Lost LA through a Camera Lens

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A view of Downtown circa 1960 from The Exiles.

Los Angeles has changed a lot over the past hundred years. Rapid population growth, rampant real estate speculation and a slew of technological advances have caused the city to expand and mutate with amazing speed. And one of the most interesting things about LA is that it has recorded those changes since almost the beginning of the 20th century. As the center of the global film industry, and a major hub for all media, it’s always in one spotlight or another. You might say Los Angeles is obsessed with seeing itself in the mirror.

When the film industry first moved west back in the teens, there were a number of production companies shooting silent two-reelers on LA’s streets. Nobody was thinking about documenting the city as it was beginning to grow. Location shooting was just a cheap way to make movies. Hollywood silents made before 1920 are filled with scenes of the city’s early days, but because there hadn’t been much development and few of the familiar landmarks existed, it’s often hard to identify the streets and neighborhoods that appear in the background.

In the 20s Hollywood became studio bound, and for about two decades location shooting was the exception rather than the norm. But in the 40s studio crews started to venture back out into the streets. Many of the crime films shot after WWII used LA as a backdrop for the action. In the 60s, independent filmmakers started shooting all kinds of movies on the city’s streets. By the 80s filmmakers had begun to use the city self-consciously, making deliberate references not just to the city’s past but to its movie past.

Looking at the films shot over the years on LA’s streets we can see a broad panorama of the city’s history, but one that’s still maddeningly incomplete. While some locations appear over and again, there are whole communities that never appear at all. And so much of it is totally random. In a few cases filmmakers deliberately set out to take a good, hard look at the landscape and the people. Others focussed on famous landmarks that have a specific meaning for movie audiences, or used their settings to evoke nostalgia. And others just didn’t have the money to shoot anywhere else and let their location scout call the shots.

I watch a lot of movies, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m more aware than ever of how they reflect the changes that have happened over the course of LA’s history. I’m especially fascinated by images of things that no longer exist. Change is inevitable. The city’s landscape is never the same from one day to the next. Even when the streets and structures stay the same, the people, the customs, the culture keep changing, and that transforms the landscape, too.

In this post I’m pulling together images of places and spaces that have disappeared. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while. It took me months to get around to it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which movies to focus on, but I can’t even explain why I ended up choosing these six. The only thing they have in common is that they show pieces of LA that no longer exist. And trying to approach them in some kind of order was impossible. Or maybe better to say there were too many possibilities. Should I have organized them by the year the films were made? Or maybe used the locations to tell some kind of story? Or should I have tried to find a theme that ties them all together?

In the end I just decided to dive in and let my intuition guide me. This post may not even make sense, but hopefully you’ll get something out of the images. Let’s start in Downtown….

In the late 50s, Kent Mackenzie began working on a film set in Bunker Hill that focussed on the Native American community living in the area. The Exiles took over three years to make, and the production had more than its share of problems, but the end result was a unique blend of documentary and fiction that gave voice to people whose voices had never been heard before. Bunker Hill began in the 19th century as one of the city’s first upscale developments. By the middle of the 20th century the rich were long gone, and the aging homes that remained now housed a diverse low-income community. The Native Americans who lived there had left the reservations behind, looking for a different kind of life. In LA they were relegated to the margins of society, but living in Bunker Hill they at least had some kind of community. That lasted until City Hall declared the area “blighted”, and began pushing residents out as civic leaders and business interests pursued a massive redevelopment project.

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Angel’s Flight climbing Bunker Hill next to the Third Street Tunnel.

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A closer shot of Angel’s Flight with apartments in the background.

The Exiles captures the lives of three Native Americans as they live through a single night in Downtown LA. Shot entirely on location, it shows these people in their homes, on the streets, in bars and juke joints, and finally gathering on a hill that looks out over the nighttime landscape. It’s a vivid picture of a vanished world.

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One of the vanished streets of Bunker Hill.

Displacement is a recurring theme that runs through the whole history of Los Angeles. The city’s original Chinatown was situated on the edge of Downtown, straddling Alameda between Aliso and Macy (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). But in the 20s voters approved funds for a new rail terminal, and much of the Chinese community had to relocate to make way for Union Station.

In the late 40s Anthony Mann made a startling series of thrillers, often giving them a sense of immediacy by shooting on real locations. Much of T-Men is shot in LA, and it features glimpses of what was left of Chinatown in 1947. Check out this first still, which shows a determined US Treasury agent walking across Alameda with Union Station in the background.

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Dennis O’Keefe crossing Alameda Street in T-Men.

Then the camera pans to follow him, and on the west side of Alameda we see Ferguson Alley, a remnant of the original Chinese community.

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Ferguson Alley, one of the last remnants of LA’s original Chinatown.

Our hero visits a number of herbalists looking for someone who recalls selling a specific blend to a certain man. It’s a brief montage, but it gives us a look at what was left of early Chinatown after WWII. Eventually, these buildings were also levelled. After some false starts, a new, more modern, and more touristy, Chinatown was built to the north and west of the original site.

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O’Keefe mounts the stairs to an herbalist’s shop.

Crime Wave, directed by André de Toth, was also shot largely on location and gives a sweeping view of Los Angeles in the 50s. While it features a number of Downtown locales, the climactic bank heist takes place across the LA River in Glendale. The suburbs were thriving in the first decade after the war, and the film gives us a view of what Brand Boulevard looked like back in the day. In this scene we’re riding with Gene Nelson and Ted de Corsia as they drive up to the Bank of America at the corner of Brand and Broadway.

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The Bank of America at Brand and Broadway in Glendale.

The suburbs were a product of car culture, and cars are central to the story. The main character is an ex-con who’s forced to become the gang’s getaway driver. The scenes before and after the robbery offer numerous shots from the perspective of the man behind the wheel. And an abandoned car serves as an important key in the cops’ search to track down the criminals.

