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Memories, Politics Make Parker Center Preservation Uncertain

The city’s Bureau of Engineering (part of the Department of Public Works) has recommended again that the former Los Angeles Police Department headquarters – historic, troubled Parker Center – be demolished and a 27-story tower for city offices put up in its place.

When Parker Center was dedicated in 1955, the building was seen as aspirational: a sleek, modernist block by Welton Becket & Associates designed for a new era of law enforcement dedicated to forensic science, space-age technology, and militant discipline. Parker Center served the “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” eras of the LAPD, but it has been mostly empty since a new headquarters (a joint venture of the architectural firm AECOM with Roth Sheppard Associates) opened in 2009.

In response to the Bureau of Engineering’s latest recommendation that the building be scrapped, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission has nominated Parker Center for status as a Historic-Cultural Monument. This is the commission’s second attempt. The first, in 2013 when the building also faced possible demolition, was submitted to the city council on the commission members’ own referral, something rarely done.

But the city council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, responsible for the next step in confirming that first nomination, let a procedural deadline pass in 2015 without action. Whether by forgetfulness or design, Parker Center failed to earn monument status then, but the controversies haven’t stopped.

Councilman José Huizar, then the council committee chairman, hurriedly suggested a compromise between demolition and preservation: Restore Parker Center and build a new office tower to loom over it. Huizar suggested that the new tower be taller than the one analyzed in the project’s environmental impact report, slowing the decision-making process yet again.

Parker Center from Los Angeles Street.
Parker Center from Los Angeles Street. 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 of Angeleños gathered to demand justice. Photo courtesy of Historic American Landscapes Survey Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Parker Center.
Parker Center. Designed by Welton Becket (in association with J. E. Stanton and landscape architect Ralph D. Cornell), the seven-story, Modernist structure includes a horizontal slab with bands of windows on the long east and west sides, and glazed terra cotta panels on the short north and south sides. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Parker Center entry.
Parker Center entry. Horizontal, two-story wings extend out into the surrounding parking lots define the entrance plaza and provide a visual base for the building. Photo courtesy of Historic American Landscapes Survey Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Parker Center “was considered one of the most modern and advanced centralized police headquarters facilities in the nation” when it was dedicated in 1955. Today, vermin, damp, asbestos contamination, outdated 1950s infrastructure, and earthquake fragility make Parker Center a problematic candidate for reuse. According to the city’s Municipal Facilities Committee (chaired by City Administrative Officer Miguel A. Santana) the $107-million estimate to preserve and retrofit Parker Center makes the cost of reuse too high.

The Cultural Heritage Commission’s latest move to preserve Parker Center still has to go through all the steps that were missed in 2015, with Councilman Huizar still as chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. And even if the renewed process is successful, historic status isn’t a shield against eventual demolition.

In the meantime, options for the Parker Center site will be reviewed by city council’s Public Works Committee and its Budget and Finance Committee. Committee members will make their own recommendations by early 2017. As in 2013, the options remain demolition and replacement, as recommended by the Bureau of Engineering, or reuse with a new addition or reuse in the building’s current form.

We already have a precedent for the reuse of a formerly abandoned civic icon. The county Hall of Justice reopened in 2014, after 20 years and $230 million in restoration and seismic retrofitting, to house the offices of the district attorney and the Sheriff Department's command. Unfortunately, Parker Center is less notable as architecture.

But it’s worth remembering. The Welton Beckett firm materialized the exuberance and optimism of mid-20th century Los Angeles in buildings as different as the Capitol Records tower, Bullock’s Pasadena, the Cinerama Dome, Pauley Pavilion, and the Music Center.

Preservationists, including the Los Angeles Conservancy, want to save Parker Center for what it has meant culturally as much as for its design. Appearances in TV series and on the nightly news made the building a celebrity and a target. In the 1970s, protests against the LAPD’s discriminatory hiring practices filled the street in front of Parker Center. In the 1980s, African-American and Latino community members demonstrated against harsh police tactics, calling them discriminatory. When the city erupted after the Rodney King verdicts in 1992, Parker Center was the place where thousands of angry Angeleños gathered to demand justice.

Protest at Parker Center.
Protest at Parker Center. In 1989, Latino community members knelt in front of Parker Center in appeal against police round ups of day laborers waiting for work on street corners. Photo courtesy of Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Protesting Chief Gates.
Protesting Chief Gates. Pacoima residents in 1985 picketed at Parker Center to protest the use of the LAPD's battering ram tank. Daryl Gates was the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department from 1978 to 1992. Photo courtesy of Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library

Gail Kennard – a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission, an architect, and African-American – made the point during the first attempt to award Parker Center historic status that the building symbolizes more than the tragedies of the black community under an oppressive police force. Parker Center also represents partial victories. Racist officers worked in Parker Center and were promoted, Kennard noted, but Officer Tom Bradley also rose, despite being African-American, to leadership in Los Angeles. Bradley went on to become the city’s most beloved mayor in modern times.

Those at City Hall who want less reflection on history and more office space argue that the civic center’s future is necessarily denser, taller, and robustly urban. Parker Center’s low-rise aesthetic doesn’t fit what they see as downtown’s future. But a bland, generic office tower as a replacement to Parker Center is an unconvincing solution to the problem that Parker Center represents. Parker Center is a conflicted symbol and therefore hard to fit into any plan based solely on cost and efficiency.

A year ago, in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, I reflected on this hard choice. “One of the least understood powers of government – yet one of its most potent – is its choice to preserve shared memories or let them fade. Parker Center's empty corridors and shabby offices are filled with memories, many of them painful and some of them belonging to a city that Los Angeles no longer is. Because remembering is learning, preservation of those memories is important to the city's future. The question is how will the city save them?”

Since 2009, Parker Center has languished on Los Angeles Street, and something must be done with it, either to make its presence more felt or to erase its image from memory. I know my preference. Sadly, I think I know the city council’s too.

Police Chief William H. Parker.
Police Chief William H. Parker. Parker, in 1952, is standing behind a stack of binders holding reports of police abuse. The LAPD headquarters building was renamed in 1966 after Parker’s the sudden death, a posthumous honor for reforming a corrupt and politicized police force. But Parker also militarized the police under his command. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

Top image: artist's rendering of the Parker Center, 1952. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

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