Looking to Future: Andy Cohen at Gensler’s office in downtown Los Angeles.

Looking to Future: Andy Cohen at Gensler’s office in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Gensler’s Andy Cohen has no time to rest.

Though the downtown L.A. architecture firm where he serves as co-chief executive tallied more than $1 billion in billings last year, making it one of the largest in the country as it marked 50 years in business, there’s more to be done as downtown’s transformation continues and developers around the world task Gensler with building major civic edifices.

“Personally, it’s been an incredible run,” said the 60-year-old Cohen in a recent interview at Gensler’s office in the Financial District. “I’m not done yet.”

Local L.A. landmarks designed by the firm – including L.A. Live and now the massive, mixed-use Metropolis complex – have morphed the South Park area into an entertainment and residential district.

Nearly 6,500 miles away, Gensler added the completed Shanghai Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Asia, to its global portfolio.

“We’re designing a total place, an experience for people,” he said of Gensler’s design philosophy. “We do sometimes get an opportunity like the L.A. Live tower, where the tower becomes a marker, an icon for a certain area of the city, and that’s a really great opportunity. But we’re all about people and creating great people places.”

Even so, the firm does seem to gravitate toward the grandiose.

The 2,300-foot tall Suzhou Tower in Jiangsu, China, also designed by Gensler, will stand 200 feet higher than the Shanghai Tower when it’s finished in 2020.

But Gensler isn’t done shaping Los Angeles.

Consider Chinese developer Greenland USA’s $1 billion Metropolis complex, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018 and feature 1,500 condos ranging from $555,000 to $2 million as well as a 350-room hotel and more than 70,000 square feet of retail. Then there’s the $500 million expansion to the downtown JW Marriott hotel that Gensler is working on with Anschutz Entertainment Group, and a hotel and residence being developed by another Chinese firm, Shenzhen Hazens, at Figueroa and 11th streets, among others.

Cohen, who was born in the Bronx, remembers building with Lincoln Logs and penciling sketches at an early age. But he credits Cohen’s Dairy, a family-run store founded by his grandfather, with giving him an understanding of people.

Cohen was poised to inherit the business when his father, Jerry, gave him a choice: take over the store or pursue his passion.

A year after his father passed away from lung cancer, Cohen, who graduated from New York’s Pratt Institute as an architect in 1978, left his stomping grounds in New York and took a job in California with a startup called Gensler in 1981.

At the time, Gensler’s L.A. office counted only four employees. Today, there are more than 5,000 spread across 46 offices around the world.

“I’ve grown up in the organization,” Cohen said, recalling his trajectory from architectural and interior designer to regional manager to rotating board chair and co-chief executive.

He leads design while Diane Hoskins spearheads Gensler’s day-to-day operations as well as talent strategy, performance and organizational development.

“We’re an extremely innovative and creative organization and we really spend a lot of time in designing the process,” Cohen said. “For me, it’s not a job. It’s not even about being CEO. It is about using design to create a better world. That’s what our firm is about.”

Ups, downs

Still, even at Gensler, there are setbacks.

The firm, which was working on AEG’s failed football stadium project Farmers Field, was precluded from making a simultaneous proposition to design the Inglewood stadium.

Without a National Football League team attached to the project, AEG’s plans died last March. In January, Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s Inglewood bid eventually carried the day against a competing proposal in Carson put forth by the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

“I’m sad that we’re not doing it,” Cohen said of Farmers Field, noting that Dallas firm HKS submitted a good design for the Inglewood stadium. “My personal feeling was that having the stadium go downtown would’ve improved the downtown experience and it would’ve been a great synergy. But it is what it is.”

Another project designed by Gensler, the former Paper Mate site at Olympic Avenue and 26th Street in Santa Monica, which had been set to become a roughly 700,000-square-foot mixed-use project, also lost steam as neighbors voiced concerns. After a seven-year process, the Santa Monica City Council retracted the project’s approval in May 2014.

A Gensler-designed redevelopment of the Tower Records site on Sunset Boulevard was also shot down by the West Hollywood City Council in 2012.

“You can do your best work and your most innovative work, and it still could have issues that have nothing to do with us,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

Securing permits and entitlements, and facing off against sharp economic deceleration in places such as China, also pose challenges.

L.A.’s future

Still, Cohen said the best projects tend to move forward and the knowledge Gensler has gained from its projects all around the world often inform its work in Los Angeles.

Frequently, that means creating mixed-use environments out of empty parking lots – as it’s doing for the Metropolis.

“It was this big gaping, what I’ll call hole, between downtown L.A. and L.A. Live, and now there’s a string of projects that are being developed that will tie the center core of L.A. with South Park and L.A. Live,” he said.

Cohen is hopeful that advancements in driverless-car technology could open more doors for Gensler across Los Angeles.

“We have thousands of parking structures right now that take up a lot of space,” he said. “Think of how our world would change and design would change if we don’t have to worry about people parking cars,” he added, noting that the firm was working on a number of forward-thinking projects he couldn’t mention.

As L.A.’s population growth continues, Cohen said knitting together the region by creating pockets to live, work and play will be key for the future.

“If you work in one place and live in another, that creates all the traffic and congestion,” he said. “So if we can get more like San Francisco or New York that creates the vibrancy.”

But will he have a hand at the drawing board?

“I love to sketch and draw,” he said. “It’s in my blood. I’ll never give up on that.”

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