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The corner of Brand and Broadway.

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Ted de Corsia inside the Bank of America.

Crime Wave is tough as nails and brimming with tension, but even if you’re not into classic crime flicks, it’s worth watching for the way it maps out the city in the 50s. The final car chase more or less follows the actual path you’d take from Glendale back to Downtown, speeding down Brand toward the Hyperion Bridge.

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Another shot of Brand near Broadway.

By the late 60s suburbia had spread across the San Fernando Valley. Car culture played a major role in the rapid proliferation of housing tracts tied together by the ever expanding freeway system. Thousands of families moved to the suburbs in pursuit of a placid and prosperous lifestyle.

Which was an illusion. You can escape the city, but you can’t escape reality. The US was going through a violent upheaval, rocked by a string of political assassinations and a growing protest movement. Director Peter Bogdanovich looked past the supermarkets and the swimming pools and saw a side of the suburbs that most people were determined to ignore. Bogdanovich had been doing odd jobs for low-budget director/producer Roger Corman. Through Corman he got a chance to direct his first feature, Targets. The film follows a young man living with his parents and his wife in a tidy little house in the Valley, who one day picks up a gun and starts shooting people.

Targets is an innovative and unnerving look at the suburbs, America’s obsession with guns, and our twisted relationship with the movies. After following the young killer as he randomly picks off a number of unsuspecting victims, Bogdanovich stages a chilling climax that offers a complex reflection of the American landscape at the time. Cars lined up in rows at a drive-in movie, moms, dads, children and teens watching a horror flick unfold, when suddenly a sniper starts shooting at the audience from behind the screen.

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The marquee at the Reseda Drive-In.

The film was shot at the Reseda Drive-In, which was located at the corner of Reseda and Vanowen. It survived into the 70s, when it was torn down and replaced by a business park. Aside from the fact that it’s an arresting and original debut feature (one of Bogdanovich’s best), Targets also offers a fascinating glimpse of the vanished world of drive-in theatres. Passionately devoted to movies since childhood, the director records every aspect of the experience, from the people visiting the snack bar to the projectionist putting the reels in motion.

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The drive-in before the show starts.

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The playground near the screen.

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The snack bar.

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The projectionist setting the film in motion.

Hollywood has always been shameless about the strategies it uses to lure audiences to the movies. Two of the most common tactics are jumping on whatever fad is currently sweeping the nation, and exploiting people’s nostalgia for a past that never existed. Xanadu tries to do both at the same time. The story follows the efforts of two men, inspired by a muse, who come together to create a new nightclub that will bring back the glory of the big band era while catering to the roller disco crowd. Yeah, it’s a pretty strange movie, and one that will probably only appeal to those with a taste for bizarre kitsch. But I found out that parts of it were shot at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, and decided I had to check it out.

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The front of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium.

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A closer shot of the Pan-Pacific.

For years the Pan-Pacific was a major venue, hosting car shows, sporting events and the Ice Capades. Designed by the firm of Wurdeman and Becket, the striking streamline moderne facade was one of LA’s architectural landmarks for decades. But it closed in the 70s, and though it was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places, no one was able to find a way to make it viable again. It was destroyed by fire in 1989.

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Another view of the Pan-Pacific.

It’s possible that if the Pan-Pacific had survived a while longer, it might have been revived. The local preservation movement was just taking shape in the 80s. But for years Los Angeles was seen as a city without a history, in large part because the people who lived here didn’t have a sense of its history. Buildings were put up and knocked down based on whatever the market dictated, and few people worried about what was lost in the process. Visitors from other places talked about how the city felt impermanent, and complained about a sense of rootlessness.

Having lived here all my life, I don’t see it that way, and I’ve had a hard time understanding what people from other places are talking about. But I think I got a taste of it the last time I watched Wim Wender’s The State of Things. It tells the story of a director shooting a sci-fi film in Europe whose funding dries up, and he flies to LA to get some answers. Friedrich picks up a rental car at LAX and sets out to track his producer down, speeding along the the endless freeways, cruising the wide boulevards of Hollywood and Century City. He seems lost, totally disconnected from the city around him. Watching the film again recently I think I began to understand the sense of disclocation so many complain about. Friedrich is just one more in a long line of European filmmakers who have found themselves wandering LA’s vast landscapes, squinting into the sun as they try to make sense of it all.

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Friedrich, played by Patrick Bauchau, cruising down the freeway in a rental car.

Many of LA’s buildings were never meant to be permanent. They were constructed by people who saw a market for a product and moved quickly to jump on whatever trend was popular at that moment. The roadside restaurants and coffee shops that started springing up after WWII weren’t meant to last forever. They were meant to catch a driver’s attention and pull them in before they sped past. The commercial architects who worked on these projects in the 50s quickly realized that the more extravagant and unusual a building was, the more likely it was to draw people in. The building became its own advertisement.

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Tiny Naylor’s at the corner of Sunset and La Brea.

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Bauchau orders a cup of coffee from a car hop.

As I said, nobody thought these structures would last through the ages. But as the years wore on, architects and critics began to value these brash, flashy buildings. And the people who had frequented these places had gotten attached to them. In the 60s if a developer had levelled one of these coffee shops, nobody would have batted an eye. By the 90s, preservationists were arguing that they held a special place in the area’s culture and should be protected.

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Another shot of Tiny Naylor’s.

That was too late for Tiny Naylor’s, located at Sunset and La Brea. The building, a Googie masterpiece by architect Douglas Honnold, was designed so that people could park outside and be served in their cars, a common feature of coffee shops from the era. The State of Things, released in 1982, captures Tiny Naylor’s in all its glory. A few years later it was torn down and replaced with a shopping mall.

The argument over what should be saved and what should be torn down will go on for as long as LA exists, and that’s part of the dynamic of any urban area. Cities are formed by the tension between the past and the future. LA will go on changing. And the movies will go on watching it change.

