Building Empire

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For years now construction crews have been tearing up Downtown Burbank. Caltrans is the lead agency on a huge infrastructure project which is remaking the I-5/Golden State Freeway corridor, as well as bringing changes to a number of Burbank’s surface streets. The actual name for all this activity is the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. Here’s a brief overview from the City of Burbank’s web site.

“This project, lead [sic] by Caltrans and funded primarily by State transportation funds and Los Angeles County transportation sales tax funds, will relieve congestion along Interstate 5 while providing an important new access to the Golden State area of Burbank, including the Empire Center and Bob Hope Airport.”

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The I-5/Golden State Freeway as it passes through Burbank

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Traffic on Burbank Blvd. where it crosses over the freeway

Here’s a short list of specific changes that are part of the project.

> Full freeway interchange at Empire Avenue
> New freeway and railroad crossing allowing access to Empire Center
> Freeway widening including 2 carpool lanes and weaving lanes
> Burbank Blvd. Interchange Demolition & Reconstruction
> Railroad grade separation at Buena Vista Street
> Realignment / Closure of San Fernando Blvd near Lincoln Street.

You’ll notice one of the main goals is to improve access to the Empire Center. If you’ve never been there, it’s basically a massive mall that has all the same chain retail stores and restaurants you can find almost anywhere else in Southern California. But more on that later.

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Excavation next to the Empire Center

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Mounds of dirt rising above Victory Place

The project is way behind schedule. Various factors have pushed completion back substantially, including a dispute with a contractor and this year’s heavy rains. Demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. bridge had been scheduled to start this year, but now Caltrans says they’ll start in 2020. It isn’t unusual for a project this big and this complex to take longer than expected, but Caltrans’ original 2018 deadline was ridiculously ambitious. Work has already been going on for over five years, and will continue for at least a couple more years.

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A barrier under construction at San Fernando and Winona

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Construction site at San Fernando and Winona

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Work on Winona where it passes under the freeway

In the project overview above, you may have noticed that it said funding comes in part from an LA County transportation sales tax. This would be Measure R, which was approved by voters about a decade ago. Measure R money funds a lot of different things, but the major categories are: 35% to new rail and bus rapid transit projects; 20% to carpool lanes, highways and other highway related improvements; 20% to bus operations; and 15% for local city sponsored improvements.

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Construction on San Fernando next to the freeway

LA voters have consistently approved new taxes for transit and road upgrades, but there’s an ongoing debate about the way these measures are structured, with many transit advocates saying it’s counterproductive to levy new taxes to fund both transit and highway improvements. Their argument is that if we continue to invest in infrastructure that makes it easier to drive cars, then people will just continue to drive cars, even though billions are being invested in new rail infrastructure. On the other hand, the people who write these measures say that voters won’t approve them if there’s no money for roadwork.

There does seem to be a conflict here, which may, in part, explain the dismal performance of LA’s investments in transit. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or Metro) has spent billions on new rail infrastructure over the past two decades, and yet transit ridership is lower than it was in the 80s. Some commentators believe that LA voters like the idea of transit, but ultimately end up sticking with their cars.

You can take the bus to the Empire Center, but as you can see by the photos below, most folks drive.

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Parking lot at the Empire Center

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Another shot of the parking lot at the Empire Center

Burbank is a really car-centric town. Aside from the Empire Center, the Downtown area also has the Burbank Town Center and an adjacent outdoor mall. On weekends the parking areas/structures for all three of these malls are packed with cars. Burbank residents love to participate in the great American pastime of driving somewhere and buying stuff.

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A family heading back to the car

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Shoppers in the parking lot at Empire Center

And let’s not forget the other great American pastime of sitting in a line of cars waiting for food.

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Line of cars waiting for their turn at the window

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The line of cars looping back through the parking lot

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The line of cars extends back around the building

Let’s face it. This is what powers our economy. Which I’m sure is why two of the primary goals of this project involve making it easier for people to drive to the Empire Center. Cars don’t just make it easier for Americans to buy stuff. Cars themselves are products that Americans love to buy. For decades one of the main drivers of the US economy has been the auto industry. After WWII, car manufacturing helped make the US the world’s major economic power. The jobs generated by the industry helped to create the American middle class, and the fact that they were union jobs meant fat paychecks that pumped dollars into the consumer economy. When the big auto makers were on the ropes a decade ago, Washington stepped in to rescue them, and the rebound in car sales was one of the things that lifted the US out of the recession.

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Freeway onramp to be permanently closed

But it does seem like we have a problem. One the one hand, we have government officials telling us we need to get away from cars and rely more on transit if we want to fight climate change. On the other hand, we have government officials, sometimes the same ones, promoting efforts like the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. We’re spending tons of money on transit, and at the same time we’re spending tons of money to make it easier for people to drive to the mall.

