By DAVID EBNER
Monday, November 26, 2018
LOS ANGELES -- The Times-Mirror building in downtown Los Angeles is not, to most eyes, an architectural marvel. The six-storey structure, completed in 1973, stands like a cold fortress, its top floor rimmed by dark windows held aloft on a series of granite pillars.
This building has become an unlikely flashpoint in an architectural preservation debate that has thrust a media-shy Vancouver real-estate developer, Onni Group of Companies Ltd., into a spotlight. The fight has put a proposed project worth hundreds of millions in jeopardy.
Onni bought this site two years ago. It's a full block, across from City Hall. The oldest building is from 1935, a widely appreciated Art Deco work, the former home of the Los Angeles Times. A 1948 building in a similar style is on a second corner.
On the other side of the block is the 1973 building and a parking garage; Onni wants to tear them down to put up two luxury apartment towers while keeping the two older buildings.
On a recent sunny afternoon, across the street on the steps of a courthouse, a band of local activists considered the unappreciated building. Reflected light from the glass courthouse rippled on the granite of the 1973 building, designed by William Pereira. The L.A. architect was famous in his day for work such as the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, but even Pereira fans know his Times-Mirror building is hard to love.
"A lot of people think it's just ugly," architectural historian Alan Hess said. But he said styles often fall out of favour and predicted there will soon be a revival of appreciation for a building once voted the second-ugliest in L.A.
A wife-and-husband team, Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, is leading the quest to gain heritage status for the Pereira building. They are passionate Angelenos whose day job is leading offbeat tours of the city. In September, after years of work, they won a victory at the city's Cultural Heritage Commission. This week, the battle moves to an important committee at city hall.
Ms. Cooper, looking at the Pereira building, declared: "You can't just clear cut and put up towers. You have to come up with something more sophisticated. It takes more money, more time, and more heart. I don't think Onni feels the heart of how important this place is."
Onni made its first move in L.A.
in 2011, and has since invested more than US$1-billion in the market. It has built one tower and will soon finish construction on three luxury-apartment blocks.
This project at Times Mirror Square is Onni's biggest proposal yet: 1,100-plus luxury apartments and an overhaul and refurbishment of the two older office buildings.
On Tuesday afternoon, Onni's vision for Times Mirror Square faces an imposing hurdle. L.A. city council's powerful planning and land-use management body will decide on the Times Mirror Square heritage question, a make-or-break ruling for Onni's development plans and a ruling that could have broader implications for development in L.A.
The hearing unfolds as the council is riven by political scandal: Jose Huizar, a pro-development councilman for downtown, has been ousted from his key role as chair of council's planning committee following Federal Bureau of Investigation raids of his offices and home in early November. With Mr. Huizar out of the picture, Onni has lost an important backer at City Hall.
'WE LOVE LOS ANGELES' Onni's roots stretch back to the mid-1960s, when the De Cotiis family, immigrants from Italy, entered the Vancouver construction and real-estate business. Onni got going in the late 1990s, run by the sons of Inno De Cotiis: Rossano, Morris, Giulio, and Paolo.
It was the global financial crisis, which forced the company to slash prices on hundreds of unsold condos in the Vancouver region, and pushed management to turn its eye to other markets to diversify. On an early visit, Onni executives were struck by how downtown L.A. reminded them of Vancouver's downtown peninsula several decades back, with ample land on which to build towers.
"You had this amazing city, globally famous, with a massive economy, and yet their downtown core had so much empty space," said Duncan Wlodarczak, chief of staff to Onni president Rossano De Cotiis, in an interview at a coffee shop near Onni's modest headquarters on Vancouver's Robson Street.
The De Cotiis brothers tend to avoid attention. Rossano De Cotiis's name rarely appears in print.
But out of the spotlight, the family has a sprawling collection of real estate in B.C.'s lower mainland, Toronto, and several U.S. cities. The family keeps careful control of everything it does - managing its own construction projects instead of hiring a contractor to do so, for example.
Onni's arrival in L.A. was welltimed. Downtown for decades was empty of residents. In 1999, a city policy change and the opening of a new arena downtown sparked residential development.
In recent years, as the U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession, development has boomed. The vibe in what's branded as DTLA has shifted from vacant to vibrant. In 1999, fewer than 20,000 people lived downtown in a region of nearly 10-million. Today, the downtown population approaches 75,000 and is forecast to double in the next decade.
Onni is in the middle of it. It has invested across downtown from residential towers to office buildings. "They're as big a player as anyone," said Jessica Lall, president of the Central City Association of L.A.