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Bauchau in an office building at Sunset and Vine, gazing at the LA landscape as it stretches out to the horizon.

 

A Breath of Fresh Exhaust

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The balconies at the Da Vinci offer a view of the Hollywood Freeway.

A while ago I wrote a post about a project going up in my neighborhood. The site was less than 200 feet from the Hollywood Freeway, and the developer was capping it with rooftop decks. In light of the extensive research showing elevated health risks for people living near freeways, this seemed absolutely insane. But after a few phone calls and e-mails I confirmed that both the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Department of Building & Safety (DBS) had signed off on it. And while I don’t have much respect for the the folks at City Hall these days, this seemed like a new low. I felt like they’d really crossed a line.

I was so wrong. The City crossed that line a long time ago. Turns out they’ve been routinely approving new residential projects near freeways that include rooftop decks and/or balconies. In spite of years of research that has shown strong links between exposure to freeway traffic and increased health risks, especially for children, the DCP and the DBS have okayed a number of projects near freeways that offer these amenities.

For over 20 years, USC has been gathering data on health impacts related to living near freeways. By the early years of the last decade, they were warning that residents in these areas faced significantly higher risk of asmtha, heart attacks and lung cancer, and that children were at risk of suffering permanent lung damage. In 2005 the California Air Resources Board published a handbook that specifically warned against residential construction within 500 feet of freeways. The City of LA, however, argues that the need for new housing outweighs the health risks.

But even if you buy that argument, how can you justify approving amenities that put people in direct contact with some of the most toxic air in the nation? Balconies and rooftop decks are not necessary. And in fact, when they’re placed on residential structures less than 500 feet from a freeway, this clearly fits the definition of a hazardous building as outlined by the LA Municipal Code:

Whenever a building or structure, used or intended to be used for dwelling purposes, because of dilapidation, decay, damage or faulty construction or arrangement, or otherwise, is insanitary or unfit for human habitation or is in a condition that is likely to cause sickness or disease, when so determined by the health officer, or is likely to work injury to the health, safety or general welfare of those living within.  [Emphasis mine.]

So allowing these features creates buildings that the City’s own Municipal Code defines as hazardous. Does that stop the City from approving them? Of course not.

The City does require that new buildings provide a certain amount of open space, and certainly developers will tell you that rooftop decks and balconies are one way of fulfilling that requirement in dense urban areas. But let’s look at a couple of the objectives listed for open space in the City’s General Plan….

2) to provide safer play areas for children

4) to increase natural light and ventilation

Can anybody argue that a balcony placed a couple hundred feet from a dense concentration of nitrogen oxide, CO2 and particulate emissions fulfills these objectives?

Sure, there are a number of apartment buildings near freeways with balconies and/or rooftop decks that were constructed long before the health risks became clear. But City Hall has known about the dangers since at least 2005. Let’s take a look at some of the residential projects they’ve approved over the last ten years or so….

Here’s Patio del Cielo at 4410 Sepulveda in Sherman Oaks. You could translate “cielo” as either “sky” or “heaven”, but obviously the implication is you’ll be living somewhere far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Not too far removed from the San Diego Freeway, though, which is just about 200 feet away.

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Traffic lining up for the freeway in front of Patio del Cielo.

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Rush hour traffic on the San Diego Freeway.

The balconies/decks that adorn these homes along 2775 Cahuenga are between 100 and 300 feet from the traffic on the Hollywood Freeway. And since this housing complex is right on Cahuenga Blvd., from June through September residents can enjoy the spectacle of thousands of cars inching their way past during Hollywood Bowl season.

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Balconies at the front of 2775 Cahuenga.

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Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near 2775 Cahuenga.

The Carlton, at 5845 Carlton Way, has both balconies and rooftop decks. I bet you get a stunning view of the Hollywood Freeway from the roof. It’s just about 200 feet away.

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The Carlton is the white building on the left.

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A view of the rooftop from the rear of The Carlton.

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A view of rush hour traffic near The Carlton.

But first prize for really bad planning goes to the Da Vinci, at 909 W. Temple. Developer Geoff Palmer has made a fortune building massive residential complexes near freeways, but this may be his masterpiece. The Da Vinci sits right where the Hollywood and the Harbor Freeways meet. And just like every other Palmer apartment block I’ve seen Downtown, the developer has made sure that residents can get their fill of diesel fumes and particulate emissions simply by stepping out onto their private balcony.

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Would you say those balconies are 100 feet away from the freeway?

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Traffic on the freeway north of the Da Vinci.

You could argue that a number of Palmer’s buildings went up before the adverse impacts of living near freeways were fully known. But City Hall approved the Da Vinci years after our elected officials had learned about the dangers. Again, they’ll tell you that we can’t afford not to build near freeways. But giving people balconies so they can get a face full of auto exhaust? How do you justify that?

I’ve suggested before that people write to the Mayor if they feel this needs to stop. Obviously, it hasn’t had much impact. But I’d like to suggest something a little different this time. How about writing to the Mayor and copying your congressional rep? Maybe if City Hall heard from someone at the federal level they’d think twice before approving hazardous amenities on apartments next to freeways.

Try using the following subject line….

Why Does the City of LA Keep Putting Residents’ Health at Risk?

Here’s Garcetti’s e-mail address.

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

And if you don’t know who represents you in Congress, use the link below to find out.

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

Columbia Square

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There are a number of different Hollywoods. It can be a noun or an adjective, a brand or a concept, a nostalgic fantasy or a nasty slur. But there’s also a physical place called Hollywood, and it’s been through a lot of changes over the years. About a century ago it became the center of the film industry, and what started out as a sleepy suburb grew rapidly. Its fortunes rose and fell as the studios left, radio and TV moved in, radio and TV moved on, and the internet conquered the world. For decades people have been asking how to bring media back to the Hollywood area to revitalize the local economy.