Does this make sense to you?

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Completed section of new roadway near Empire Center

Here are some links to basic info about the project.

Burbank Empire Project Page

The Empire Project: A Virtual Tour

My5LA Home Page

And here’s a story from the Burbank Leader that covers some of the reasons for delay.

5 Freeway Project, Hampered by Winter Weather, Has New Finish Date

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Will Robots Replace People at the Port of LA?

ILWU No Robots

I have to admit I was initially ticked off that I couldn’t get into the LA City Council meeting on Friday. I’d taken the subway to Downtown that morning because I wanted to speak about an item on the Council agenda. But when I got to City Hall, I found a huge line of people crowding the entrance, and when I finally got inside it turned out they weren’t allowing any more people in. The Council chambers were full up.

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The crowd at the entrance to City Hall.

But sometimes you have to be flexible, and actually I was glad I made the trip anyway. It turned out that hundreds of people had shown up that day because they were worried that their jobs were going to be taken by robots. Earlier this month the Board of Harbor Commissioners approved a permit that would allow shipping giant Maersk to automate much of its operations at the Port of LA. But Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who represents the area, wrote a motion asking the City Council to assert jurisdiction in the matter and send it back to the Board for reconsideration.

It’s easy to see why people who work at the Port are freaked out. Maersk isn’t the first shipping company to push for automation, and it won’t be the last. Hundreds of jobs could disappear if Maersk goes forward, and as more companies follow suit it will probably lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. This, in turn, would be a devastating blow to San Pedro and Wilmington, where a lot of the local economy depends on those jobs.

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Workers gathered on the lawn outside City Hall.

The crowd that showed up at City Hall on Friday was mostly made up of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Many of them wore T-shirts and carried signs protesting the move to automation. Those who couldn’t get inside gathered on the lawn outside City Hall where audio of the meeting was broadcast over a sound system. You could hear speaker after speaker telling the Council that they had to take action, and the meeting was frequently disrupted by roars of approval from those who had made it inside.

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The ‘Yes to Boots, No to Robots’ T-shirts were a popular item.

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Lots of folks carrying signs.

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It’s true, robots don’t pay taxes.

In the end the Council voted unanimously to send the matter back to the Board of Harbor Commissioners for reconsideration, but the issue is far from resolved. Even if the Board changes its mind and decides to rescind the permit, Maersk claims it’s legally entitled to go ahead with the conversion anyway. They argue that other ports are automating and that they have to do the same if they want to stay competitive. And another complication is that for years the City of LA has been pushing shippers to move from diesel to electric technology. There are huge pollution issues in Wilmington and San Pedro because the Port of LA burns massive amounts of fossil fuels. Maersk’s conversion to automation has the potential to radically reduce emissions.

This is really just one more battle in what promises to be a long and painful war. Automation advocates claim that machines don’t just take jobs, that they can also create jobs, but no one has been able to spell out exactly how that’s going to happen. Academics say that more automation will drive increased economic activity which will bring new employment opportunities, but they don’t go into details except to say that the unemployed can move into the service sector. Really? Retailers are already replacing clerks with machines. Transit network companies like Uber are planning to shift to driverless cars. And fast food chains are quickly building automated outlets. In classic fashion, economists who make six figures are telling low-income workers not to worry about automation, because in the long run it will boost GDP and everyone will be a winner. But people who live in the real world have been dealing with wage stagnation for years, while their paychecks are being eaten away by rising housing and healthcare costs.

The workers at the Port of LA are right to be scared.

For more details, check out this story from the LA Times.

City Deals Blow to Automation Plan at the Port of LA

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Communities Speak Out against 4:00 am Bar Bill

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Miriam Castro, of Mujeres Transformando la Comunidad, speaks out against SB 58.

Today at City Hall people from communities all over LA spoke out against a bill that would extend hours of alcohol service in a number of California cities. The legislature is currently considering SB 58, authored by State Senator Scott Wiener, which would allow cities to push the closing time for bars and nightclubs to 4:00 am. A broad coalition of community and public health groups are pushing back, warning that passage of the bill would mean a significant increase in health and safety harms.

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Councilmember Paul Koretz talks about the billions of dollars lost due to alcohol-related harms.

Councilmember Paul Koretz started the event off by listing the staggering cost that California already pays for problems related to alcohol consumption, including billions spent for medical and mental health care, as well as expenses related to law enforcement. He was followed by Miriam Castro, of Mujeres Transformando la Comunidad, who emphasized the negative impacts that alcohol has on communities. Pueblo y Salud Program Director Brenda Villanueva made the point that prices for Uber and Lyft rise steeply in the early morning hours and public transit mostly shuts down, meaning that people leaving bars after 4:00 am might well decide to drive home. This also means that cities not covered by the new law could end up dealing with late night drunk drivers from neighboring cities, i.e. someone getting out of a club in Hollywood and driving through Burbank on their way home.

