story restaurants are planned to have outdoor dining terraces. Grand Avenue will also be designed by a world class architecture - and not a corporate drone. These two factors alone will make Grand Avenue a far different - and far better - project than the boring, suburban (though financially successful) project that is Time-Warner Center.

This will be an urban and not a suburban center.

As for the lack of office space in the project - Bunker Hill is already filled with high rise office buildings. It is also within a few blocks of the rest of the financial district. The lack of office space in this project does not in itself differentiate it from Columbus Circle.

This project is also closer to our Music Center than Time-Warner is to Lincoln Center - and it is far closer to our hopefully soon to re-open Broadway Theater District than Time-Warner is to their Broadway Theater District.

Additionally, new development is planned on all four sides of Bunker Hill- with a high rise just announced at Grand and Sunset Boulevard - and that will eventually make Grand Avenue and Bunker Hill more of a central location.

However, one major factor that is not being considered is that the two Red Line subway stations - once they are properly integrated into Bunker Hill - will make Grand Avenue a major transit hub. People will be able to get there - with no transfer needed - from the new urban centers of North Hollywood, CityWalk/Universal City, Korea Town, Hollywood Highland and Hollywood. Eventually even the Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Westwood and Santa Monica will have direct subway access to Bunker Hill and Grand Avenue.

By then, almost every major dense, multi-use urban center in Los Angeles will directly connect to Bunker Hill - without having to change trains

So while 'shopping centers' such as the Grove will not be directly connected - no one goes for the Grove for an urban experience. It is a well designed shopping center - period.

Additionally, if the Grand Avenue Park is correctly done - then it too will be a major regional destination. While it is much smaller than Central Park - hopefully it will be very densely used so that it will have comparable numbers of people who are within easy walking distance of Central Park from Time-Warner.

The biggest obstacle, though, that is addressed in the article - but not really discussed in depth is that Bunker Hill is on... a hill.

And that is the project's biggest drawback - at the moment. Even one of the leaders of the Grand Avenue Committee - Bill Thomas - once told me that no city center has ever been built on a hill-top.

What is surprising to me, though - is not on one has ever publicly discussed this how this problem can be turned into... an advantage.

What no one seems to understand that with a few simple fixes, getting onto Bunker Hill will be faster and easier than walking a few blocks within the flat areas of downtown.

If once you get out of the subway at 1st and Hill or 4th and Hill - if you can automatically step onto an escalator or an elevator that will instantly take you to either Olive or Grand - it will become far easier and faster to get to Grand Avenue than to walk two blocks in any other direction.

And if when you walk to Hill Street from the Broadway Theater District or the new shopping districts developing in the Historic Core, district, you can also quickly ride to the top of the Hill - the so-called obstacle becomes... the path of least resistance.

Bunker Hill becomes the easiest neighborhood to access instead of the hardest.

Add to that the DASH bus system and the proposed Red Car line that will connect Staples/LA Live with the Historic Core/Broadway Theater District and Grand Avenue - and the hill-top obstacle... vanishes.

Plus the converse if true. When people who are on Bunker Hill want to go down to the Theater District or the new shopping districts in the Historic Core, they will just have to step on either a bus, tram, elevator or escalator - and they will be at the bottom of the hill.

There is only one caveat to all this. While I have heard a lot of talk about connecting Grand Avenue with the subway system - and the rest of downtown - I have yet to see the specifics of how this linkage is to happen. And that is something that the developers of Grand Avenue need to address - now.


Joel C said...

Yes, the linkages to the Red Line are key. More broadly, there needs to be a greater focus, by all parties, on development on Hill Street. Hill Street is currently viewed by everybody as a huge gap in the urban fabric, a dividing line between haves and have-nots, a no-mans-land that repels everybody back to their respective sides. If Hill Street had more development and was more attractive, the gap between the Hill and the Core would less apparent.

This is where I think the CRA could be helping a great deal. Imagine Hill Street lined w. beautiful trees and lampposts, with signs pointing out Bunker Hill to the west and the Historic Core/Little Tokyo to the west. Imagine office and hotel buildings stretching from Fifth Street north to First. People would perceive the Grand Avenue Center as a centerpiece attraction on the continuous, subway-enabled path that is Hill Street.

Like you said, linkages are key. I hope to see more details soon. Few people complain about the hills in San Francisco's city center. That's because you know when you get to the top of the hill, the scenery and attractions there will make it worth the trip.

amyalkon said...

When I lived in NYC, I could get from Tribeca (way, way downtown) uptown to Columbus Circle in about 20 minutes, tops, including the walk to the subway. I read a book on my way there. It was a pleasure. Getting downtown from Main Street, Santa Monica when it's not 3am is an utter nightmare, and takes over an hour -- well over an hour if you aren't a wizard with sneaky shortcuts. If I could take a subway from the beach to downtown, I'd be downtown all the least a couple times a week at the downtown library.

Anonymous said...

From Inside the Beast

Generally there are two types of real estate projects - those which are customer driven and those which are ego driven. It would appear that Grand Ave falls into the second category.

Before embracing the concept of retail downtown folks need to take a stroll around the area. Wells Fargo Center - about 40% of the above plaza retail is shuttered, Citicorp - retail never really attracted the customers it needs to survive, BofA/Arco never really prospered, now under redevelopment. Palmer's retail space on the west side of the freeway has been vacant for several years and the retail space at the former Pacific Coast Stock Exchange Building has been vacant since the earth cooled.

Downtown has about 25 million SF of class A office space. That's about 75,000 daytime population. Add to that City Hall and the other government buildings including LAUSD. If the current crop of condos and apartments gets built perhaps another 10,000 real residents. That population can only support a finite amount of retail.

My guess is that there are simply not enough people living in the area to support the project. Its salvation, if that occurs, will come from the City or County selecting the developer to construct major government occupied office buildings on the site.

The NE Democrats seem to feel that this project will aid the greater City. If pouring money into the downtown city core would bring prosperity to all witin the city we should be rich beyond our dreams. One must wonder what would have happened if the hundreds of millions of public funds spent downtown had been out where the people live.

Adding Gearian Architecutre to the project adds little to the value delivered to the ultimate consumer while inflating costs to the bursting point. The incrimental cost of the architecture and perhaps much more will be loaded on the shoulders of the taxpayers of the city, few of whom will ever see the site.

The people vote with their feet and their wallets. Santa Monica/Venice, Hollywood, North Hollywood and Beverly Hills have evolved into shopping and entertainment areas as developers and tenants responded to the votes of the consumers. There is simply no critical mass downtown to achieve this other than that created by the monopoly sites such as Disney and Staples.