College breaks ground on Los Angeles campus

by Alexander C. Kaufman / Beacon Staff • March 8, 2012

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Emerson College President M. Lee Pelton stands in front of the LA campus construction site
Emerson College President M. Lee Pelton stands in front of the LA campus construction site

LOS ANGELES — Nearly a decade after Emerson administrators began planning a permanent satellite location here in the heart of Hollywood, more than 100 gathered Thursday beside the three-story deep ditch out of which the college’s West Coast campus will rise.

College and city officials — including President M. Lee Pelton, his predecessor Jacqueline Liebergott, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, and alumnus and actor Henry Winkler — assembled onstage for the official groundbreaking in a long white tent beside the construction site at Sunset and Gorden Street. 

“We’re enormously excited,” Pelton said in an interview, removing his trademark brown Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. “This is the second chapter of our presence in Los Angeles.” 

Since the mid 1980s, the college has based its Los Angeles program in rented space in an office building on West Alameda Avenue in Burbank. Most students are housed in an apartment complex a few miles away.

Construction began weeks ago on what is now a long ramp of sandy brown soil that leads down to stationary backhoes, payloaders, and construction equipment. But on Thursday, a grinning Pelton, along with Liebergott and ten of the project's champions, drove gleaming silvery spades into the soil and smiled for photographers.

The college bought the parcel of land from Tribune Studios in 2008 for $12 million. 

The long-awaited groundbreaking of the roughly $85 million project was delayed for months by a dispute with a recording studio across the street, which sued the school in September 2010 after negotiations between the company and the college broke down. 

The studio, EastWest Studios, wanted the college to compensate for recording time lost to disruptive noise from the extensive construction project. They filed suit against the college to reserve the right to sue if negotiations remained fruitless, said Doug Rogers, the company’s founder.

“We sued to make sure the studio operations were not harmed during the construction,” Rogers said in an email. “We eventually worked out a plan with Emerson that is working well so far.”

Pelton declined to comment on details of the settlement.

In his opening speech to the crowd seated in white folding chairs, Pelton outlined his vision for the college’s renewed position in Los Angeles.  

First, he said that he hopes to open even greater opportunities for an estimated 220 students studying in the blueprinted 37,000-square-foot structure. Second, he plans a campaign of civic engagement to revitalize this somewhat desolate strip of Sunset Boulevard, home to a few restaurants, shops and a liquor store. 

Already, the college has granted scholarships to students from the nearby Helen Bernstein High School, he said.

This is not the first time the college has acted as a gentrifying force in a neighborhood. In the mid 1990s, Liebergott moved the campus from Beacon Street in the Back Bay to the then-downtrodden Theatre District. 

Now, apartments near Emerson are some of the city’s most expensive, and the surrounding area is home to posh eateries and cafes.

Villaraigosa, the city’s second-term mayor, took the podium to excited fanfare after Winkler, who hosted the event, introduced him, saying he was embarrassed to repeatedly mispronounce the Democrat’s name. The pronunciation of the city’s third ever Mexican-American mayor became a running joke throughout the event.

“If we were opening this facility where you used to be, the mayor of Burbank would be there,” he said with exuberance, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses following a glaucoma exam that morning. “But instead you’re in Hollywood, so the mayor of L.A. is here.”

Seated a few rows back from the stage, Ira Goldstone, a local executive at Univision who graduated from the college in 1971, said he remembered when the vacant plot of land—now excavated to lay the new campus’s foundation—was once the parking lot for the KTLA TV news broadcaster where he had worked. 

“It’s incredible, a dream come true,” he said in an interview. “I hope this is a place where everyone will come together to create all kinds of media.”

Standing nearby, screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan, who graduated in 1965 and has since written Mask, In Love and War, and Gorillas in the Mist (for which she received an Academy Award nomination) said she was excited to see Emerson’s footprint in Hollywood expand.

“I’m very happy to be here today to see this dream of our visionaries come true,” she said in an interview after the groundbreaking.

For John Wentworth, a 1981 graduate and an executive at CBS Studios, said he is now serving on the Los Angeles Advisory Group, a selection of L.A.-based alumni guiding the growing program. 

“It’s unbelievable, in one silly, overused word,” he said of the new construction. 

The project, which has garnered attention from national and local media—reporters filled the back row of the audience—is slated to be completed in 2014. 

The sleek, futuristic building depicted in design renderings by acclaimed architect Thom Mayne will have a three-story parking garage beneath it and a park with trees and gardens on the fifth floor. Rivaled only by the tall Technicolor building one block away, the structure will rise above the skyline with its glimmering silver facade and large first floor windows.

“What you are going to see here in a fairly short time,” Mayne said in a speech to the crowd, “is something that expresses the excitement and creativity [that] represents Los Angeles and this institution.” 

 

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article identified Ira Goldstone as Ira Goldstein.