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

 

Stop the Insanity at LACMA

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If you care about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and you haven’t heard the latest about the massive makeover planned for the campus, please check out the articles below. There’s some crazy stuff going on. When the project was being discussed back in 2015, I wrote a post supporting the demolition of existing buildings and construction of new gallery space. But after reading reports in the media about the latest twists in the LACMA saga, I say we need to slam on the brakes. The project as currently proposed is just insane.

Read the articles below for more details, but the upshot is that LACMA will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to create a new campus with a lot less gallery space. Even worse, the new buildings won’t contain offices for curators and other museum staff. LACMA will be leasing space for them in a building across the street. Unbelievable.

But it hasn’t been approved yet. The LA County Board of Supervisors will consider approval of the plan at their meeting on Tuesday, April 9. If you care about LACMA’s future, please write to your Supervisor TODAY and let them know you oppose the current plan.

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Here are two articles that lay out what’s going on. The first is by Christopher Knight, who gives an overview of the proposal. The second is by Joseph Giovannini, who breaks down the numbers in excruciating detail. Both authors oppose the current plan

LACMA, the Incredible Shrinking Museum

LACMA: Suicide by Architecture

When the idea of remaking the LACMA campus was first proposed it seemed like a good idea, but over the years the proposal has morphed into an awful, pathetic mess. Please tell the Board of Supervisors to reject this idiotic plan.

The River After the Rain

We had a lot of rain in February. Not long after the storms passed I took some photos of the LA River along the Glendale Narrows. While it was nothing like the raging torrent it had been a few days before, the runoff from the rains was still flowing freely. It was a great day to take a walk along the river.

LA Renters Are Being Priced Out

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I’m not a big fan of TV news, but I was impressed by this report from CBS. The title, Priced Out, says it all. Tenants are being displaced because real estate investors are buying multifamily buildings and jacking up the prices so they can cash in. This means working people are being forced out of their homes. The idea that we can build our way out of this crisis is ludicrous. Yes, we need to build housing, but the people who argue that high housing prices are simply the result of short supply don’t know what they’re talking about. According to the CBS report, median rent in LA increased 84% from 2010 to 2018. This is a direct result of a massive expansion in real estate speculation, and the impacts on LA households have been devastating. Click on the link to view the video.

Priced Out: LA’s Hidden Homeless

Jailing the Mentally Ill Doesn’t Help Anyone

Mens Central Jail Photo by Mark Ibirby

Does this look like a good place to send people who are mentally ill?  Photo by Mark Ibirby.

Here’s some disturbing info from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)….

“In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.”

Throwing mentally ill people in jail doesn’t help anybody. It certainly doesn’t help the person who’s stuck behind bars, because getting locked up just adds one more layer of trauma, and will most likely prevent the person from getting the help they need. And it isn’t good for society at large, because instead of hooking mentally ill people up with treatment that will help them get back on their feet, it makes it more difficult for them to find employment and housing, meaning they’re more likely to end up homeless.

Over the past several years there’s been a push to rethink the way we care for people dealing with mental health issues. Last week the LA Board of Supervisors approved a plan to tear down the Men’s Central Jail and build a mental health care facility instead. At first glance, this looks like progress, but local activists fear the plan may only offer cosmetic changes. For more details, read the story in the LA Times.

LA County Will Replace Men’s Central Jail with Mental Health Hospital for Inmates

At this point it’s hard to say how this will all play out. The plan approved by the Supervisors could be a step in the right direction, or it could be a way to defer meaningful action that would lead to real progress. But however this plays out, we should all be thinking about how we can push for change in this area. If you’ve lived in LA for any time at all, you’ve seen mentally ill people wandering the street. Many of these people have spent time in jail, and were released with little or no support to help them transition back into society. If we don’t change the way the system operates, we’re certain to see the number of mentally ill homeless increase.

I’ll leave you with another quote from NAMI.

“Jailing people with mental illness creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets. It does not protect public safety. And people who could be helped are being ignored.”

Dismantling Times Mirror Square: Housing vs. History?

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In late November, the LA City Council’s Planning & Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee considered giving Times Mirror Square landmark status. It was an interesting hearing. The application nominating the site for Historic-Cultural Monument status was submitted by a group of people, including local preservationists Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, as well as architectural historian Alan Hess. There’s really no argument that Times Mirror Square has played a huge part in LA’s history. The debate centered around how much of it should be preserved.

As someone who grew up with newspapers, I have to remind myself that these days most people under 30 see them as a useless holdover from the past. The number of print publications has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, and while a number of major papers continue to publish on-line, they’re struggling to reach an audience. These days a lot of Americans get their “news” from sources that don’t even claim to be news outlets. Do people under 30 have any idea how powerful and influential major newspapers were before the internet? From the early days of the 20th century the Times had a huge impact on local politics, the regional economy, and the built landscape. If the Times had never existed, LA would probably look very different than it does today.

