‘As Downtown Changes Hands, the Streets Remain the Same’

MAILANDER’S LA - The recent decease of the alternately legendary and notorious LA Times editor Noel Greenwood brings to mind something he once said to me when he was 52 and I was 32 and putting together a pitch for him.  It was an in-person pitch; we were standing in the Times' newsroom, at the time the sanctum sanctorum of West Coast journalism--a room I wasn't granted too many visits to, then or now--and I suppose the figure he cut against the admirably buzzing confines of the space itself helped make what he told me more memorable.

"You don't want to write much on architecture," he said to me, critiquing this particular pitch on the spot.  "Write on development if you have to.  Architecture critics are territorial, precious, smarmy...." He crinkled his nose, rubbed his hands together as though they were wet with sweat, and put on his best ugly wicked gnome face.  "Development is...more...fun!" he added, lightening up into his own real self, punching the air with a liberated fist, and releasing the word "fun" with the enthusiasm of a bleacher bum celebrating a walk-off homer.

I knew the paper already had an architecture critic--which was probably what he was really trying to tell me--either that or he was doing his best Leon Whiteson impersonation by wringing his hands dry--and no, I didn't want to write much on architecture anyway. But I did pay much attention in subsequent years to the way downtown development in LA eked out a credible skyline in the 1980s, clustering in particular around the Library Tower.

Despite the hopes of U.S. Bank to call the thing the "U.S. Bank Tower," the tallest building in LA should still indeed be called the Library Tower.  My wife and I ran into Jim Thomas two nights ago after a great downtown anniversary dinner at Drago Centrale.  And at least as of Wednesday night, he still used the phrase "Library Tower" to describe LA's tallest building. He should know, as Maguire Thomas developed the 73-story site, tallest west of the Mississippi, topped out in 1989, when Thomas was still Maguire's partner at LA's top development firm.  And he should know, even if the architect himself now defers to the hopes of the owner.

Thomas is a jovial sort of chap with a great pink and stately face, and he seemed as charmed by my wife as everyone is including me, but he couldn't get away from me fast enough when I started talking to him about downtown's new skyscraper owners as "absentee landlords."

Such chance conversations, even if brief, are not really fair game for reporting.  But here's what I meant by "absentee landlords"--I mean owners of downtown LA skyscrapers whose corporate headquarters are not in LA.  The Downtown News reported a couple of weeks ago that two more buildings--the Gas Company Tower (also developed by Thomas and Maguire) and the Wells Fargo Tower were recently sold. It was just a fragment of a wholesale swapping.

"A swath of the Los Angeles skyline is changing hands" is the way the Wall Street Journal put it last week.  And indeed it was.  The WSJ listed eight key downtown buildings formerly owned by LA-based MPG Trust that had recently found new owners, all out of town.

Listen to the names of the properties that MPG has recently divested: 777 Tower, Library Tower, 550 S. Hope, 1 California Plaza, 2 California Plaza, KPMG Tower, Wells Fargo Tower.

That's basically the whole of what Scott Johnson once described to me and my old boss Barbara Goldstein as "the Bob Maguire and Jim Thomas circle" clustering around the Library Tower in downtown Los Angeles.

As for me, my jaw has been hitting the desk a lot lately, to watch these various transactions unfold. 


The Downtown News posted a small item last August predicting as much, but still, these buildings are the very core of what we know of as downtown--this is what we see when we are transitioning from the 105 to the 110 north ten miles south, this is what's in the distance as we stare south down a point on Brand Boulevard in Glendale nine miles north, this is what we see from the Golden State Freeway right after we leave Monterey Park eleven miles east, from the 134 in Eagle Rock, from spots on the 405.

I don't know that this makes a lot of difference, as skyscraper office space is in general neutered of everything meaningful in life except money, but I do know that when you look at LA's skyline and see the names of a bunch of out-of-state and even out-of-country names on the tops of the skyscrapers, you sense that something has gone drastically wrong in town. 


In fact, this transaction is perhaps our present local government's greatest legacy of failure of all--a legacy that makes us look like Hong Kong in the sixties or San Juan in the seventies--a supercluster skyline in which all the buildings are owned by elsewhere.  On the streets of downtown, you look up and see signage you don't recognize, names you feel are from elsewhere.  You don't feel like you own, you feel like you are owned.

There is much nonsense written among architecture enthusiasts about LA not having the same kind of feel of Manhattan or San Francisco--San Francisco, which will soon compete yet again with LA for the tallest building west of the Mississippi, as its own Transbay Transit Tower will top off a little higher than the Library Tower, even as our own Korean Air-built Wilshire Grand Tower preps for its own climb to the sky and One World Trade Center in NYC tops out as the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. 


I don't worry about this so much, as to me downtown is its own island, a triangle isolated from the rest of the city by the concrete apartheid of freeways.  I rather worry much about the Wilshire Grand, to me a project out of LA synch in nearly every sense.  It seems to me that it will throw downtown a little off-balance, as I always have seen the Library Tower as a magnificent ivory spike anchoring the buildings all around it, which are clustered with a fair amount of symmetrical balance from nearly every farflung vantage point.

Twice I've seen Henry Cobb, the Library Tower's principal architect, talk about his magnificent spike of a building: once in 1989 at UCLA when it had just topped out, and once more again at Sci-Arc a few years ago when it had just changed names. 


Cobb himself is a man of unusual architectural circumstances: he has been designing skyscrapers since he was in his early 30's--most architects have to wait much longer to get the tallest commissions, if they ever get them. 


He is very cognizant of what goes on with a building at street level, and his skyscrapers are designed to engage the street as friendly buildings at the pedestrian level.  His treatment of the so-called Spanish steps that descend from the fifth floor of the Library Tower down to the Library itself is a quiet little masterpiece of experience within our densest office strip.

These spatial relationships at street level, fortunately, aren't going anywhere, even if the signage at the tops of some buildings may change, and even if our Planning Department gets far more lax about signage issues and signature lighting elements at night.  Certainly now, without a CRA to police it all, garish signage changes and a less-aesthetic skyline are even more likely.

Downtown of course isn't only changing hands in the skyscraper department.  They're also having a much needed housecleaning in three weeks at 200 North Spring …

Our own local fishwrap announced last week that our new absentee landlords at Brookfield Office Properties are bullish on our office space market.  Of course they are--that's why they bought us out when we couldn't make a go of things ourselves. 


Everyone's always so bullish on LA--that's how these things got built in the first place, I similarly seem to recall from watching the buildings go up in the '80's.  But it's ultimately left to us to figure out how to actually make it all work, especially at street level, where our own best private moments are made, where our own most amusing rendezvous unfold, where our own songs always remain the same.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs at .)






Vol 11 Issue 36

Pub: May 3, 2013