Columbia Square has played a key role in putting Hollywood, the place, back on the media map. Opening to great fanfare last year, the project brings together residential, office and commercial space to create a media campus. The owners were spectacularly successful in landing major industry tenants long before the project was completed. Columbia Square was widely hailed as a major step forward in Hollywood’s revitalization.

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The El Centro side of Columbia Square

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The front of the campus along Sunset

I have to say I’m pretty impressed myself. I was skeptical about how this modern media campus would come out, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was a complex project, and roused a certain amount of controversy when it was first proposed. But the developer did an admirable job, not just engaging the community, but actually responding to residents’ concerns. And here’s it’s probably a good idea to give some background….

Columbia Square, located on Sunset between El Centro and Gower, was first built in the late 30s by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Creating a major, state-of-the-art radio/recording studio in the area was seen as a boost, not just for Hollywood the place, but also Hollywood the brand. New York had dominated the national radio market since the beginning, but this was a sign that LA was trying to change that. The look of the building was an integral part of getting that message across. CBS chose modernist William Lescaze to design the project, and the building was one more landmark in LA’s long engagement with progressive architecture.

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The courtyard at the front of the complex

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Another shot of the courtyard

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One of the restored structures, now occupied by Neue House

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A view of the courtyard looking toward Sunset

As TV took over in the 40s and 50s, a number of popular shows originated from Columbia Square, but it was radio that kept hanging on through the years. Broadcasts continued to emanate from the studios until 2007, when the last tenant left. Then the building went dark, and for a while no one was sure what would happen to it. The property changed hands a few times, and different ideas were thrown around. In 2009 the City released an EIR for a project that included a 40-story tower. If you’ve been following development in Hollywood for any length of time, you can probably imagine how that went over.

But then a new developer took charge, and things changed dramatically. When Kilroy Realty Group acquired the property in 2012, they took the time to listen to the community and made some changes, crucially lowering the height of the tower to 22 stories. This is pretty amazing when you consider that the City had actually approved 28. They also decided to rethink the layout of the campus, allowing for more open space to engage the public. And they agreed to work with local preservationists to restore the historic Lescaze structures.

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Stairway leading to the rear of the campus

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A space to hang out in

The end result is a jewel. I’ve actually gone to Columbia Square a few times since it opened, just to walk around and take pictures. (And because the weather was different each time, the light in the photos keeps changing. Sorry if it’s a little jarring.) I think it’s important to mention the people involved in making this happen. The firm of House & Robertson designed the campus and the new buildings. In restoring the original structures they worked with Historic Resources Group. And the landscapes were created by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. The Los Angeles Conservancy was so impressed with the finished product that they gave the developer their 2017 Preservation Award. It’s worth reading the Conservancy’s description of the project to get an idea of how much time, money, and work went into the restoration process.

Columbia Square from the Los Angeles Conservancy

I’m so knocked out by the new complex, and by the way Kilroy approached the project, that I hate to voice any reservations. While I was writing this post I kept asking myself whether I wanted to make any critical comments, because in some respects the revitalized ColumbiaSquare is a model of what redevelopment should be. But there are a couple of things I think it’s important to note….

First, while the residential tower is beautiful, the prices are way beyond what the average person living in Hollywood could afford. And the addition of a couple hundred high-end apartments is just another step in the ongoing gentrification of the area. Even as I write this, more low-income tenants are being pushed out of their homes.

Second, while the City has tried to portray this, and other projects like it, as transit-oriented development, it’s highly unlikely that the people who live at Columbia Square will be taking transit on a regular basis. The City has been pushing this line for years, and the results have been disastrous. Transit ridership in LA is lower now than it was back in the 80s, and continues to decline. City Hall’s continued insistence that building high-profile, high-end megaprojects is going to get people on busses and trains just shows how clueless our elected officials are.

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The Gower side of the campus

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Landscaping and benches along Gower

But let’s end on a positive note. I want to congratulate Kilroy, and all the others involved, in coming up with a project that has so much to recommend it. This is an unusual instance where a major developer respected the local context, and more important, the local community. The new Columbia Square is a beautiful piece of design, and it’s brought some major media players to the area, along with hundreds of jobs. Over all, it’s an important step forward for Hollywood the brand, the concept, the industry, and the place.

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LA’s Latest Innovation: Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks

RD Ovrcast

You just never know what the City of LA will come up with next….

There was an empty lot in my neighborhood that had been sitting vacant for years.  After a developer pitched a hotel for the site and got turned down, a new project came along consisting of 18 3-story condos.  It seemed like a good fit, the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council (HHWNC) looked it over and gave it a thumbs up, and construction started last year.

Everything seemed okay until last November when I noticed what looked like a railing going up around the perimeter of the roof.  Were they adding rooftop decks?  That wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice for the project or the environmental assessment, and it wasn’t part of the project approved by the HHWNC.  Not long after the railing went up, it became clear that the construction crew had added staircases leading to the roof, and soon they were building stairwell coverings.

Why was I concerned?  Well, here in Hollywood people like to give parties.  Nothing wrong with parties in general, but sometimes they get pretty noisy, and sometimes they go on really late.  It’s already an issue in the neighborhood, and building 18 individual rooftop decks seemed like it was just increasing the chances of someone throwing an all-night open-air bash.

So initially my concern was selfish.  I was worried about the noise this project might create, and I was wondering why the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the package that was presented to the community and approved by the Department of City Planning (DCP).  I called up my City Council office, and talked to a very nice guy who said he’d look into it.  Over the next two months I sent three e-mails to this Council Office staffer asking for an update.  Never got an answer.

But during that time it occurred to me that there might be another problem with this project, a much more serious issue than raucous late night parties….