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Los Angeles Times Building at First and Spring, designed by Gordon Kaufman

At the PLUM hearing, nobody questioned the site’s historical significance. The debate was all about the structure, or really the structures. Times Mirror Square was actually built in pieces over decades. The first segment, located at First and Spring and designed by Gordon Kaufman, was completed in 1935. In 1948 the owners extended the complex to the corner of Second and Spring, and the architect for this phase was Rowland Crawford. The final segment, built on the west side of the site in 1973, was designed by William Pereira. (And if you really want to dig into the details, you’d also have to count the plant building and the parking structure.)

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The Mirror Building at Spring and Second, designed by Rowland Crawford

For those who don’t know much about the Times’ history, here’s a quick summary. The paper was founded at the end of the 19th century and played a major role in LA’s development throughout the 20th. In its early years, editor Harrison Gray Otis made the paper successful through ardent boosterism, pushing hard for LA’s growth. The Times played a key role in advocating for the construction of the LA Aqueduct. Otis’ conservative, pro-business policies were shared by his successors, Harry Chandler and Norman Chandler. But things changed when Otis Chandler took over in 1960. The Times adopted a more independent perspective and expanded its staff, striving to become a national paper on the level of the New York Times. The change was quickly apparent. While in the past the Times had fanned the flames of bigotry, soon after Otis Chandler took over it ran a series exposing racism in the John Birch Society. When Richard Nixon lost the race for California governor, he blamed the LA TImes. Before 1960 the paper had never won a Pulitzer. Since 1960 it’s won 44.

Unfortunately, in 2000 the Times was sold to the pack of idiots at the Tribune Company. They spent over 15 years turning what had been a regional media giant into a pathetic shadow of its former self. In 2018 the paper was finally freed from the toxic grasp of the Tribune when it was purchased by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. Not long after purchasing the Times, Soon-Shiong announced that its offices would be relocating to El Segundo, and that Times Mirror Square would be sold to developer Onni Group.

And this is what the debate at the PLUM hearing was all about. Onni has proposed preserving the Kaufman and Crawford buildings, but getting rid of the Pereira addition in order to build two residential towers. The preservationists who nominated Times Mirror Square wanted to landmark the entire site, which would make development more difficult.

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Times Mirror Headquarters at the corner of First and Broadway, designed by William Pereira

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View of Times Mirror building along Broadway

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City Hall and the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center reflected in the facade of the Times Mirror building

Back in September, the Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) sided with the preservationists. In spite of a report from GPA Consulting that took great pains to play down the quality of the Pereira building, the CHC voted to include it in their recommendation, saying that all of Times Mirror Square was worthy of landmark status. Interestingly, GPA also dug deep into the Pereira firm’s archives to question whether the architect designed the project himself. They seemed determined to block the nomination of that segment, which is exactly what Onni Group wanted. But it’s commonplace for the principle of an architectural firm to assign a team to complete the bulk of the work on a project. While GPA argued at the hearing that the Pereira building was not a significant example of the architect’s work, many others, including architectural historian Hess, insisted that it was.

This is the second time I’ve run across GPA in covering preservation issues, and I have to say I’m not impressed by their work. When DLJ Capital bought the 800 Traction building and decided to evict the Japanese-American artists who lived and worked there, the new owners brought in GPA to evaluate the structure’s history. While GPA found that the building deserved landmark status, their report managed to avoid any mention of the Japanese-American community that had lived in the area for decades. They also whitewashed 800 Traction’s history by omitting references to the Japanese-American artists who had lived and worked in the building for years, some going back as far as the 80s. And somehow GPA failed to note that some of these artists played a key role in creating the Downtown Arts District. Seems to me that GPA Consulting basically serves as a hired gun, dedicated to helping real estate investors push their projects forward.

History is a complicated thing. Most of us know relatively little about the city we live in. Sometimes it turns out we aren’t even really familiar with the things we think we know well. In early December I went down to Times Mirror Square to shoot some photos. I have to say the visit was an eye-opener. I bet I’ve walked by the building a thousand times, but while I was taking pictures I realized there was a lot that I’d never really seen. Walking past the main entrance on First Street I’d certainly noticed the contrast between the Kaufman and Pereira buildings, but I’d never paid any attention to the Crawford building. I’d never looked closely at the lines or the materials. I’d never read the inscriptions on the First Street facade. I’d never really thought about the way the Pereira building shapes the space.

And I’d never noticed this plaque near the corner of Spring and Second.

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Looking at it made me think about the many changes that have happened in Downtown, and reminded me that things will always keep changing. There are whole histories that have been bulldozed and buried. Thousands of stories I’ll never know. And while I believe preservation is important, we can’t save every old building, or even every beautiful building. Inevitably, the City will keep growing. It can’t remain static. So we have to weigh these things, and ask whether the changes are happening for better or for worse.

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View of Times Mirror Square from Spring

A number of people spoke at the PLUM Committee hearing, and again, the discussion was pretty all much about whether the Pereira structure should be preserved. Obviously, the developer reps and the business community argued against preserving that portion. The Committee also heard from a number of union workers who shared that view. On the other side you had preservationists arguing that the Pereira addition was an important example of the architect’s work, and an important part of the building’s history.

