Almost 30 years ago, an ambitious young developer named Rob Maguire created an audacious proposal for the greatest development project never built in downtown Los Angeles. Responding to a request from the Community Redevelopment Agency for a development plan atop Bunker Hill, Maguire put together a magnificent team – including most of the leading architects and planners of the day – and proposed combining a reconstruction of Bunker Hill's historic urban fabric with a few tall office towers.
Everybody agreed "A Grand Avenue" was a spectacular plan for urban redevelopment – but nobody believed Maguire had the financial wherewithal to pull it off. The CRA instead gave the project to Metropolitan Structures, then a leading developer of high-rise offices. Met Structures proceeded to build the more prosaic California Plaza – and, of course went bankrupt in the process. But no matter. Maguire had made his presence known – and it wasn't long before he set the tone for big-time development in L.A. during the 1980s.
In a decade when nobody could envision The Grove or the condo-rich mixed-use projects that have characterized L.A. in recent years, office buildings were king. And Maguire – who was ousted from his real estate empire by his own board this month – gradually mastered the art of the complex urban development deal by building strong relationships with corporations in need of big office space.
Maguire began as a builder of routine offices for typical corporate clients. But he always understood how to leverage his clout. When I was a student at the UCLA architecture and planning school, I was selected as a "Northrop Corporation Fellow." Why the Northrop Corporation had any interest in urban planning was beyond me until many years later, when I realized Maguire was a big donor to the school and had strong armed Northrop – his first office building client – for a donation.
After "A Grand Avenue," however, Maguire and his then-partners Jim Thomas and Ned Fox set out to build the best urban development projects in L.A. using corporate offices as their base. And they did. Later in the decade, Maguire Thomas Partners pulled off the ultimate '80s development deal – the Library Tower project.
At 70-odd stories, Library Tower (now US Bank Tower) was the tallest office building on the West Coast when it was built. But the tower itself was the least of it.
Under ordinary zoning rules, such a tall building would not have been permitted. But the city was thinking about tearing down the landmark Central Library across the street. In exchange for permission to build Library Tower (and the nearby Gas Company tower as well), Maguire coughed up $140 million (in 1980s dollars!) for the library.
The CRA used the money not only to renovate the Central Library but also to create a distinguished addition that has made the library one of Los Angeles's great landmarks. He also hired the great landscape architect Lawrence Halprin to create Bunker Hill Steps, the landscaped stairway between the flats of Fifth Street on the south and Bunker Hill on the north.
Eventually the office boom of the '80s came to an end, and for the past 15 years the glitz in the real estate business has gradually shifted away from corporate offices, which simply are not needed today the way they once were. Maguire was gradually pushed away from the real estate limelight to be replaced by such latter-day retail and mixed-use superstars as Rick Caruso, who built The Grove on the Westside and the Americana on Brand in Glendale. Maguire wasn't able to pull off his version of Playa Vista, for example, and eventually had to give that project up too. So perhaps it was inevitable that Maguire would be shoved aside by his own board.
Even though he's now in his 70s, Maguire will undoubtedly be back in some form. After all, wily developers have at least nine lives – and they usually go bankrupt between each one. But he deserves a lot of credit for pioneering the office-based urban development in Los Angeles way back when. The next time you're descending the stairs between McCormick & Schmick's and Starbucks – gazing at the expanded Central Library – think of Rob Maguire. The office building will go condo sooner or later, but the Bunker Hill Steps and the Central Library will forever be monuments to his dealmaking genius.
This piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times.