You see, these condos are going up right next to the Hollywood Freeway.  I’d say at the farthest point the structure is about 150 feet from the freeway and at the nearest point about 50.   I started wondering if building so close to a major traffic corridor wouldn’t pose health risks for the future occupants, so I got on the net to do some research.

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The space between the project site and the freeway.

Probably everybody reading this already knows what I found out.  There’s a large body of research showing a higher incidence of respiratory problems among people who live near freeways.  The risk is especially high for children and seniors.  In fact, young people can suffer lifelong damage since ongoing exposure to pollutants from auto exhaust may affect the development of their lungs.  This problem has gotten a lot of media attention recently, but the information has been out there for years.  USC has been studying the effects of air pollution on children since the 90s.  Here’s an article published by USC News back in 2004.

USC Study Links Smoggy Air to Lung Damage in Children, September 2004

Not long after, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published their Air Quality and Land Use Handbook, warning cities about the risks of building housing near freeways.  Here’s the number one item on the handbook’s list of recommendations.

“Avoid siting new sensitive land uses within 500 feet of a freeway, urban roads with 100,000 vehicles/day, or rural roads with 50,000 vehicles/day.”

So the information has been out there for more than a decade, and the City Council is well aware of the health impacts to people living close to freeways.  They’ve talked about ways to deal with the risks, but very little has happened in the way of concrete action.  In fact, in recent years the Council has approved thousands of residential units in close proximity to freeways.  They argue that LA’s housing shortage is so dire we can’t afford to prohibit construction in these areas even if there are health risks.  Even though I don’t buy that argument, I know that many people would agree.

But rooftop decks?!  Are they crazy?!

After reading up on the potential health risks, the idea of adding rooftop decks to these condos seemed so absolutely insane I thought it was worth making a few phone calls.  I rang up the woman at the DCP who prepared the initial study for the project.  I explained that the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the project description or the renderings that were shown to the HHWNC, and that the height had increased by 30%.  She said that the project complied with existing zoning and that the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) had the final authority over what was permitted.  I asked how the DCP could allow this since noise impacts from rooftop decks weren’t considered in the environmental assessment.  She replied that the DCP had considered operational impacts from the project and had approved the assessment.  Finally, I pointed out that the rooftop decks posed significant potential health risks to the future tenants.  Her response was that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not require the DCP to consider impacts to those who would live on the site in the future.

I was angry, but not really surprised.  I’ve realized over the last few years that the folks at the DCP really don’t care about how proposed projects will affect the lives of the people who live in this city.  It’s all about keeping the developers happy.

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Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near the project site.

Who knows why I even went on to contact LADBS.  I guess I must get some kind of sick kick out of banging my head against a wall.  Anyway, here’s their response.

 

The roof top decks and the overall building height of 44.9 feet is allowed by right, therefore LADBS does have the ability to approve the project as proposed.  The Zoning Variance reviewed by City Planning only addressed a parking requirement.  City Planning has approved the plans for the current project.

LADBS’ authority to approve projects is based on Building Code requirements.  The Building Code does not have any restrictions for a rooftop deck near a freeway.

 

So according to LADBS, they did everything by the book.  They don’t see a problem.

But there is a problem here.  It’s bad enough that a developer is allowed to present one project to the community and then build something substantially different.  But it’s even worse when a developer is allowed to create a clear health risk for the people who will live in the finished building.

I tried arguing with the bureaucrats who approve these projects and got nowhere.  Maybe it’s time to take it to the higher-ups.  If you feel there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed, I hope you’ll feel strongly enough about it to write an e-mail to the three people listed below.  And please use the following subject line….

Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks at 2111 Cahuenga

Eric Garcetti, Mayor

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

Vince Bertoni, Director of City Planning

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Frank M. Bush, LADBS General Manager

frank.bush@lacity.org

RD Tight

 

 

Tenants Kicked Out as Landlords Cash In

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Ellis Act evictions are so common in LA these days that I’ve gotten used to hearing reports of landlords kicking their tenants out. It happens all the time. As speculative development continues to push property values higher, property owners are eager to cash in. Over 20,000 units have been removed from the rental market through the Ellis Act since 2000. And in addition to the thousands of tenants who’ve been kicked out under Ellis, it’s likely that thousands more have lost their apartments because they were bamboozled by unscrupulous landlords using cash-for-keys scams.

In the course of writing this blog I’ve met a number of people who’ve either already been evicted or are facing eviction. So when I went to meet a group of tenants who live in a small building on Las Palmas it seemed like a familiar scenario. The owner plans to demolish the existing structure in order to build a 7-story mixed-use project, and so the people currently living there have got to go. The breadwinners in these families are working hard to make ends meet, and odds are they’re getting by on paychecks that add up to well below LA’s median income. While I’m sure they’re worried about getting evicted, one thing that encouraged me is that they seemed much more angry than scared. They’re not going to take this lying down.

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Some of the tenants facing eviction.

The tenants are paying much less than the area’s median rent, but they’re also getting next to nothing in terms of repairs and maintenance. I could see walking into the building that the owner wasn’t taking care of it properly. The tenants told me a number of stories about problems with their units that the landlord was either slow to fix or didn’t fix at all. My guess is that he’s been sitting on the property, waiting for the right deal to come along, and didn’t see any point in spending money on upkeep. I should mention that he has laid out some cash to fix up a few of the units, just not the ones that are occupied by the current tenants. You may be asking, why would he do that? The answer is simple. He’s posting the refurbished units on the net as short-term rentals. This is a pretty common practice. Landlords are doing it all over the city, and it’s more or less legal unless the tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act. So when we talk about a shortage of apartments in LA, we have to remember that there are probably thousands of units that are actually being used as unofficial hotel rooms.

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Council District 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain.

My friend Sylvie Shain came by to talk with the tenants. Sylvie is running for the CD 13 council seat, in large part because of her concern over LA’s affordable housing crisis. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be evicted, having been forced out of her apartment by owners who planned to turn the building into a boutique hotel. Sylvie spent over an hour with the tenants, giving them info on what protections they had under the law and helping them figure out their next steps.