Two years ago, Onni bought Times Mirror Square for US$105million from Chicago-based Tribune Media Co. Onni saw potential and profit in reviving the two older office buildings and building two new high-end apartment towers. It filed redevelopment plans in mid-2017.
But at Times Mirror Square, Onni ran headfirst into Ms. Cooper and Mr. Schave, who had run a number of successful battles to preserve historical buildings.
Among them was a successful bid to win a historic-cultural monument designation - which is what they're seeking for Times Mirror Square - for an East Hollywood apartment building where the writer Charles Bukowski had lived. It was to be torn down but has since been renovated.
"We love Los Angeles," said Mr.
In the late 2000s, the couple realized the 1935 L.A. Times building didn't have heritage protection.
Architect Gordan Kaufmann, whose best-known work is the Hoover Dam, designed the building. The city told them they had to seek to protect all of Times Mirror Square.
In June, they filed a 374-page application to the city's Cultural Heritage Commission, a fivemember body appointed by the mayor, to try to get the square protected as historic-cultural monument. The city's Office of Historic Resources endorsed the submission and, in September, the commission met to consider it.
At the hearing, an architectural historian hired by Onni argued the 1973 Pereira building was not a significant work by the architect and also suggested Mr. Pereira had little hand in its creation. The preservationists brought in Mr.
Pereira's daughter, Monica. Ms.
Pereira said her father was close friends with the Chandler family, the long-time owners of the Times, and they would have insisted the architect oversee the work.
"Every time you tear down something, even part of it, you're losing part of our history," said Ms. Pereira.
The commissioners endorsed the bid, ruling that Times Mirror Square is architecturally significant and closely connected with important Angelenos. "It tells a story of the city of Los Angeles," said commission president Richard Barron.
'IT COULDN'T BE A MORE PERFECT SPOT' On a tour of the complex in late October, Onni vice-president Mark Spector pointed to fissures in the thick Indiana limestone cladding of the 1935 building.
Pieces had fallen off. "There's a lot of work to do," he said. The sidewalks around Times Mirror Square are quiet.
Onni wants to enliven the area with retail that could include restaurants and a grocery on Spring Street and a pedestrian paseo.
The firm's proposal is the best way to honour the heritage of Times Mirror Square and build for the future, said Mr. Spector, who joined Onni in L.A. in early 2013, and has overseen all of the company's major projects in the city.
The company's goal is to ensure the 1935 and 1948 buildings are "around for the next 100 years," he said.
Standing on a patio of the Pereira building, Mr. Spector talked of the new residential development in this area of downtown - there is a Frank Gehry project up the street - and a new metro station under construction on the next block. "It couldn't be a more perfect spot," he said.
While a heritage designation does not kill Onni's plans, it would make it much more difficult to proceed. Onni would probably scrap its current proposal if the heritage bid succeeds because the only structure it could legally tear down would be the parking lot. "It doesn't make sense to build only one high-rise," said Mr.
Spector. "We would probably keep the whole thing as is."
The meeting on Tuesday comes with a new set of political circumstances. The planning and land use committee is now led by Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a first-time councilman elected in 2015. The previous chair, Mr. Huizar, helped propel the downtown property boom with pro-development decisions. But his political career appears to be crumbling with the FBI raids on Nov. 7. (The affidavits backing the search warrants are under seal and the FBI has not given a reason for the searches. Mr. Huizar has declined to comment on the investigation.)
Back in the lobby of the 1948 Mirror building, workers at Uber Technologies Inc. come and go; the ride-sharing company is a new tenant Onni signed on after buying Times Mirror Square. The Times this summer moved to a building near the airport bought last year by the newspaper's new billionaire owner.
Above the lobby doors, in steel lettering, is the old journalism notation: -30-. In the past, that number marked the end of a newspaper story. Mr. Spector knows these buildings well. He talked about how Onni plans to restore the lobby of the 1935 Kaufmann building, with its large globe and murals on the rotunda walls. "You have to know the history, what happened here, to properly restore the existing buildings," he said.
To the preservationists, this is about the value of L.A.'s past as it builds its future. At Times Mirror Square, Ms. Cooper said the history is not divisible: "All three buildings are uniquely valuable."
Architect and historian Alan Hess, left, along with Kim Cooper and her husband, Richard Schave - seen in Los Angeles on Nov. 14 - are advocating to preserve the Times Mirror Square's Pereira building, a hard-to-love building the Los Angeles Times once called home.
PHOTOS BY PHILIP CHEUNG/THE GLOBE AND MAIL