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There Is More To The Story Than The Tower

Editor’s note:  This is the second in Kollaer’s four-part series about the Wilshire Grand Center.

Most of us drive by skyscrapers in major cities without ever thinking about how they stand up. In Los Angeles and most other major cities, they have to stand up to the politics, the winds, the storms, the earthquakes, and an occasional change of developer, owner and/or General Contractor, especially in landmark $1 billion projects.

On the new Wilshire Grand Center in LA, almost all of those factors came into play over the years before construction even began. What started with a handshake in true Texas style between two USC graduates is now becoming the tallest tower west of the Mississippi River, but that journey has been quite turbulent at times.

Last week, we posted a commentary on the outstanding writing of Thomas Curwen at the LA Times on the chronology of the Big pour, the record setting 18-foot deep concrete and steel mat placed five stories below street level that will support the new Wilshire Grand Center, scheduled for completion in 2016. Before the old hotel could be torn down and the city block excavated, lots of turbulence had already occurred. Curwen tells several stories in the second article that are intertwined into an interesting plot that made me wonder whether and how the building would come alive. 

The original project, designed by Chris Martin’s firm A.C. Martin, planned to tear down the existing hotel and to build two towers: a hotel and an office tower. The original developer selected by the owner Yang Ho Cho, CEO of KAL, for the project was Thomas Properties.

The designs were approved by the Los Angeles City Council, and the project was about to move forward just as the office market “went south” in the recession. Mr. Cho became frustrated when the project could not seem to move forward after several years of design and approvals and removed the original developer, Thomas Properties, from the project. Cho and Martin were ready to move forward but not sure how to create a more economical project when, enter stage right, Heather Cho, the eldest daughter of Mr. Cho. (Heather Cho was the vice-president of Korean Air and CEO of KAL Hotel Group.) She stated that the company that she led was a “hotel and hospitality” company and not an office buildings company. She proposed that the hotel and office be combined into one tower instead of two. Perhaps the combined tower might set a record for LA. That idea created the momentum, and her father gave the “go ahead” for Chris Martin’s team to go to work on a signature tower that would rise 1,100 feet into the California sky.

Martin’s team re-designed the project into a single tower with 900 hotel rooms and 400,000 square feet of office space. It would indeed be the tallest tower west of the Mississippi if it could be built. Everything looked great, except they were uncertain whether the mat would hold it up after it was completed and occupied. Was there a sufficient rock base to support the mat?

This article penned by Thomas Curwen continues by telling the story of geologist Rosalind Munro’s journey into one of the test holes drilled to determine the structure of the soils on the site to determine whether the redesigned building would stand. You can live her journey in the article. The story is certainly not one that those of us outside construction would consider as we drive past any skyscraper.

Oh, by the way, yes, this is the same Heather Cho who forced a Korean Airplane back to the gate to fire a flight attendant over the service of macadamia nuts on her flight. She is a creative, but very demanding, lady. Her trial began recently.

Photo credit: A.C. Martin

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