Several days later I went to a neighborhood council meeting on the proposed project. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the impacts of the new structure, not the eviction of the current tenants, but it’s hard to separate the two. The owner has said that he will reserve seven units in the new building to replace the seven units that are currently occupied in the old building, and that he will offer them to the current tenants at the price they’re now paying. This may sound like a good deal, but there are a few problems with it. First, the owner hasn’t actually signed an agreement, which means he’s under no obligation to honor these terms. Second, while the owner is offering to replace seven units, there are actually fifteen units in the existing building that are covered by the rent stabilization ordinance (RSO). His deal would mean the loss of eight more RSO units. This may not sound like a lot by itself, but thousands of RSO units have been taken off the market in recent years, which is one of the reasons affordable housing is so scarce these days. Third, the owner knows that the new structure will probably take a couple of years to complete. If the current tenants get forced out, there’s a good chance they won’t find anything they can afford in LA. It’s entirely possible that by the time the proposed project is completed, none of them will still be living in the area, and he won’t have to offer them anything.

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Neighborhood Council meeting on the proposed project.

Then there’s the way the Department of City Planning (DCP) is trying to push this project through. They’re trying to approve it with a categorical exemption, which means they’re arguing that because it’s in-fill development and conforms to the current zoning, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) doesn’t require an environmental assessment. And to make that argument, they cite CEQA Guidelines, Section 15332. But CEQA requires that the project meet a number of conditions in order to grant the exemption, including the following….

Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.

Traffic is already getting to be a problem on Las Palmas. Formerly a quiet residential street with one lane going each direction, in recent years it’s become a short cut for drivers looking to avoid congestion on Highland during rush hour. And traffic on Las Palmas is going to get a lot worse, because in addition to this project there are two others about the same size that are currently under construction, one just to the north and one just to the south of the existing building. But wait, there’s more. At the corner of Las Palmas and Franklin work recently began on a complex that wil contain over 100 units. In other words, if this project is approved, the neighborhood will gain about 300 units, which will definitely have a significant impact on traffic.*

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Traffic northbound on Las Palmas at rush hour.

What’s more, the proposed project is about 500 feet away from the facility that houses both the Canyon Pre-School and the Las Palmas Sr. Center. Children and seniors are known to be sensitive receptors, and to say that there will be no significant impacts to air quality or noise levels during construction is ridiculous. The kids and seniors at this small facility already suffered an onslaught of construction dust and noise when work on the project at Las Palmas and Franklin began last year. But the DCP apparently just doesn’t give a damn, and so they’re trying to rush this project through with no environmental review whatsoever.

After the neighborhood council meeting, I contacted the DCP hearing officer to find out what the timetable was for the project’s approval. It’s tentatively scheduled to go before the City Planning Commission on April 13, though it could get pushed back. Meanwhile, the tenants wait and wonder whether they’ll have to find a new place to live, in a city where rents are spiralling higher every year.

*
Some housing advocates may be cheered by this news, but don’t get too excited. The vast majority of these units will be well beyond the reach of those making the area’s median income, $34,807 a year. [Source: LA Times, Measuring income along L.A.’s Metro stations by Kyle Kim and Sandra Poindexter, March 4, 2016]

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View of construction site from Highland.

Party Hotel Will Be Elementary School’s New Neighbor

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It’s rough for elementary schools in urban Los Angeles. In addition to the usual challenges involved in providing kids with an education, they’ve also got to deal with gangs, vandalism, and a growing homeless population which includes a number of people with mental health and substance abuse issues. I used to work as a TA at a Hollywood elementary school. Sadly, during the time I worked there the security problems got so bad that we had to restrict parents’ access to the school.

You can tell by the high fence surrounding Selma Avenue Elementary that security is an issue there. When I walked by a few days ago there were a number of homeless people camped out near the school. There were signs posted which read “POSSESSION OF WEAPONS ON SCHOOL GROUNDS IS A CRIME”. Traffic is also increasing on this formerly quiet street. So it’s clear that the kids at Selma Elementary are already dealing with a number of challenges. I can’t understand why the Department of City Planning wants to make life even harder for them.

Toward the end of January I attended a City Planning Commission hearing where Commissioners adopted the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the tommie hotel at 6516 Selma, a short distance from Selma Elementary. The hotel will be built by developer Five Chairs, and operated by Two Roads Hospitality. The building will rise eight stories, with bar/lounges on the ground floor and rooftop deck, and it will offer live entertainment.

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Apartment building directly across from the project site.

Let me say right off that Two Roads is an international firm with an excellent reputation. They operate hotels in the US and overseas, the majority of which are very popular with travellers, receiving high ratings on Yelp. But the tommie hotel is a new concept for them, and very different from most of their other locations. Two Roads mostly runs resort getaways in scenic areas and classy hotels in big cities. They’re trying something different here, aiming at a younger crowd, making restaurants, bars and nightlife part of the appeal. I wanted to get a better idea of what to expect from tommie, so I went to the company’s web site to see if they had any other hotels that offered a similar experience.

I found the Phoenix in San Francisco. Like tommie, it’s geared toward a youthful crowd, and like tommie, food, drink, music and nightlife are a central part of the experience. I took a look at the comments on Yelp, and most of the guests really liked the place. Some had complaints, which I’ll get to in a minute. But everybody seemed to agree that the Phoenix was a party hotel. And everybody also seemed to agree that it often got really loud. Let me share a few of the comments with you….

My little one and I were kept awake. Whe. I called and checked the webpage, no one mentioned therw would be large hotel parties. Profanity, arguments and glass breaking occured right outside our door well past midnight.

