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Frank Gehry’s Grand Monolith for a Bleak Future

The Grand — a complex including a luxury residential tower, movie theater, and upscale retailers — is a billion-dollar gamble at a time when in-person business is in steep decline.

Rendering of the Grand building in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Gehry (all images courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP) 

As California burns and Los Angeles experiences a housing crisis, construction on Frank Gehry’s long-delayed corporate complex continues in Bunker Hill with a huge tax break. Priced at $1 billion, the Grand is part of a larger downtown project that has been under development for 16 years but has yielded few concrete results. 

Located across from the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Grand is now positioned as a beacon of economic recovery by Los Angeles’s commercial real estate industry. Developers from Related Companies claim the final product will be completed by 2021, and it will finally tie together Grand Avenue’s arts district — which has lacked significant foot traffic since large cultural institutions like the concert hall, the Music Center, and the Broad Museum replaced a neighborhood of Victorian homes in the 1960s. A luxury residential tower will stand alongside an Equinox hotel, with a movie theater, upscale retailers, and chef-driven restaurants at their base. 

“The vision for this project has long been to create a new vibrant center of commerce and community in Downtown LA,” a spokesperson for Gehry Partners told Hyperallergic. “In every aspect, it had to complement the cultural landmarks that are its neighbors.”

Known for their work at New York’s Hudson Yards, Related first signed the contract for the Grand Avenue Project back in 2004, but work on the Grand complex has been halted multiple times due to the 2008 recession and doubts over its ability to succeed. More than a decade later, Los Angeles looks much different, with city dwellers having little to no clue when businesses will be open again at full capacity, or when social distancing regulations will be lifted. The Grand is therefore a billion-dollar gamble that Bunker Hill will actually attract pedestrians, at a time when in-person business is in steep decline and events are indefinitely postponed.

Rendering of the Grand, showing increased pedestrian traffic 

At 91, Gehry has acquired a reputation for outlandish metallic designs in major cities all over the world. His work with the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Weisman Art Museum, and Los Angeles institutions like the Loyola Law School helped popularize the postmodern style known as deconstructivism, in which enormous architectural elements appear fragmented and bent out of shape. These projects often cost a premium due to Gehry’s elaborate designs, but the Grand is not particularly flashy, with the price related mostly to its infrastructure. 

“This is a very expensive project for other reasons,” Los Angeles Times reporter Roger Vincent told Hyperallergic. “It’s complicated to build a hotel, apartment tower, and shopping center in one unit. All those components are rising over a garage for more than 1,000 cars buried deep in the ground.”

Related Companies claims to be privately funding the construction on publicly owned land but will nonetheless receive $198.4 million in tax breaks over 25 years. This money, as Curbed reported in 2016, is diverted from the city’s general fund — which goes toward local fire departments, park maintenance, and other public services. While the Grand is not as aesthetically complex as some of Gehry’s other work, there have been several ongoing issues with the architect’s original plans, with civic leaders even claiming that there was a lack of demand for “deluxe hotel rooms, expensive residences, and upscale stores.” 

California currently has 1.3 million renters with income at or below the federal poverty line, with less than 300,000 affordable rentals. That number will surely rise as wildfires continue their paths of destruction across Los Angeles county. When greenlighting the project, local politicians stipulated that the Grand must have affordable housing options. Out of the 400 luxury residences, just 89 will be available at a lower rate. Vincent claims this is part of the city’s effort to cut down on housing shortages, albeit in small increments. 

“The subsidized apartments for low-income residents will probably be life-changing for the people lucky enough to get them,” he said.

At this point, it’s hard to tell whether the Grand will be a benefit for the city or an albatross for years to come. It seems pretty bleak, though, with Gehry only surveying his work from a helicopter due to physical distancing measures. The architect has dealt in big-picture ideas for his whole career, but this one might be more decadent than the people of Los Angeles can afford right now.

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