Cardinal Roger Mahony may be best known as leader of the nation's largest Catholic archdiocese, but he has emerged in a new role: as a torchbearer for downtown's revival.

On many mornings these days, Mahony can be seen at a downtown hillside lot across from the Music Center, gazing out from beneath his personalized, red hard hat.

The 62-year-old cardinal's immediate mission: to oversee construction of the $163 million Cathedral of Our Lady of The Angels.

Last week, construction began on an underground parking lot and work is expected to begin soon on the next phase: a 100,000-square-foot plaza along with a conference center and residence for the Archbishop.

Though the 70,000-square-foot cathedral itself is the last phase, preparations are already under way. Mahony and architect Jos & #233; Rafael Moneo are in the midst of selecting the type of concrete that will be used. (Mahony said he wants the building to last 500 years.) It will have a textured look to make it more closely resemble stone, Mahony said.

The current target date for completion is about the middle of 2001. That could move up or be pushed back slightly, depending on how wet the next two winters are.

Once completed, Mahony said he expects the cathedral especially the central plaza to become a gathering place for many downtown workers and public events.

Making the cathedral a public place fits into his grander vision to establish Grand Avenue whose northern end borders the cathedral site as the city's cultural center.

"A vital downtown always has people living there," Mahony said in an interview last week. "That used to be downtown Los Angeles. But the people have left for other areas. This has got to change. People have to live downtown and it must be an attractive space for people to come and spend time here."

To carry out this vision, Mahony is linking up with like-minded business groups such as the Central City Association and taking his case to the public, through a series of media interviews.

"Throughout history, churches especially cathedral churches have existed in a bustling downtown central area," Mahony said. "In our case, we're building a cathedral in a non-bustling situation. We are reaching out to form partnerships with business to renew and recreate what used to be a bustling downtown."

Already, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has raised about 80 percent of the money it needs for the $163 million project. Virtually all of the $130 million contributed so far comes from a group of 50 individuals and organizations, many of whom are not members of the Catholic faith. The list of donors includes such prominent names as Lew Wasserman, Eli Broad, Jeffrey Katzenberg, William Wardlaw, Peter Mullin and Mayor Richard Riordan. The two largest contributors were Catholic foundations that provided $35 million in seed money.

Mahony's campaign is the latest chapter in what has been a controversial effort to replace the old central church, St. Vibiana's, which was rendered unusable by the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The Archdiocese's first choice was to tear down St. Vibiana's and build a new cathedral on the site at Second and Main streets.

That had great appeal to the Archdiocese and to urban planners who saw a chance to create a downtown on the model of the great Spanish and Latin American centers, with the cathedral and the center of government facing each other across a square.

But the plan met with stiff resistance from preservation groups that did not want St. Vibiana's torn down. Faced with the threat of lawsuits, the Archdiocese abandoned plans to rebuild on the site and began a search for a new location. Mahony and the Archdiocese looked at six sites some outside downtown before settling on the parking lots on the north side of the County Hall of Administration.

That site also brought controversy when an Indian tribe claimed it was home to an ancestral burial ground and filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese to stop the project. Earlier this year, a state appellate court ruled that the Archdiocese could proceed with its plans.

Now, Mahony is stepping up the marketing of the cathedral as part of a revitalized Grand Avenue, taking his case to business leaders, area property owners and the media.

"This cathedral will serve as the northern anchor of an incredible cultural corridor along Grand Avenue that will include the Music Center, the new Disney Concert Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Colburn School for the Performing Arts, all the way down to the Public Library," Mahony said.

Mahony sees his role in remaking Grand Avenue as extending beyond mere rhetoric. Earlier this month, he co-hosted a meeting of property owners along the mile-long stretch of the thoroughfare.

"We have talked about Grand Avenue for years," said Ayahlushim Hammond, downtown project manager for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. "But it was Cardinal Mahony and the cathedral he is building that prompted us to move up our plans to revitalize Grand Avenue. Of all the property owners, he is probably the most committed to making this happen."

In fact, Mahony organized a walking tour of architects earlier this year including Moneo and Disney Concert Hall architect Frank Gehry. The purpose was to gather ideas about how to transform the street and the buildings alongside it into a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

Beyond Grand Avenue, Mahony envisions the revitalization of the entire downtown area, with more housing, supermarkets and public places. He said the impetus has come, in part, from the wishes of the dozens of major contributors to the cathedral project.

"(They) see the cathedral as another reason why Los Angeles is a great city and why we should develop our downtown better. They see this as a key part of this full-blown thrust to remake downtown," he said.

Said Broad, SunAmerica Inc. chairman and CEO: "Clearly the cathedral is going to be a great asset to downtown Los Angeles. After they visit the cathedral or attend services, people will want to walk around the area. They may stop in for a performance at the Music Center or take their children to the Central Library."

Mahony said he expects the cathedral to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Some, he said, might be drawn to see the handiwork of Moneo; others by the 60-foot-high cross that will dominate the view of downtown from the Hollywood Freeway.

Ira Yellin, senior vice president with Catellus Development Corp. who consulted on the project, said the cathedral will no doubt be a major draw.

"It will become one of those magnets along Grand Avenue and for those coming off the freeways and the transit links," Yellin said. "It will also connect with the old Pueblo, near Olvera Street, drawing people from all over Southern California."

Some question just how much of a tourist attraction a cathedral in L.A. will be. While the great cathedrals of Europe, like Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey, draw millions of visitors each year because of a history often extending back more than 1,000 years, a newly built cathedral may not be as enticing a draw.

"You cannot rely simply on a cathedral and a row of cultural institutions to stem the decline of downtowns throughout America and the entire Western world," said David Birch, president of Cambridge, Mass.-based Cognetics Inc., an urban and land-use consulting firm.

But others see the cathedral and other nearby projects as having sufficient power to lure people back into the urban core.

"It's all about critical mass," said Dan Rosenfeld, a partner with the downtown office of LaSalle Partners and former real estate manager for the city of L.A. "There are some 50 projects going on in the Civic Center-downtown area. If every one of these brings in just a few people, you can really turn an area around. That's what happened over a long period of time along the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and Old Town Pasadena."

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