The noise from the all night non stop party allowed us zero sleep!! [The guest goes with the night manager to talk to the rowdy neighbors.] Then a wasted (not booze or weed either) guy stumbles out of room 26 and says to me, “why did you book a room at
the Phoenix knowing it was a party hotel.”

A great hotel if you’re not at all interested in sleeping. Ever. The bar is ridiculously loud considering its size, not to mention that it’s brimming with attitude. I’m kit joking. This is the loudest hotel ever.

This hotel is only good if you are a stoner. Loud, druggie infused place. I have never seen worse and I should have read the other reviews. The guy that checked us in was stoned. NOT a family place.

There was literally a huge party of hundreds happening 20 yards from our door. The front desk seemed surprised that this was bothersome since the “loudspeaker and mics” were to be off by ten. Trust me, the party continued,

I had a terrible experience here. Apparently during the summer on Saturdays they host some kind of swap meet and show where they take over the courtyard and blast music at full volume all day. It was terrible.

The reason I was not happy with the place is because I was very tired when I arrived and needed to get some sleep. It turns out that it is a PARTY hotel. The entire courtyard is part of the bar at the hotel. It is not just a little bar, it is a big bar/club for all of the locals. If I would have known this I would have not stayed their. On the other hand, if you are looking for a place to get rowdy and party all night, this hotel is for you.

So Two Roads is trying out a new concept designed for young people who like to party. I don’t have a problem with that at all. It might be a great idea for a bustling commercial district. But in a neighborhood filled with dozens of apartment buildings? With low-income housing right next door? With dormitories for students nearby? With senior housing just over two blocks away? And with an elementary school less than 500 feet away? This is a really bad idea.

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Casa Verde in foreground, right next to the project site.

I’m sure some people will be saying, “What’s the problem? The kids are in school on weekdays and the hotel will probably host parties on weekend nights. What are you worried about?” First, the hotel will be serving alcohol throughout the day, seven days a week. I’m very concerned about people having a couple of martinis over a late lunch and then getting in their car and heading west on Selma around 3:00 pm. Second, while the hotel will most likely be scheduling any parties for the weekend, I don’t recall any conditions that would prohibit them from throwing a bash during the week. Third, I’ve got a news flash for you. Small children don’t magically vanish over the weekend. Even if they’re not in school, they’re still living in the neighborhood and they still have to deal with whatever’s going on around them, including raucous parties at chic hotels, along with whatever action spills over onto the street.

But let’s go back to the MND. For those who aren’t familiar with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), let me give you a very quick, very rough overview. Generally speaking, there are three levels of environmental review. The MND falls in between the lowest, a Negative Declaration, and the highest, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). By choosing to do an MND, the Department of City Planning (DCP) is basically saying, “Yes, there could be impacts to the community, but it’s okay, because the developer can mitigate those impacts so they won’t be a problem.” This might sound reasonable, but lately the DCP has made a habit of using MNDs to rush approval of projects that really require an EIR. An EIR takes time and costs money, and you have to get input from the community. An MND takes less time, costs less money, and when the DCP goes this route, community input becomes an annoying formality that they try to dispense with as quickly as possible. But the worst part is, the DCP doesn’t even seem to feel that MNDs need to be complete or accurate. Often they’re downright dishonest. You want an example? The MND for the tommie contains a section entitled Surrounding Land Uses on page II-5. While the authors list a number of buildings that are close by the project site, they somehow fail to mention that there’s an elementary school just down the street. In fact, they list a number of historic structures that are within a 3,000 foot radius, but they somehow neglect to say that Selma Elementary is less than 500 feet away.

How could this be? Was it an oversight? Maybe the folks that prepared the MND, EcoTierra Consulting, are just so inept that they never noticed the elementary school. But what about the people at the DCP? Aren’t they supposed to review environmental documents to make sure they’re accurate? Yeah, they are. And they wouldn’t even have to leave their Downtown offices to check this out. All they’d have to do is get on ZIMAS, a web site maintained by the City to provide zoning and planning info, to find out what’s in the surrounding area. Here’s a screen shot to give you an idea.

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The red box is the project site, and the area highlighted in green is Selma Elementary. But how would the people at the DCP know it’s a school? It’s marked as a public facility, but that’s pretty general. Could be almost anything. For future reference, I’d like to point out to DCP staff that all they have do is click on the tab titled Planning and Zoning to see that ZIMAS clearly indicates that the site is within 500 feet of a school. In fact, in addition to Selma Elementary, the site is also home to Larchmont Charter School.

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So how about the folks on the City Planning Commission? If the MND didn’t mention the school, how could they have known about it? Well, I mentioned it, both in written comments submitted to the DCP and in my verbal comments on the day of the hearing. Did that get a reaction? Nope. While the Commissioners spent plenty of time haggling over conditions of use and mitigation measures, they didn’t refer to the school once during their deliberations. They didn’t express surprise that the MND fails to state that a school is located nearby. They didn’t even ask how far away the school is.

The Commissioners asked how Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell felt about the project, and learned that he doesn’t support or oppose it. That’s understandable. O’Farrell’s up for re-election, and he knows a lot of people are really ticked off about the fact that he’s backed some lousy projects before. On the other hand, he can’t really oppose it either, because he’s received a few thousand bucks from people involved with the project. According to the Los Angeles Ethics Commission web site, Richard Heyman of Five Chairs gave $1,400 to O’Farrell’s legal defense fund on April 4, 2016. Andrew Shayne of Hollywood International Regional Center, Five Chairs’ parent company, also gave $1,400 to O’Farrell’s legal defense fund on April 26, 2016. And Jeffrey Reinstein of Geolo Capital, which is a co-developer of this project, gave $700 to O’Farrell’s re-election campaign on March 21, 2016. So this must be a tough one for Mitch. If you ask me, he should have come out against this project a long time ago, simply based on the fact that it’s less than 500 feet from an elementary school. But maybe like the consultant who prepared the MND and the folks who reviewed it at the DCP, O’Farrell isn’t aware that the school is there. Wouldn’t surprise me. Maybe that pile of cash from the developers is blocking his view.

