Art Center buys postal facility, plans to expand and renovate
A major redesign is in the works for Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, which is gearing up for what its president says will be the largest fundraising campaign in its history to pay for an expansion of its south campus and renovations to its distinctive, elongated main campus set into a hillside about five miles to the north.
Art Center, often ranked among the nation’s top design schools, announced Tuesday that it has spent $7 million to buy a former U.S. Postal Service mail distribution center next to its existing satellite campus in south Pasadena, and has hired the Los Angeles firm Michael Maltzan Architecture to do master planning and design work.
Art Center President Lorne Buchman said Maltzan will create a comprehensive plan for how to redeploy all Art Center buildings on both campuses, including readapting the 35,000-square-foot postal building and its two-level outdoor parking garage.
Buchman said the 2.5-acre post office property came on the market early in 2011, dovetailing perfectly with needs Art Center officials had just identified during a yearlong strategic planning process. The purchase, which doubles the south campus’ acreage, became final Feb. 24, he said, with three Art Center alumni and spouses making gifts of at least $1 million to provide the bulk of the $5 million raised for the purchase so far.
“It really was a gift from the gods of opportunity,” Buchman said of the economically strapped U.S. Postal Service’s decision to unload the unused buildings and acreage. The new property will help Art Center carry out plans to add new academic degree programs and expand the student body from the current 1,800 students to about 2,000.
New offerings will include an undergraduate major in interaction design -– geared toward making computer software and applications attractive and user-friendly -- and master’s degree programs in transportation design (long a high-profile undergraduate program at Art Center, whose alumni roster includes some notable automobile designers) and environmental design.
Buchman said that Art Center issued $20 million in long-term bonds last month that will cover the remaining $2 million for the new purchase and provide initial funding for projected renovations to both campuses. But he envisions a much larger campaign that will aim not only to cover the principal and interest on the bonds, but to substantially boost the college’s endowment, currently about $50 million. With tuition at Art Center currently $34,000 for a two-term academic year, raising money for more generous scholarships will be a priority.
Buchman said the first phase of Maltzan’s work, due this summer, is an academic master plan that will map out which programs and studios should go in which buildings. Then it will design the renovations needed to implement the academic plan. When it becomes clear what the new facilities will be, Buchman said, Art Center will be in a better position to decide the scope of the fundraising campaign, and to confer naming honors on the main donors for the postal purchase -- environmental designer Richard Law; kinetic sculptor Steven Rieman and his wife, Ruth; and Bruce Heavin and Lynda Weinman, a married couple who own the online learning company, lynda.com. Heavin is an alumnus and Weinman a former Art Center faculty member.
Currently, the south campus on S. Raymond Avenue includes studios for about 200 graduate students, and a former jet engine testing facility known as the Wind Tunnel that’s used mainly for non-degree night and weekend courses. The undergraduate programs, with about 1,600 students, are at the main “hillside” campus at 1700 Lida St., which was designed by architect Craig Ellwood and opened in 1976.
Buchman said the planning and renovations to come will undo the current division of the two campuses into nearly independent enclaves. He said the goal is to match what’s being taught to the best space for teaching it, regardless which campus it’s on, with shuttles providing back-and-forth access.
The new initiative replaces a controversial expansion program that got scrapped in 2008 as students and alumni began to question the priorities set by then-president Richard Koshalek. Art Center's trustees had hired him in 1999 to carry out a $150-million campaign to create the south campus, fund regular operations and build a new, $50-million high-tech design center and library on the main campus that was to have been designed by Frank Gehry.
The college announced in 2004 that the campaign had raised $75 million, including the funds to establish the south campus. But protests both online and on campus began in 2008, fueled by students’ unhappiness over rising costs and what they saw as neglect of core education programs at the expense of the expansion program and global partnerships Koshalek had initiated to raise Art Center’s profile and influence in the design world.
The trustees responded by canceling the Gehry project and a planned graduate student housing development at the south campus. Koshalek, a former director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, resigned and soon took his current job as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Buchman succeeded him in October, 2009 and soon began the strategic planning process that undergirds the new expansion and renovation plan. He said that Designmatters, the global initiative begun by Koshalek, remains an important feature for Art Center, with a focus on students using their design skills to tackle socially relevant projects both locally and abroad.
“It was a wonderful thing to find when I got to Art Center,” Buchman said. “They’re not super expensive programs, and I’ve spent a lot of energy ensuring it continues and gets stronger.”
Art Center’s current annual budget is about $70 million, he said, with about $10 million funded by donors.
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Art Center's main "hillside" campus; former post office mail distribution center bought by Art Center. Credits: Los Angeles Times photo (top); Art Center College of Design.