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Parker Center, Long Beach City Hall: Preservation or Demolition?

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City council members in Los Angeles and Long Beach have hard choices to make about two iconic buildings, architecturally representative of their times, that neither city council likes very much. Preservation or demolition of the former Los Angeles police headquarters and the current Long Beach city hall will say a lot about the forces that are urbanizing both cities.

When Parker Center, the former LAPD headquarters, was dedicated in 1955, it was seen as aspirational: a modernist office block by Welton Becket & Associates designed for a new kind of police force in a new era of science, technology, and militant efficiency.

Appearances on Dragnet and other black-and-white TV shows made the building both a celebrity and a target. In the 1970s, protests against the LAPD's discriminatory hiring practices filled the street in front of Parker Center. When the city erupted after the Rodney King verdicts in 1992, Parker Center was the first place where thousands gathered to demand justice.

Parker Center's bland modernity in 1955 had turned into blind indifference by 1992.

Modernist boxes don't always age well. Vermin, damp, asbestos, outdated technology, and earthquake fragility make Parker Center an unlikely candidate for reuse. The city would prefer to raze the building and put up a 27-story tower to consolidate the scattered offices of several city departments within walking distance of City Hall.

Parker Center has been mostly empty since 2009 when a new headquarters building opened.

Preservationists, including the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Little Tokyo Historical Society, want to save Parker Center for what it has meant as much as for its mid-century architecture. The city's Cultural Heritage Commission agrees and sent the city council a recommendation that Parker Center be given historical status. The city council has until the end of April to act on the commission's recommendation.

Modern Family at Parker Center
Modern Family at Parker Center, | Photo by Laurie Avocado

But even if approved, the designation won't automatically save Parker Center. It would add as much as another year of procedural delay during which a compromise that preserves the building might be found. If not, the building will come down.

Parker Center's architectural heritage is worth remembering. Welton Beckett's design firm materialized mid-20th century Los Angeles in buildings as different as the Capitol Records tower, the Cinerama Dome, and the Music Center. The design for Parker Center is far less notable.

Memories of the conflicted history of the LAPD make Parker Center significant beyond its architecture.

Gail Kennard -- a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission, an architect, and African American -- has argued that Parker Center symbolizes not only the tragedies of the city's black community under an oppressive police force, but also the community's victories over the LAPD's racist past. Abusive cops worked in Parker Center and were promoted, Kennard notes, but Tom Bradley also rose, despite being African American, to leadership in the LAPD. Bradley went on to become the city's most beloved mayor in modern times.

For the Japanese American community, the image of Parker Center is displacement. In 1953, the construction of building and its parking lots demolished one-fourth of Little Tokyo's commercial area along with the homes of nearly 1,000 residents.

Those who want less reflection on LAPD history and more construction argue that the civic center's future is necessarily denser, taller, and even more robustly urban. Parker Center's low-rise aesthetic doesn't fit in to what downtown is becoming.

Parker Center today is a derelict on Los Angeles Street, and something must be done with it (as a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times argued). To reuse the existing building for city offices while adding thousands of square feet of new offices around it -- as has been proposed -- would likely devalue the aesthetic qualities that preservationists are trying to save.

But putting up a generic tower as a replacement would diminish the civic center's renaissance, symbolized by Grand Park, and perpetuate the city council's hit-and-miss approach to civic center's development.

City council members in Long Beach have faced similar choices and are about a year away from preservation or demolition of buildings, like Parker Center, that have architectural significance and a troubled past.

The current civic center plan, already approved in concept, would replace the 15-story city hall tower, the Long Beach main library, and most of the surrounding Lincoln Park with a mixed-use development of residential units, retail shops, restaurants, and a hotel, along with a new city hall and Port of Long Beach administrative offices. (The future location of the library is undecided.)

The $358 million cost would be financed under a construction and leaseback arrangement that has become a common way for cities to finance new facilities. The deal would be sweetened by the sale of six acres of Lincoln Park to the developers for about $30 million. The developers would get the revenue producing uses of the site; the city would get ownership of its offices after 40 years of lease payments.

And Long Beach would be unburdened, many critics say, of an ugly city hall and a subterranean library facility whose landscaped roof leaked in every rainstorm for more than 20 years.

Long Beach City Hall, 1970s
Long Beach City Hall, 1970s, by klxadm

Aesthetics may have as much to do with the demolition of Long Beach City Hall as structural concerns (which include earthquake resistance). City hall and the surrounding civic center were designed by a consortium of well-known modernists: Frank Homolka, Edward Killingsworth, Kenneth Wing Sr. and Jr., and Hugh and Don Gibbs. Their design for Long Beach -- a blunt, stripped down functionality in concrete and aluminum -- was as up-to-date in the 1970s as Beckett's simple boxes were in the 1950s.

The result in Long Beach was a striking example of European-influenced late modernism or a depressing example of architectural "Brutalism," depending on your taste for concrete. The civic center's tiled plazas and raised platforms, which were to have been balanced by gardens and walks above the adjacent library, instead became an encampment for downtown's homeless residents.

Its history and its associations make Long Beach City Hall vulnerable.

As does the momentum of development. Long Beach, like Los Angeles, is going through an urbanizing boom downtown that demands greater density of development and more intense fiscalization of land use.

The 16-acre block that includes Lincoln Park and the civic center is one of the last in downtown Long Beach that could be in-filled with apartments, live/work units, and ground-floor retail. In Los Angeles, plans for the Grand Avenue concourse at the northeastern end of the civic center include hotels, shops, restaurants, and more office towers.

Long Beach City Hall, 1970s
Long Beach City Hall, 1970s | Photo courtesy Long Beach Press-Telegram

As the weave of the urban fabric grows tighter in both cities, many more decisions will be made to save or discard significant -- but not particularly loved -- architecture like Parker Center and Long Beach City Hall. They will be political choices about density and urbanity, influenced by developers, preservationists, and popular sentiment about what downtown Long Beach and Los Angeles are supposed to become.

One of the least understood powers of government -- and yet one of its most potent -- is the power to preserve the past as either admonition or ideal. Parker Center's empty corridors and offices are filled with memories, many of them painful and some them belonging to a city that Los Angeles no longer is. The image of Long Beach that its city hall tried to project in the 1970s seems stranded today, as if city hall's muscular architecture still asks too much of the imagination.

Because remembering is learning, the preservation of sites of memory like Parker Center and Long Beach City Hall is important to each city's future. The question for their city councils is how to save them ... and which ones.

(A portion of this essay, in a substantially different form, originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2015.)

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