Downtown Dreams

Downtown Dreams

After buying LA’s Union Station in April, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (METRO) has wasted no time putting the site to use. Wednesday’s Union Station Master Plan Industry Review event kicked off the process of soliciting planning proposals for a redevelopment of the 42 acres of land it owns around the station, instantly making the site one of the most important development zones in Southern California.


METRO also wasted no time in drawing scrutiny among the architects present by suggesting a “Vision Plan” for the site that some felt would be a waste of their time and resources because its results would hold no bearing on the final team selection.

The review, which took place Wednesday morning at METRO Headquarters, drew architects, engineers and planners from firms like Gensler, Grimshaw, Foster and Partners, Perkins + Will, ZGF, Johnson Fain, Rios Clementi Hale, Daly Genik, Buro Happold, Arup, Barton Myers and several others.

At the review the agency shared plans to develop up to six million square feet of entitlements on the site, which it bought from the Catellus Development Corporation for about $75 million. About five million square feet of development has already been built on the site, including the Metropolitan Water District Headquarters and One Metro Plaza, which is METRO’s headquarters. The area is LA’s transportation hub, containing three subway lines as well as Amtrak and Metrolink stations and several bus lines. And it is set to augment that role in the future with the addition of METRO’s Regional Connector and California High Speed Rail.

Specifics like building height limits as well as calls for mixed-use and transit oriented development, including commercial, retail, entertainment, housing, and eventually a new High Speed Rail terminal, will be dictated to some extent by the existing Alameda District Specific Plan, which was passed in 1996.  The agency’s goals for the project, according to a document it posted on its site today, include accommodating future transit needs, creating “an iconic place of extraordinary design,” improving connectivity to the city around the station, and maximizing the value of METRO’s investment in the project.

METRO revealed the selection process timeframe: the agency will issue an RFIQ (Request for Information and Qualifications) for a site planner on July 22, and select a short list by October 27; it will then issue an RFP (Request for Proposals) on October 31, and select a winning team by March or April of 2012.

Planning teams, pointed out Martha Welborne, Executive Director of Countywide Planning at METRO, will likely be multi-disciplinary, including architects, planners, and engineers. As part of the RFP, short listed teams must produce nuts-and-bolts information like a team management plan, an assessment of the area’s commercial viability, an infrastructure assessment, ideas to connect Union Station to its surrounding neighborhoods, a detailed scope of work document, and a public engagement plan.

Roland Genick, Chief Architect for Rail and Transit Systems at Parsons, praised METRO for “taking a creative, proactive role as an owner rather than doing this work in house and hiring executors once they’ve figured it all out.” He added: “I think it’s a much more collaborative process than they usually do.”

The Vision Plan that METRO is requiring short listed teams to produce for the area will be an “unconstrained” and “imaginative vision of Union Station” consisting of visual perspectives and site plans that will be presented publicly. The goal, said Calvin Hollis, Executive Officer of Countywide Planning & Development at METRO, is to “create some excitement about the property and get the community excited.”

The Vision Plans will hold no weight in the selection of a winning team. They will instead be considered “gifts to the public,” said Hollis. Welborne didn’t yet know if a stipend would be made available for such work.

 “We don’t have the time to do a full-blown design competition,” said Welborne, who later added, “if we make it part of the selection criteria then the public will expect these ideas to be final.” She acknowledged that navigating public expectations about such plans would be “a trick,” but said that the energy such plans would create would make up for this.

Not every potential planner and architect in the room agreed.

“It’s disrespectful to architects and to the public,” said one architect, who did not want to be named. “It’s disingenuous to the firms to say you’re going to do all this work and present it to the public, but nothing will come of it.”

Genick countered, “I like the idea of showing a pathway to the development rather than a detailed architectural proposal,” adding that that many at the meeting were “hung up on the classic understanding of an architectural competition where you have two renderings that are going to drive the discussion.” Still he added that by releasing vision plans, “I’m not sure how they will not have the public opinion get in the way.”

Once a master planner is chosen, METRO plans to lease parcels on the site to developers. The agency has used this model to great financial effect in the past few years, making about $16 to $17 million a year since starting its Transit Oriented Development Program about five years ago, according to Roger Moliere, Chief of Property and Economic Development at METRO. “We’re unlocking the value of the land,” said Moliere.

According to METRO completion of the master plan for the project is planned for August 2013.