Brady Westwater remembers Bunker Hill when the downtown neighborhood of run-down Victorians was razed nearly 50 years ago to make way for the current slate of skyscrapers.


Westwater, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, has since watched in dismay at the decades of failed opportunities to develop the area into a centerpiece for the city.


But with a group of county and city officials signing off on Related Cos.' $1.8 billion proposal for refashioning Grand Avenue, Westwater believes downtown may finally have a workable plan. "Many of these projects have been a disaster, until now," he said.


Others aren't so sure. Even before architects have designed a single building, there are suggestions that the process to develop 3.5 million square feet on nine acres eight of which are leased from the city and county is flawed.


Related has proposed developing a 275-room hotel with 200 condominiums on top, and several residential towers, along with a collection of shops and restaurants including a bookstore and movie theater. The centerpiece would be a 16-acre park connecting the Music Center with the Civic Center.


So far, Related has hired architects and urban planners to come up with the size and massing of the buildings. The plan also includes features to help physically connect the site, like a proposed pedestrian bridge that would join Grand Avenue with Olive Street.


Critics say that the emphasis has been inappropriately placed on economics rather than design and community need.


Thom Mayne, one such critic who worked on the Grand Avenue project before departing months ago, said financial constraints have limited creativity. He believes residents should have been allowed to "dream big" and then worry about what pencils out later.


"When we decided to send a man to the moon, we didn't first set out to find the cheapest contractor," said Mayne, a Pritzker Prize-winning, architect. "First you have to come up with ideas and then you figure out what's feasible; not the other way around."


Bill Witte, a Related Cos. of California principal, defended the process as necessary in developing a winning project.


"We know there are very high expectations from a design point of view, but there are more aspects to a successful project of this nature than the design of the buildings," he said. "You can have wonderful buildings but if the plan is no good it won't be successful."


One area of concern is Related's pattern of using architecture firm Skidmore Owens & Merrill LLP to design its projects, including the Time Warner Center in New York.


Skidmore's projects have been described by some architects and critics as "slick and ordinary." From the outset of choosing a developer for the Grand Avenue project, Westwater vehemently opposed selecting Related. "I didn't want to see a Time Warner Center in Los Angeles," he said. "I felt it would be that all over again."


But instead of using the same Skidmore Owens & Merrill architect who designed Time Warner, Related brought on Philip Enquist, an architect from Skidmore Owens & Merrill's Chicago office who planned a similar civic park-centered development.


After Thom Mayne's departure because of creative differences, Related had Walt Disney Concert Hall architect Frank O. Gehry help master-plan the site. Both Gehry and Enquist are said to be top contenders for commissions to design Grand Avenue buildings and public spaces.


Related is also wasting no time getting approvals for the project lined up. In the next 90 days the developer wants to have approval from the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Council and the County Board of Supervisors.


With those approvals in hand, Related can begin its environmental studies. Concurrently, Witte said Related would continue to meet with residents to give design updates and gather feedback.


Once the business plan is complete, approval would again be sought from the joint powers authority a group of city and county officials overseeing the project, the CRA board, city council and the county Supervisors.


Related would like to split the project into three phases. The first $500 million phase would be built on a 4-acre parcel across from Disney Hall, and include a food market, bookstore and several national chain retailers.


The company has paid a $50 million desposit for its 99-year lease for the site. If all goes smoothly, Witte believes Related could break ground by the summer of 2006.

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