I agree with the preservationists. While all three architects involved with Times Mirror Square did impressive work, Pereira had the most extensive relationship with the LA area. He played a crucial role in shaping the city’s modernist period, and designed some of its most remarkable structures, including CBS Television City, Otis College of Art & Design (original campus), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (original campus). He also made significant contributions to Los Angeles International Airport,
the University of Southern California, and Occidental College. Pereira was a major player in creating the look of mid-century LA.

As for Times Mirror Square, I completely agree with the people who say the Pereira addition has a cold, corporate feel. That doesn’t make it bad architecture. In fact, it has a striking sculptural strength, and the way it shapes the space around it is impressive. Actually, I think it’s an appropriate expression of the power and position the Times held back in the 70s. Does it fit with the older buildings? Depends on what you mean by “fit”. The contrast between the Kaufman and Pereira structures is jarring, and I’m certain that’s what Pereira wanted. And remember, we’re talking about LA architecture. In most other cities this kind of mash-up would stand out as a bizarre oddity. In this city, it’s just one of many examples of extreme stylistic conflict. Over the last hundred years, the story of LA architecture has been all about brash, experimental eclecticism.

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Pereira building in foreground and Kaufman building in background

But it was pretty clear where the PLUM Committee hearing was going. The developer didn’t want the Pereira building to be declared historic, and that was a pretty strong sign the PLUM Committee didn’t want that to happen either. They’re very accomodating. Anybody who thought replacing former Chair Jose Huizar with Marqueece Harris-Dawson might change things was living in a fool’s paradise. At this PLUM hearing the main order of business appeared to be giving real estate investors whatever they asked for, just like when Huizar was running the show.

I did think it was interesting that people kept bringing up housing as an important issue. The developer, the union folks, the PLUM Committee all kept talking about how Downtown needed housing badly, and how Onni’s proposed luxury skyscraper would help ease that need. That’s weird. When I look at web sites for residential buildings in Downtown I find that a lot of them are offering discounts for signing a lease. Some are offering up to two months free rent. You wouldn’t think they’d be offering such great deals if housing was in really short supply.

Something else that’s weird. Onni’s reps are claiming that there’s a housing shortage in Downtown, but at one of their other buildings not too far away they’re turning residential units into hotel rooms. A few years ago the developer opened Level Furnished Living at Ninth and Olive. It was approved as 303 residential units, but in 2017 local activists discovered that Level’s owners were actually offering the units as hotel rooms. At first they were doing it illegally, but City Hall was good enough to grant them a TORS conversion for 97 units. This stands for Transit Occupancy Residential Structure, and basically it means you’re turning housing into hotel rooms. And it looks like were going to see more of this. Another developer has filed an application to build a 27-story high-rise at 949 South Hope. The project description calls it a residential tower, but if you look at the requested approvals you’ll see that the developer is asking for the TORS designation up front. In other words, once the building is open it could be used as housing or hotel rooms.

This is a brilliant way to reduce vacancy rates in Downtown. Obviously Onni is really on to something. If you can’t market your units as apartments or condos, just turn them into hotel rooms. That way you’re turning a profit even if there really is no demand for housing. And the best part is, once you slap on the TORS designation, these units don’t have to be counted when calculating Downtown’s vacancy rate. If an apartment or condo is sitting empty, then it’s a vacant unit. If it’s a hotel room, it’s just an empty hotel room. It’s sheer genius. The City can reduce the Downtown vacancy rate just by calling these units something else.

Of couse, if Onni is turning residential units into hotel rooms at Level, you’ve got to ask if the need for housing in Downtown is really that severe. And at the same time, you have to ask if the PLUM Committee has any real interest in easing LA’s housing crisis. More likely they’re just helping a developer create another valuable asset for their portfolio.

After public comment, the PLUM Committee members spoke briefly, and it was pretty clear they were all on board with Onni’s agenda. They voted to recommend granting historic status to the Kaufman and Crawford buildings, but not to the Pereira building. In early December the full City Council adopted the Committee’s recommendation. Looks like Onni will get to go forward with its two residential towers. And if we find out in a few years that those residential towers have somehow turned into luxury hotels, well, that’s just the way things work in the City of LA.

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Music in the Air

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A cold December night. Or cold for LA, anyway. Probably around sixty degrees. I got off the subway at Hollywood and Vine. When I reached the second level of the station I heard this delicate music somewhere nearby. As I got closer to the next escalator, I realized that someone behind me was playing an instrument that sounded like a harp. They seemed to be walking just a few feet behind me. I didn’t recognize a melody. Just these lovely, short, phrases that sounded something like snow falling.

As I got to the last escalator leading up to Hollywood Blvd., I caught the scent of the incense from the vendor who’s usually selling his wares there. It was so cool. This lovely music following me up to the street, and this sweet perfume hanging in the air. I decided I had to say something to whoever it was, so I turned around. It was a guy who might have been in his twenties holding a very small guitar. I said something like….,

“That’s very cool. Thanks.”

I think he said,

“Thanks. Have a good day.”

“You too.”

Then I was at street level, so I turned around and walked off into the December night.