When I was at the hearing, I was surprised how few people showed up to speak against the project. Nobody from Casa Verde, the apartment building right next to the site that offers affordable housing. Nobody from the other apartment buildings close by. And nobody from the Los Angeles Unified School District?! That was really weird.

Then I started wondering. Did they even know about the hearing?

I called LAUSD and left a message, even though I wasn’t sure I had the right person. Then I called Larchmont Charter School, which operates a school on the Selma Elementary campus. They hadn’t heard a thing about the hotel. Next I called Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, the affordable housing developer that owns Casa Verde. The woman I spoke to said she had only just heard about the hotel.

Then I heard back from LAUSD, and after talking with them, they offered this statement.

“The Office of Environmental Health & Safety does not have record of receiving notice regarding this project at the newly proposed location.

L.A. Unified will be preparing and submitting a comment letter to the City of Los Angeles that will express our concerns with regard to this proposed project.

Specifically, L.A. Unified will be looking at potential air quality, noise, and traffic/pedestrian safety issues, as well as land use compatibility issues associated with alcohol service in close proximity to Selma Avenue Elementary School.”

I want to be clear here. The DCP is not required to send notices to stakeholders about proposed projects. The California Environmental Quality Act offers three options for informing people, and the lead agency can satisfy the requirement just by putting a notice in the newspaper, which is probably what the DCP did. But I have to say that in a case like this, where there are a number of sensitive uses nearby, one of them being an elementary school, the DCP had a moral obligation to get the word out to the community. They should have made every effort to insure that all stakeholders were involved in the environmental review process, especially the parents and staff at Selma Elementary and Larchmont Charter.

How is it possible that this MND was prepared without making sure that LAUSD had reviewed it and had the opportunity to comment? How is it possible that not one of the Commissioners expressed surprise that an LAUSD representative was not present at the CPC hearing? How is it possible that no one representing CD 13 stepped in to point out that the project site was a few hundred feet away from a school?

How come no one was looking out for these kids?

The California Environmental Quality Act says that….

“An EIR must be prepared when there is substantial evidence in the record that supports a fair argument that significant effects may occur.”

CEQA Flow Chart

There’s no question that a hotel offering bar/lounges on the ground floor and rooftop, which also offers live entertainment, and which is intended to attract both paying guests and local club-goers, is going to have substantial effects on the community. Clearly this project requires a full EIR.

So what are the next steps? Three things need to happen here….

1.
At its next hearing, the CPC needs to rescind their adoption of the MND.

2.
After rescinding the MND, all of the Commissioners should resign immediately. Their failure to show the slightest interest in the health and safety of LAUSD students is inexcusable.

3.
The DCP needs to start the process all over again with full EIR.

If you agree with me that this whole process has been unfair and dishonest, I’d like to suggest that you communicate with the following people….

Contact May Sirinopwongsagon, the DCP staff contact for this project, and tell her you can’t believe the MND doesn’t list the school among the surrounding uses.
May Sirinopwongsagon, Department of City Planning
may.sirinopwongsagon@lacity.org

Contact Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and ask him why his office didn’t object from the start to building a project like this less than 500 feet from an elementary school.
Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, Council District 13
councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

Contact Mayor Eric Garcetti and tell him he needs to demand resignations from all the members of the City Planning Commission.
Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

It would be a good idea to include the following information in the subject line.

tommie hotel, CPC-2016-270-VZC-HDCUB-SPR, ENV-2016-4313-MND

I urge you to speak up for these kids, because they need to have someone looking out for them. It doesn’t seem like anybody at City Hall gives a damn.

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Fantasy and Reality

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Last week a friend of mine called to tell me he’d just seen La La Land. The movie knocked him out, and he urged me to see it. I didn’t need too much urging, since I’d already heard good stuff about it. So last night I went down to the Arclight to see what all the fuss was about.

I loved the movie. I was hooked from the opening sequence, a massive dance number in the middle of a freeway traffic jam. In fact, it started off so well I was afraid the makers wouldn’t be able to sustain that level of energy and creativity throughout. But I didn’t need to worry. Writer/director Damien Chazelle shows amazing skill and style. I was completely swept up in this archetypal Hollywood romance, and pulled into the lives of the struggling actress and the stubborn musician.

I was so completely involved that I was totally bummed when the film stopped abruptly and the theatre’s fire alarm started sounding. But we all got up and went outside. The courtyard was packed and it was freezing cold while we waited to see what would happen. Fortunately, the fire department showed up right away and resolved the problem quickly. (I never found out what triggered the alarm.) We were back inside within twenty minutes.

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La La Land is a lovely fantasy about Los Angeles. While no one would mistake it for a realistic picture of this crazy town, it was good to see a movie that focussed on the positive rather than the negative. There’s plenty to hate in LA, but also plenty to love. Chazelle celebrates the city’s beauty and history without sliding into maudlin sentimentality. And while La La Land certainly doesn’t show the ugliest or scariest aspects of life in LA, it spends a fair amount of time delving into the downside. The two main characters are both struggling to get a break, and the film doesn’t shy away from their disappointment, frustration and bitterness. And while the movie features plenty of the shallow, superficial types that are often associated with LA, I liked the fact that it focussed on two people who are passionate about their art. Those people live here, too, even though we don’t see them on the screen too often.

I felt elated when I walked out of the theatre. The reality we’re living these days is so damn scary, it was good to see a movie that showed how joyous life can be. But going back home I passed through the real Hollywood. Walking down those streets on a cold December night it was clear that the divide between success and failure, wealth and poverty, is much wider, much more stark, than anything we see on the big screen. It’s great when you can settle down in a dark theatre and escape into a movie. But when the movie’s over, the world is still waiting for you outside.

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