Arrested Development: Los Angeles CA Downtown News, 1/12/07

LAPD Headquarters Moves Forward, Over Cost and Under Fire, as Eminent Domain Proceedings Loom

By Evan George

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 22. But a still uncertain cost - $396 million and rising, according to city officials - along with a string of controversies and construction delays continue to plague the project that City Council approved in 2004.

Work on the building site bounded by First, Second, Spring and Main streets began last month. Yet negotiations to acquire three adjacent properties needed for the project's parking and maintenance facilities have stalled and eminent domain proceedings could begin as soon as this month, according to the City Attorney's office.

Victoria Chou, who owns two of the properties, said the city's $10 million offer is not enough to buy even a far smaller property in Downtown, let alone cover the cost of moving her 23-year-old garment importing business.

"I'll fight this for sure. I've tried to be a good citizen, but something about this is just wrong," Chou said.

Richard Rossen, whose family owns the neighboring property, where the M.J. Higgins gallery sits, said the city's offer to him is significantly lower than the appraised value.

"There's so much we were planning to do with this property when the time was right and when it finally was right, the city says they are going to do this," he said.

Both Rossen and Chou said they have heard nothing from the city since October.

While using eminent domain to acquire the land could speed up that part of the development, it also risks reigniting community opposition, not just from Chou and Rossen, but among other Downtown residents, artists and business owners who fear the mammoth project will overwhelm the neighborhood.

City officials say the Civic Center site is the best solution for a much-needed replacement of the aging Parker Center. Still, the project has suffered a series of slings and arrows since it was announced and quickly approved by city leaders.

The groundbreaking, originally scheduled for last summer, was pushed back after only one company, Tutor-Saliba, bid on the project. The bid of $243 million for construction of the headquarters building alone was more than $40 million higher than the city's original estimate. Since then the project's budget, including design and management, has jumped twice, from an initial $303 million to $396 million, which City Council approved last September.

Concerns about the developer deepened last month when Sylmar-based Tutor-Saliba lost an 11-year court battle with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and was ordered to pay $446,600 for over billing the agency for work on a subway line.

Also last month, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed an independent advisory panel to oversee work on the 10-story, 500,000-square-foot headquarters - a significant move since the project already requires an oversight panel within the Bureau of Engineering.

"I welcome any help that ensures that we complete the construction on time," said City Engineer Gary Lee Moore, who oversees the project. "I think it's just such an important building to the city and... this additional oversight will just help us to continue to stay focused to deliver the building."

Although construction is underway, the issue will return to City Council in the coming months for additional funding approval, according to Moore. Another budget adjustment could push the price tag as high as $420 million as a result of the land acquisition process, officials have said.

Last week Ron Tutor, owner of Tutor-Saliba, angrily told Los Angeles Downtown News that if the actual construction costs rise it's not his company's fault.

"We will finish on schedule and under budget," he said. "We just started. We're a construction company - get the city to keep you informed."

Park Dispute
The crater smack-dab in the middle of the Civic Center was once envisioned as a relatively easy, cost-effective option for the new police headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles. But in the last two years, the site has presented a number of challenges for city officials who are eager to build a replacement for the 52-year-old Parker Center.

An environmental impact report approved by the City Council in May 2006 identified a "significant and unavoidable" traffic impact as well as an air quality impact that violates standards set by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, according to a Planning Department report.

The city approved the project despite the environmental impact, the report shows.

For years, officials had talked of moving the LAPD out of Parker Center because of damage sustained in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. In 2004 discussion of a new facility grew intense.

The Transamerica building in South Park and a site at First and Alameda streets in Little Tokyo were among the locations considered. But after public outcry in Little Tokyo and a lack of support for the South Park building, the City Council moved quickly to place the development on the block south of City Hall - the site of the former Caltrans building, and for more than a decade the offices of Downtown News.

That property was put on the table only two weeks before the vote, but local leaders expressed support for keeping the LAPD headquarters close to the seats of city and county government.

The unanimous approval by City Council, after lobbying by former Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton and a motion by Downtown Councilwoman Jan Perry, drew criticism from community members who had hoped for a block-long park that would connect the Civic Center with the Historic Core. But the community plan approved by the City Council in 1997 that laid plans for the civic park was non-binding and never implemented.

The building being designed by DMJM Design will include office space for nearly 2,400 police personnel, an auditorium, 600 square feet of retail space and a roughly one-acre landscaped lawn. Its triangular shape will help preserve views of other buildings around the Civic Center, including City Hall and the Los Angeles Times and Caltrans buildings, said City Planner Ron Maben.

Excavation of the main site began last month after the Los Angeles Planning Department board of commissioners granted approval on Dec. 14, according to Maben.

Land in Question
The headquarters project includes a second major component, an 800-vehicle maintenance facility for the Motor Transportation Division that is set to go up one block away from the main development, said Project Manager Sam Tanaka.

In between the two building sites are the former St. Vibiana's cathedral and an open lot on which developer Tom Gilmore plans to build a condominium high-rise

Building the parking component would require razing an 1896 iron frame and brick building at 244 S. Main St. (owned by Rossen) that holds the M.J. Higgins gallery - one of the initiators of the area known as Gallery Row - and Chou's six-story warehouse next door.

Although the overall project completion is set for December 2009, the parking component is behind schedule due to stalled negotiations with Rossen and Chou, whose properties are the last of 11 parcels needed for the garages, according to Tanaka.

Negotiations over the parcels have failed to result in a deal, according to officials in the City Attorney's office.

Chou said the city made one offer of $10 million for the two parcels totalling 30,000 square feet (including the 61,000-square-foot building) she has owned for 15 years, but declined to negotiate further.

"I am curious why Tom [Gilmore] can stay and I cannot," Chou said. "His property is vacant - he just has dreams - but I run a business here."

Rossen, whose family has owned its property for more than 60 years, accused city officials of "low-balling" them. "Their offers were just not realistic compared to the appraisals that we got. They were significantly different," Rossen said.

Those parcels could be condemned by the end of the month, according to the City Attorney's office. If approved by City Council, the City Attorney could move to evict current tenants by March.

"It's heartbreaking. It is just once again not addressing community. We negate any design that develops community," said Martha Higgins, owner of the M.J. Higgins gallery.

She has not decided where or how to relocate the gallery if evicted, Higgins said.

In the meantime, the bid process for the maintenance and parking facility is on hold until the land acquisition process is completed, according to the Bureau of Engineering.

It remains unclear how delays on the proposed parking facility might affect the headquarters' December 2009 completion date, but city officials have vowed to keep construction on track. According to Tanaka, the design and bidding stages will begin during the eminent domain proceedings to stay on track.

Gerry Miller, the city's Chief Legislative Analyst who succeeded Deaton, said city officials will keep a close watch on the project.

"Any time we go through acquisition for a public process it's always difficult and there's always a lot of serious debate about whether to proceed and how to proceed and why and the impact on the communities," said.

He added, "Everybody will be paying very close attention to make sure this thing stays on schedule and on budget."

Los Angeles CA Downtown News: http://www.ladowntownnews.com