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The press showed up to cover the event.

Senator Wiener has framed the bill as a pilot program that could be ended if crime and DUIs rise, but the reality is that once cities extend hours of alcohol service it’s highly unlikely that closing times would be rolled back. The beverage and hospitality industries would be lobbying hard to stop cities from returning to a 2:00 am closing time. And it seems odd to call this a “pilot program” when the cities included account for well over ten percent of the State’s population. (The bill would cover Cathedral City, Coachella, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Palm Springs, Sacramento, San Francisco, and
West Hollywood.)

If you want to take a look at the bill yourself, here’s the link.

SB-58: Alcoholic Beverages, Hours of Sale

And if you want to talk to your State rep about this, you can follow this link for contact info.

Find Your Rep

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Another One Bites the Dust: Can Good Luck Bar Be Saved?

Good Luck Bar

If you’ve been following the preservation/gentrification wars in LA, you’ll want to read the piece just published on LAist about the impending eviction of the Good Luck Bar in Los Feliz.  Residents are trying to fight a developer who has plans to create a boutique hotel on the site and a petition is being circulated in the hope that the bar can be preserved.

The article on LAist makes the point that the Good Luck Bar opened up as part of an earlier cycle of change in Los Feliz, and that cities are constantly evolving.  The bar’s current owner made money by catering to a new crowd that was moving to the neighborhood back in the 90s, and he’s currently involved in a revamp of the Chelsea Hotel in New York.  Old bars close, new ones open, and nothing lasts forever.

But having said that, there are some other issues here that make it sound like the community has been played, and I don’t blame them for being angry.  According to the article, when the boutique hotel was presented to the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council in 2014, apparently the developer, Conroy, assured residents that the Good Luck Bar would remain.  The LFNC ultimately voted to support the project, based in part on those assurances.  But the article goes on to report that the Good Luck Bar has been trying to renew its lease since 2016 and that the developer has simply ignored them.  Then last year, Conroy asked the owner of the bar to turn over the liquor license.  Understandably, Good Luck refused.  To me it sounds like the developer is trying to capitalize on the existing business without offering anything in return.

The Los Feliz Neighborhood Council will be talking about this at their meeting tonight at the Elysian Masonic Lodge.  Here’s the motion….

MOTION: Approve a resolution expressing concern over the eviction of Good Luck Bar and calling on the city to invalidate any permits or approvals previously given to the proposed project on the site.

And here’s the full agenda.  Should be an interesting meeting.

Los Feliz Neighborhood Council Agenda, April 30, 2019

Here’s the article from LAist.  An excellent breakdown of a complicated situation.  And one more chapter in the messy story of how our neighborhoods are being remade.

Good Luck Bar Is Closing After 25 Years. Can Los Feliz Save It?

 

 

The Grand Avenue Project

Grand Ave Woman

No one will miss the parking structure that used to stand at the corner of First and Grand in Downtown. It was demolished recently to make way for the Grand Avenue Project, which will be rising on the site you see in the image above. I was walking down First earlier this month, on my way to the Disney Concert Hall, and as I rounded the corner onto Grand I was startled to see nothing but clear, blue sky on the opposite side of the street. It’s strange how the disappearance of something familiar can reshape the space around it.

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A view of buildings surrounding the Grand Avenue Project site.

The Grand Avenue Project has been in the works for years. The completed project will include a 20-story hotel and a 39-story residential tower with 20% affordable housing, as well as retail, restaurants, and a public plaza. The complex was designed by Frank Gehry, and will be situated in the midst of the Downtown cultural hub that includes the Colburn School, MOCA, The Broad, the Disney Concert Hall and the Music Center.

Even though nobody will be mourning the loss of the parking structure, I thought I’d post a few photos to mark its passing. I’ve been taking lots of pictures of Downtown in recent years, trying to document some of the changes that are taking place. It’s interesting to watch the landscape as it’s going through these transformations.

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A view of the demolished parking structure with the Disney Concert Hall in the background.

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A view looking down Olive.  The parking structure is on the right.

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Stairs on the north side of the parking structure.

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Interior of the parking structure.

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A view from the top level.

One loss I am mourning is the removal of a number of street trees along the west and north sides of the project site. While the ones on Grand were fairly young, the ones on First were fully grown and provided extensive canopy. I’m sure new trees will be planted once the project is completed, but that’s at least a couple years away, and new development is taking a heavy toll on the City’s urban forest. The folks at City Hall keep talking about how important trees are for sustainability, but they keep getting cut down. If there was a program in place to monitor the urban forest and ensure its growth, that would be one thing, but no such program exists and the City does a lousy job of monitoring the situation. We can have new development and a healthy urban forest, but we need to plan to make that happen.

