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.

ILWU Entrance Line

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.

ILWU Crowd Listening

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.

ILWU Crowd T Shirts

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

ILWU We Are 99

Lots of folks carrying signs.

ILWU Humans Taxes

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

ILWU Flag

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.

Grand Ave Empty

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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An Unexpected Garden

Gar 01 Walk

Today I went down to the Department of City Planning to file an appeal. It didn’t take as long as I expected, so after I was through I decided to wander around and check the place out.

The building itself is a pretty drab example of institutional architecture. I walked across the lobby to the little cafe and thought about getting some coffee. Decided against it. Then I thought I’d check out the patio at the back of the building. The most interesting thing about that space is it’s just a couple hundred feet from the Harbor Freeway. I wondered if the few people scattered around were bothered by the traffic noise. But I guess you can get used to anything.

I decided to move on, so I walked around the side of the building, on my way back to the plaza. And I came across a beautiful little garden.

When I was younger I paid no attention to gardens. The older I get, the more I love them. This was so unexpected I had to stop and take some photos. This little garden, tucked away on one side of a couple of drab office towers, made the whole trip worthwhile.

 

Protesting Immigrant Detentions

CP 01 Los Ninos

If you’ve been following the news for the past few weeks, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s been a nationwide uproar over the separation of immigrant children from their parents. Today demonstrations were held across the US to protest this practice, and to demand that children still in detention be reunited with their families.

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Thousands of people gathered in Downtown to hear a range of speakers. Numerous organizations were represented, including CHIRLA, Black Lives Matter, ACCE, and the Korean Resource Center.

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Participants marched from Broadway down First street to Alameda, and then to the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC). Just to be clear, the children being detained are not at the MDC. Those in California are being held at smaller facilites throughout the state.

CP 07Cruelty

While this country was built by immigrants, the criminalization of people crossing US borders is nothing new. Waves of hysteria regularly sweep across the nation, inciting fear and hatred of people who come here to escape persecution or build a better life. This most recent chapter is frightening, but it is just one more chapter in a long history of demonizing immigrants.

I didn’t get a shot of it, but there was one poster that I thought summed things up well. It said….

“France Wants Their Statue Back”

CP 10 Fake News

Where Is this Bridge Going?

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The old Sixth Street Bridge is gone. It was torn down early in 2016. The demolition was necessary because the concrete in the original structure was decaying. Work has begun on constructing a new Sixth Street Bridge, and right now it looks like it will be finished in 2020. (For the record, the formal project title is the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project.)

Bridges are about making connections. The original structure was built in 1932, and was one of a series of bridges that spans the LA River. This ambitious infrastructure project started in the 20s and continued through the 30s, eventually allowing numerous crossings between Downtown and East LA. Here are a few photos of the old Sixth Street Bridge.

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A shot from the base of the bridge.

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A truck coming down the west side.

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A view of the bridge facing west.

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Downtown in the distance.

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A view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the old bridge.

The renderings of the new bridge are striking. It was designed by architect Michael Maltzan, but the project is a team effort, and the goal is to produce something much more than a bridge. Here’s a quote from Maltzan’s web site.

The design team including Michael Maltzan Architecture (Design Architect), HNTB (Engineer and Executive Architect), Hargreaves Associates (Landscape Architect), and AC Martin (Urban Planning) began with the fundamental understanding that the Viaduct is more than a simple replacement thoroughfare crossing the Los Angeles River. The project instead foresees a multimodal future for the City, one that accommodates cars, incorporates significant new bicycle connections. It also increases connectivity for pedestrians to access the Viaduct, not only at its endpoints, but along the entirety of the span, linking the bridge, the Los Angeles River, and future urban landscapes in a more meaningful relationship.

The project also includes a park and an arts center. You can see some images here.

Sixth Street Viaduct/PARC from LA Bureau of Engineering

Here are some shots of the project site from March 2017, when work on the new bridge was just beginning.

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For the time being, this is where Sixth St. ends.

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Lots of machinery on the project site.

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Looking across the river toward East LA.

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A shot of the riverbed when construction was just starting.

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Another angle.

And here are some shots from August 2017.

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A little more progress has been made.

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A closer view.

