If I asked you to point to LA’s new tallest building, you would understandably have some trouble. From nearly every angle, the Wilshire Grand does not appear to be the tallest structure on the skyline, nor does it look particularly new.
Up on the 73rd floor, the highest that people who are not window washers or construction workers are allowed to go, it’s even more painfully apparent that this is not, even remotely, the tallest building in the city. As you gaze out onto downtown, you’re eye-to-eye with the top floors of several neighboring towers, and you’re actually looking up at the US Bank Tower, its newly slideable exterior only a few blocks away. (Wilshire Grand employees are quick to point out to anyone gazing that direction that the US Bank Tower is on a hill.)
But the Wilshire Grand was never intended to be the tallest in the city, or at least that’s what the architects claim; it “accidentally” eked over 1,100 feet with the addition of a purely decorative sail and spire, which, depending on what you truly believe when you look deep into your heart, does not make it the tallest building in either the city of LA or west of the Mississippi. (The Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat disagrees with you.)
The Wilshire Grand is also not that interesting of a building. Approaching it from street level, the Wilshire Grand’s “mohawk,” a glass fin that sets the building apart from its fellow flat-topped towers, isn’t visible at all. And with a generic blue-hued glass that seems to be slapped on every skyscraper nowadays, it doesn’t stand out. In fact, I kept losing track of which building I was aiming for as I made my way toward it.
So it’s not the tallest, it’s not the most interesting—in the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne agrees that the Wilshire Grand is unremarkable, design-wise—what is the Wilshire Grand exactly?
Chris Martin, whose firm AC Martin served as the architects for developers Korean Air, made a curious claim to Hawthorne that this is the tower for the people: “We built a tower for the public.”
When I visited Thursday, the public was being shooed from the handful of green metal chairs placed on the southeast-facing ground-floor plaza (some repairs or finishing work were being made to the plaza’s water features), so my plan to experience the Wilshire Grand from this perspective had to be relocated inside. Luckily, there’s nice seating just inside the front doors, beneath a swoopy decorative entryway (dare I say it looks like a slide?), and a coffee shop that was preparing to open within a few days.
The Wilshire Grand’s pedestrian experience ended right there.
After a handful of steps into the lobby, you’re dumped into a parking garage, with cars zipping up to a valet stand. It was disorienting, and I immediately looked for a way around what was basically a three-lane arterial carving through the center of the building. My only option was to walk down a sad sidewalk to exit the building on the north or south sides, which, save a Korean restaurant that’s opening soon, are essentially blank walls. I looped around and tried to enter the tower again.
The second time I got it—it’s not about the ground floor here at the Wilshire Grand. The “lobby” of the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown hotel is actually located on the 70th floor, so everyone—tourists, guests who are checking in, disoriented pedestrians—is supposed to be quickly and efficiently whisked skyward in a fleet of elevators.
Your destination is the Sky Lobby, where at least three people will welcome you and offer their assistance. Luckily, everyone is incredibly nice, from the security guards, to the valets, to the elevator valets, to the hotel employees, so you never really feel like you’re barging into a fancy hotel.
There are stunning views here, to be sure—and a bar that also serves food—and I felt comfortable hanging out among what I guessed were mostly out-of-town tourists (I’m judging from the number of shopping bags they carried as they exited the elevators).
But it’s important to note that this is not a public space.
To go higher than the 70th floor at the Wilshire Grand, you have to spend money. (Granted, the ticketed, pricey observation deck at the US Bank Tower is not necessarily a public space either.)
Floors 71 and 72 are home to a variety of very nice restaurants, which I recommend booking in advance. And at the very top of the occupiable floors, accessible by a double-decker, glass-walled elevator, is Spire 73, a bar on the 73rd floor that’s the highest open-air lounge in the Western Hemisphere.
Spire 73 is absolutely gorgeous—and the views are only part of its charm (see our tour here). Its whimsical twists on classic outdoor furniture make it feel more California casual than the Euro-wannabe pretentiousness of, say, the Standard. There are brightly colored powder-coated chairs, astroturf-upholstered daybeds complete with pillows, and blue metal palapa-like umbrellas, all wrapping along a bar on one side and around a massive firepit on the other. Walking between the two lounge spaces, you get a peek at the sail and the spire from the inside, which is, admittedly, much cooler up close. (AC Martin also designed the hotel interiors.)
But Spire 73 doesn’t open until 4 p.m. daily. And although the bar used to take reservations, it’s first-come, first-served at the moment, with lines that have run 100 people deep on recent weekends. Sure, you could go to the Sky Lobby instead, but it’s not the same as the open-air experience. And without any kind of observation deck-like context—like history or maps—it’s the same hotel rooftop experience you could have anywhere in the city, just a (little) higher. There’s no sense of the civic connection beyond some public art; it’s not like kids are coming here for field trips.
Maybe I wasn't getting it again, I thought. Maybe at 73 stories up, it’s impossible to have any kind of public space. The footprint of the bar is fairly tiny, so you’d have to have tickets, or reservations, or long lines, or a “business casual” dress code, or the deterringly high cost of cocktails to limit the number of people coming up here (to be fair, the food and booze prices are relatively reasonable). This space is only slightly more accessible to the public than the corporate boardrooms atop the US Bank Tower.
This is not to say the Wilshire Grand is bad for LA. Tall buildings are good, and LA needs more of them, so businesses and tourists and citizens can live and work and play closer to transit and services and other people. But the city awarded the Wilshire Grand almost $61 million in tax credits which were at one point supposed to include streetscape improvements, yet it seems the city only required the developer to add 400,000 square feet of retail space in an area where there is no shortage of new malls.
The supertalls that are being added to our skyline should provide more than a branded light show for us folks stuck on the ground, the people who will never pay $14 for a drink-slash-admission ticket. Were we so eager to have the “tallest” building west of the Mississippi that we ignored how poorly this building connects to the city around it?
From all the way up on the 73rd floor, I had the best view of what could have been. Tracing the tower’s namesake street from the Pacific, I followed Wilshire Boulevard as it curved through MacArthur Park and over the 110 Freeway, where fast-moving cars were almost skimming the tower’s western flank. Poised at the very edge of Downtown, the building is perfectly situated to create a connection between the Financial District and the growing City West neighborhood on the other side of the freeway. It failed.
The Wilshire Grand had an opportunity to make the most sweeping urban gesture of all, not by topping itself off with a pointy phallus but by adding a bustle to its backside. The same type of deal that enticed Related Companies to build Grand Park might have ordered Korean Air to give back to the neighborhood by capping the 110 Freeway between the Wilshire and 7th Street bridges.
To truly be a “tower for the public,” the greatest service that the developers could have provided for the city was not to spend millions accidentally-but-not-really poking out over the skyline. Turning that forgotten space into a park could have been the start of a bold makeover for one of the most famous boulevards in the city. Imagine a revitalized streetscape that stretched all the way to Koreatown, creating a symbolic connection between the building and the local Korean community. That’s an addition that would truly have made Wilshire grand.