Huge Arts District development along L.A. River races for approval; here's an early look

Another high-design megaproject is being pitched for the Arts District, this time right alongside the Los Angeles River.

The Gallo family, longtime owner of the Rancho Cold Storage facility on Mesquit Street, has teamed with rising-star Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and real estate firm V.E. Equities to propose a sizable new development consisting of two connected buildings, 30 stories tall at their highest point.

The project, called 670 Mesquit, would hold approximately 800,000 square feet of office space, 250 rental apartments and two boutique hotels as well as shops and restaurants. Stretching north from the 7th Street Bridge almost as far as the forthcoming 6th Street Viaduct, it would replace Rancho Cold Storage’s warehouse buildings  along Mesquit.

The design also calls for a small museum or public sculpture park connected to a broad deck that would extend over the train tracks that divide the Rancho property from the Los Angeles River. That deck is at once the most compelling and the most speculative part of the proposal; building it would require cooperation from a slew of public agencies and companies including the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Amtrak, Metrolink and rail giant BNSF.

“The major contribution to the transformation of the Arts District could be creating this deck over the rail yards,” said Ingels, whose firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), is at work with British designer Thomas Heatherwick on corporate campuses for Google in London and Silicon Valley, among several other high-profile projects. “The Arts District doesn’t have a lot of open outdoor space. This could be the way to get from the Arts District all the way down” to the edge of the river.

The development, BIG’s first commission in Los Angeles, comes on the heels of the September announcement that another noted European architecture firm, Switzerland’s Herzog & de Meuron, is working on a massive Arts District development at 6th and Alameda streets. Crowned by a pair of residential towers, it would fill an entire city block.

 The 670 Mesquit project would include a mix of office space, apartments and retail. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

The 670 Mesquit project would include a mix of office space, apartments and retail. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

Ingels and the developers will introduce the project to neighborhood groups and members of the media at a meeting beginning 5 p.m. Monday at 2014 E. 7th St. It would require significant variances from L.A.’s planning department, including a general-plan amendment to allow residential units and a higher level of density than is currently permitted. The developers are expected to file paperwork with City Hall next month.

The timing is significant. In March, Los Angeles voters will consider the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a measure that calls for a two-year moratorium on development projects requiring general-plan amendments. Gallo and V.E. Equities hope to have their entitlements in place, at least in preliminary form, before then.

That leaves planning director Vince Bertoni and Mayor Eric Garcetti in a delicate spot. Giving a high-profile project the variances it needs so close to the March election could lend fresh ammunition to critics of the city’s notoriously opaque development process. The location of the proposed development along the L.A River, directly across from Boyle Heights, could also complicate its political path.

An effort to produce a new master plan for the river, overseen by River LA (a nonprofit created by the city) and architect Frank Gehry and announced last year, has drawn fire for its secrecy and generated worries that it could lead to a land rush in certain neighborhoods. Opposition to high-end development has been especially intense in parts of Boyle Heights, where even art galleries have come under attack as the advance guard of gentrification and displacement.

Even as the developers of the Mesquit project are looking ahead to the election in March, they have also modified the design to comply with Measure JJJ, which city voters passed by a large margin last month. It requires residential developments to employ local union labor and include a specific number of units for low-income residents. In the case of the Mesquit Street project, the developers say, that would mean 41 affordable units.

“We’re still evaluating the project, and we want to see how it meets with our overall vision of the Arts District and downtown L.A. and our plans for affordable housing,” said Bertoni, the planning director, who met with Ingels last month. “But I think Bjarke understands the L.A. of today and the potential of L.A.”

Bertoni said covering the train tracks could create an elevated urban promenade overlooking the river, with some resemblance to the popular High Line park on the west side of Manhattan.

“Everyone compares everything to the High Line now, for better or worse. More important is how these buildings interact with the river. We don’t want to wall the city off from the river. It looks like they are trying to create permeability through the buildings.”

Architecturally, Ingels’ guiding idea is to create a superstructure of giant concrete frames — each 45 feet square — into which glass-walled offices, apartments and shops could be slotted. Some tenants could choose to build a single high-ceilinged space inside one of the frames; others might divide the space into two or three floors or separate it with mezzanines.

The frames, topped with landscaped terraces, would step down from the edges of the complex toward the middle. Some of them would be kept open as voids to preserve pedestrian access or views from the river toward downtown (or vice versa). On the interior of the development the two buildings would almost seem to nest one inside the other, in a manner Ingels compares to the yin-yang symbol: The structure filling the southern end of the site would grow wider on one edge as it rose, the other narrower.

Ingels’ design combines the clean lines and economy of minimalist art and postwar Los Angeles architecture — like countless out-of-town architects before him, he cites the Case Study program as an inspiration — with the brawny infrastructural forms of the freeway and the concrete-lined L.A. River. The superstructure of the development, particularly as viewed from street level, bears some resemblance to the lower sections of the proposed Herzog & de Meuron project.

 The design is meant to be open enough at ground level to preserve some views toward the L.A. River. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

The design is meant to be open enough at ground level to preserve some views toward the L.A. River. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

Ingels emphasized that although the BIG design is meant to allow each residential and office space to be customized, the communal spaces will feature a consistent aesthetic that he called “carefully crafted but industrial.” His firm would design the handrails and every outdoor light fixture. Elevators would rise through voids in the superstructure.

“We’re not going to turn it into the Centre Pompidou,” Ingels said, referring to the 1977 Paris art museum, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, that features an exterior covered with escalators and a colorful array of pipes and air ducts. “But we want to create this framework where the bones of the building are what unite it.”

The risk — as with all of the projects emerging from BIG’s huge and increasingly busy office — is that the project, in final form, won’t quite make the leap from clever and opportunistic to something more architecturally powerful or profound.

Ingels may soon begin turning out work that crosses that divide; at 42 he is young by architectural standards, a wunderkind in the field. (The far more experienced Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, for what it’s worth, have shown themselves capable of consistently bridging that gap in a string of impressive recent projects.) As much as this project, if built, will be a barometer of changes in the Arts District, it will be a measuring stick for BIG.

What could really set the Mesquit project apart from recent large-scale L.A. developments is its urbanism: its close relationship to the river and a pair of bridges crossing it. This will be particularly true if the communal spaces feel fully public and the developers can manage to get approval (and find money to pay) for the decking over the train tracks.

The north end of that elevated platform would lead toward a park and arts plaza planned at the foot of the Sixth Street Viaduct, an innovative bridge design by Michael Maltzan Architecture, HNTB, A.C. Martin and the landscape firm Hargreaves Associates that is expected to be completed in 2019.

Metro has also considered adding an Arts District rail stop near the base of the new bridge, though that plan remains tentative.

Ingels presented the Mesquit design to The Times in a meeting, held at Rancho Cold Storage, that included Frank Gallo, Rancho’s vice president, and Zach Vella of V.E. Equities. Michael LoGrande, Bertoni’s predecessor as planning director and now employed by V.E. Equities, was also in attendance, as were some younger architects from BIG.

After the meeting broke up, some of the group headed out toward Mesquit Street. Two black town cars were waiting near several gleaming Teslas even as a steady stream of giant container trucks rumbled down the narrow street. It made for the perfect automotive tableau of a Los Angeles neighborhood in dramatic flux.

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Chris Alexakisart, L.A. River