Shen Yun needs to think outside its own box

7 Dec

Last month, with plans for philanthropist Eli Broad’s $100 million Grand Avenue art museum rolling forward, a group stood up to protest. Shen Yun, which stages lavish performances featuring traditional Chinese music and dance, asserted that it should have the right to bid for the parcel where Broad’s project would rise.

The newcomer has been noisy, bringing its case to the Community Redevelopment Agency, to a news conference at the site at Second Street and lower Grand Avenue, and last week, to a meeting of the City Council’s Housing, Community and Economic Development Committee. Shen Yun asserts that after some early meetings it has been shut out of the process, and that it should have a shot at the plot because the original Grand Avenue plan has changed.

Shen Yun’s desire to create a major cultural attraction in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles is welcomed — large, well-designed developments that lure Angelenos and tourists will help power the community forward. But Shen Yun and its supporters are off base when they claim that they deserve to be in the game for the Grand Avenue site. Their efforts show an inflexibility, and taken to the extreme could do more harm to the community than good. If they’re serious about creating a prominent Downtown destination, they should look elsewhere. Downtown ought to be able to have both, not either/or, and it would make no sense to put the Broad Museum elsewhere Downtown. There is too much synergism in the planned location just south of Walt Disney Concert Hall and across from MOCA.

Officials involved with the Grand Avenue plan point to the fact that the project was awarded to developer Related Cos. Although the overall $3 billion effort remains in a recessionary stall, they say that Related has the development rights, and therefore any deal has to begin with something that makes sense to the company. That is what has occurred here: A plot for a future retail element of the project is instead being dedicated to the museum Broad hopes to start building this year and open in 2012. Related recognizes that having a world-class tourist attraction in the project could ultimately help get the rest of the development built.

Broad’s plan is a good one. Not only will he fund the project himself, he’ll give $7.7 million toward affordable housing. It’s as close as you get in real estate to a sure thing.

In addition to Shen Yun’s ill-conceived approach, its timing is all wrong, showing that it is working in its own interest, rather than Downtown’s. Broad’s museum could move forward on a speedy timeline, but it could also disappear from Downtown if delayed. One can foresee a hypothetical situation where, if Shen Yun’s desire comes to pass, the project site would open to bids for several months, maybe longer. Many more months would pass as a developer was selected. Considering the political complications of the project — green lights are required from an unwieldy four bodies after Related gives the go-ahead (the CRA, the County Board of Supervisors, the City Council and the Grand Avenue Authority) — months could easily stretch into years. In that case it would make sense for Broad to opt for plan B, which is to build in Santa Monica. Downtown would lose out.

There are other issues too. Initial designs of Shen Yun’s project detail a building that would clash miserably with the architecture of the surrounding community, in particular the neighboring Disney Hall. They also have provided no details on how they would fund the development.

If Shen Yun is serious about being part of Downtown, then it needs to be a team player. There are plenty of other sites to consider — after all, Downtown has more than its fair share of underutilized plots. But Shen Yun is off base at Grand Avenue. This is a case where a squeaky wheel shouldn’t get the grease.

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