For the team involved with the design, this project is all about bringing things together, creating connections and offering new ways for people to experience this space. One of the chief goals is to link the Arts District with Boyle Heights and the LA River. That sounds pretty cool in the abstract, but in actual fact there are a lot of reasons to worry about the downside. I’m sure Maltzan and his team see this project as a positive thing, but that’s not surprising. They’re architects and engineers engaged in creating a spectacular new piece of infrastructure. And of course the City’s website  is all about the upside.  But really, the City’s glib promo materials don’t begin to describe what’s happening here. By itself, the new bridge may sound great, but if you look at it in the larger context of the area’s culture and economy, you start to realize that this project could have serious negative impacts.

Any large scale infrastructure project, any attempt to remake the landscape, is going to affect the surrounding communities. These impacts can be good or bad, and often it’s a mix of the two. In this case, the biggest issue is one that never gets mentioned on the City’s web site. It’s the same issue that communities all over LA are dealing with. Displacement. Downtown LA has been going through a massive construction boom, with high-end housing and high-end retail largely transforming that community into an upscale enclave. Now developers are eyeing neighborhoods on the other side of the river.

The residents of Boyle Heights are already feeling the effects of gentrification, as real estate investors looking for cheap land and big profits have been buying up parcels in the area. Evictions are already happening, and many people who live in this largely Latino community are afraid they’ll be next. You may have read about the protests that have taken place in recent years. Here are some shots from an action staged by East LA residents in September 2016.  Protesters met at the intersection of Whittier and Boyle, where the old bridge touched down on the East Side.

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“Boyle Heights Is Not for Sale.”

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Families are worried about losing their homes.

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Many people on this side of the river see gentrification as violence.

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New art galleries are seen as harbingers of displacement.

The protest movement in Boyle Heights has gotten a fair amount of media attention, partly because in some cases the protesters have used aggressive tactics in trying to shut down a new coffee house and some local galleries. They see these businesses as the first outposts of coming gentrification. There are people who have questioned the protesters’ methods, complaining that they’ve gone too far. But let me ask you this. If you were in danger of losing your home and being driven out of your neighborhood, how far do you think you’d be willing to go?

It’s no accident that communities like Boyle Heights have been targeted by real estate investors. Land is cheaper there than in Downtown, and they know that the completion of the bridge and the accompanying amenities will make the area more desirable to upscale residents. We’ve already seen something similar happen in the Arts District. A largely low-income community has been rapidly transformed by a massive influx of developer dollars, and the people who had lived there for years, in fact, the people who actually built the community, have been driven out.  A similar scenario has been unfolding in Hollywood, and with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX line you can see the same thing happening in communities like Leimert Park.

Investment in a community can be a good thing, but not when it drives out the people who have spent their lives there. And these days it’s not a gradual evolution. City Hall works with developers to target areas for rapid growth, almost all of it geared toward affluent new residents. When the City or County lays plans for new infrastructure, like light rail or parks or, in this case, a bridge, real estate investors move in quickly.  Often these investors are well connected at City Hall and already have possible projects in mind.  In other cases they’re speculators just snapping up parcels that they know will rise in value. They don’t plan to build anything, since they know they can make a profit just by sitting on the property until new infrastructure is in place.  And Mayor Garcetti gleefully promotes the aggressive transformation of these communities, apparently without giving a thought to the real suffering that displacement is causing for thousands of Angelenos. It seems he feels he was elected just to serve the affluent.

These days I hear so much talk about making LA a “world class city”, and I’m really sick of it. Garcetti’s idea of creating a “world class city” is about pouring billions into new infrastructure so that developers can cash in by building upscale enclaves for the affluent. Personally, I don’t care what class LA is in. If we can’t help hardworking people stay in their homes, if we can’t support communities that people have invested their lives in building, then this city is a failure.

You can spend all the money you want on bridges and parks and rivers and rail lines. All that stuff is meaningless if at the same time we’re dismantling our communities, the human infrastructure that really holds this city together.

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Rain in Downtown LA

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This has been a pretty dry winter, so I was really glad that it rained most of the afternoon today. I was in Downtown and I took some photos.

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Not many people in Grand Park today.

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Nobody hanging out at the tables.

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I’m guessing the few people who were on the streets probably just wanted to get somewhere dry.

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On rainy days, it’s always a relief when the bus rolls up.

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The park outside City Hall was drenched.

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Sheets of water were running across the pavement.

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A row of trees outside LAPD Headquarters.

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The rain kept falling through the afternoon.

Even with the rain we’ve had so far this month, we’re still well below our annual average.  Hopefully there are more storms on the way.

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