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Trees that used to stand on First Street.

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Trees that used to line Grand Avenue.

Here’s an article from Curbed about the groundbreaking for the Grand Avenue Project.

Construction Kicks Off on Frank Gehry’s Next Big Project

I don’t know how long construction is expected to take, but I imagine we’re talking at least a couple years. I was a little concerned by a paragraph toward the end of the Curbed article that talks about financing. Apparently the funding that allowed this project to move forward was obtained last year from a couple of Chinese firms. My concerns may be groundless, but it made me think about the stalled Oceanwide project near the Staples Center. That’s also funded by Chinese money, and while nobody’s sure exactly what’s going on, it sounds like they’re having serious cash flow problems. For years there was a flood of Chinese money fuelling development Downtown, but that seems to be coming to an end. Hopefully the funding for the Grand Avenue Project is rock solid, and things will keep moving forward.

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Supervisors Approve Seriously Flawed LACMA Plan

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On Tuesday the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a massive make-over of the LACMA campus. This was a major mistake. There’s been a lot of debate about the aesthetic quality of architect Peter Zumthor’s latest design, but really that’s a secondary issue. LACMA is a public institution and its primary purpose is to serve the public. I’m not the only one who feels that the project as proposed fails to accomplish that goal.

I wrote about the drawbacks to the plan a couple days ago, so I won’t go through it all again, but one of the main concerns is that LACMA is getting ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create a new building with 10% less exhibition space. Does the LACMA Board really think that’s the best way to serve the public? Another serious problem with the new structure is that it doesn’t contain office space for most staff members, including curatorial staff. The museum will be renting space in a building across the street. Separating the staff from the exhibition space is a foolish and potentially costly move. How can anybody think this is a good idea?

To those who are angry about the loss of exhibition space, LACMA Director Michael Govan has said he wants to get away from the traditional idea of what a museum is. Rather than expecting people from all over LA County to come to the Wilshire District to look at art, Govan has proposed bringing the museum to the people by having LACMA open new spaces in various communities. Here are a couple paragraphs from the story in the LA Times….

Supervisor Kathryn Barger praised LACMA Director Michael Govan, who hopes to offset the loss of gallery space in the new building with future satellite locations in South Los Angeles and elsewhere.

“You really do have a vision, and it’s not just about four walls,” Barger said, later adding: “We believe it’s important to give exposure to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.”

In theory this is a great idea. We shouldn’t keep clinging to old ideas about what a museum is, and the notion of creating different spaces in LA’s communities to engage the public directly makes perfect sense. But where’s the proposal for these satellite locations? What’s the budget? What’s the timetable? How is it going to happen?

Various sources reported that Govan pitched this idea in January 2018, and at the time he talked about the possibility of opening five different spaces anywhere between South LA and the Valley. What’s happened since then? Well, that same month the LA City Council approved an agreement which would allow the Department of Recreation & Parks to lease LACMA space at South Los Angeles Wetlands Park. The idea was that LACMA would gradually renovate an existing building at the same time it was providing programming in the park. Here’s an excerpt from the agreement.

LACMA proposes to begin providing museum programming services at designated recreation centers near the South LA Wetlands Park within six months of the execution of the Lease while the repair and retrofit work is being conducted in Building 71. Programming at the Park will be provided within eighteen (18) months of the execution of the Lease.

The LA City Council approved the lease in January 2018. The agreement says LACMA would start providing programming near the park within six months and that programming at the park would begin within 18 months. I looked all over the net. I looked at the Rec & Parks web site. I looked at the LACMA web site. I didn’t find anything about art-related activities provided by the museum anywhere near South LA Wetlands Park. The 18 month period will expire in July of this year. Will LACMA be providing programming at the park beginning in July?

What about the other locations? In July 2018 it was reported that LACMA had opened a small gallery at an elementary school near Westlake/MacArthur Park, but at that time it wasn’t yet open on weekends. Another site that’s been mentioned is Magic Johnson Park in South LA, but an article published in the LA Sentinel last month merely said that LACMA was “considering” a location there.

In other words, there is no plan in place. There are no details. Govan’s idea of bringing the museum to the people sounds good, but at this point it’s all up in the air. The locations haven’t been determined, there’s no timetable, and apparently no budget. This last part is especially concerning. Since fundraising for the new Wilshire campus has slowed, it’s hard to believe donors will be rushing forward with millions to fund this new idea of off-site locations. To say that the loss of exhibition space in the proposed building will be offset by new satellite locations without offering any concrete plan for how that’s going to happen is pathetic. Could some satellite spaces open in time? Possibly. But it’s also possible none of them will open.

I can’t believe anybody could buy this half-baked idea. But apparently the Board of Supervisors thought it all sounded great. You can read the write-up in the Times here.

LACMA’s $650 Million New Building Wins Approval from County Supervisors