The Renovated Glendale Central Library

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Months ago I was walking through Glendale and came to the corner of Harvard and Louise, where I saw something that freaked me out. The Glendale Central Library was surrounded by chain link fencing covered with green fabric. I knew that meant construction crews were working on the building, and I expected the worst. I love libraries, and the Glendale Central Library has long been one of my favorite places in LA. This brutalist beauty was designed by Welton Becket & Associates and opened in 1973. Its severe concrete exterior contains a wonderfully spacious interior that I’ve wandered through many times. I have fond memories pulling a few books off the shelf and sinking into a cozy chair in the ground floor reading area. When I saw they were remodelling it, I immediately expected the worst. I knew they were going to wreck the place.

But I was wrong. I have to give credit to the City of Glendale, and everyone else involved with the project. The renovated Central Library is total success. While there are a number of changes, they took care to respect the character of the original building. The entrance used to be from the parking lot on Louise. Now there are two entrances, one on Harvard and one at the rear of the library. In addition to upgrading the auditorium and the teen space, several new components have been added, including a Maker Space, a Digital Lab, and a Remembrance Room.

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The main entrance has been moved to the Harvard side of the library.

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An open area has been added adjacent to the new entrance.

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New landscaping on Harvard.

The City of Glendale chose Gruen Associates to oversee the renovation, and Debra Gerod headed up their team. Historic Resources Group was the preservation consultant. There were numerous others involved with the project, from City staff to individual contractors, and I hope they’ll forgive me for not mentioning them all by name.

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Another entrance was added at the rear.

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While the entrance on Louise has been closed, no alterations have been made to that side of the structure.

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Here’s a shot of the lower level.

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And here’s a shot of the upper level.

Renovating a historic building is a complex undertaking. Glendale wanted to take their 40+ year old Central Library and bring it into the 21st century, making sure it remains a relevant and useful part of the community. They did a beautiful job. I’m impressed.

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Tenants Raise Alarm at Historic Schindler Apartments

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The speculative real estate binge that’s sweeping across LA right now has drawn a swarm of unscrupulous people willing to do whatever it takes to make a profit. In talking to community members over the past few years I’ve heard some hair-raising stories, but nothing that tops the reports I’ve heard from the tenants of the Sachs Apartments in Silverlake.

To give you some background, the Sachs Apartments (also known as Manola Court) were created by architect Rudolph Schindler for interior designer Herman Sachs. They’re a stunning example of Schindler’s work, a collection of buildings that step gracefully down a hillside, connected by steep stairways and terraced paths. The City of LA has recognized the importance of the site, naming it a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) in 2016.

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A view of the Sachs Apartments from Edgecliffe.

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Another view from Edgecliffe.

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A gate leading to a walkway between two buildings.

The Sachs Apartments were purchased by the current owners some years back. While there are three names listed on documents filed with the City, the person who has been dealing with the tenants and supervising the “restoration” is Paul Finegold. I’ve been hearing a lot about Mr. Finegold lately, and most of the comments have been pretty negative.

To start with, a number of tenants claim that Finegold has been harrassing them, and they believe he’s doing his best to get rid of them. There have been reports that he doesn’t maintain the units properly, and is slow to act when problems come up. I wanted to learn more, so last Thursday I showed up for a meeting of the Urban Design & Preservation Advisory Committee of the local neighborhood council. The only item on the agenda was the situation at the Sachs Apartments, and there was plenty to talk about. A number of tenants attended. They talked about water leaking through the ceiling, workers leaving debris on the site, and respiratory issues that may be related to dust from construction. Apparently Finegold has posted at least one unit on AirBnB, and the tenants said the guests are often out of control. One woman said she found a couple having sex right in front of her apartment.

And there’s more. According to the people at the meeting, three tenants have already been evicted by Finegold, who claimed that he, his mother, and a resident manager were moving in. But according to the current tenants, neither Finegold nor his mother nor the manager are living on the site.

Beyond all that, a lot of people are asking whether Finegold is restoring the Sachs Apartments or wrecking them. Remember, this is a Historic-Cultural Monument designed by someone who played a key role in LA’s architectural history. Having pledged to do a careful restoration of the site, Finegold is receiving substantial tax breaks under the Mills Act. But tenants say he’s made significant alterations, reconfiguring the interiors of some units and removing the bathroom from one. They also claim workers have cut down 4 mature trees and removed tiles designed by the original owner, Herman Sachs. Former tenant Judith Sheine, an authority on Schindler’s work, has expressed her concern that Finegold’s crews are doing damage to the complex.

I decided to go to the LA Department of Building & Safety (LADBS) web site to check out some of the permits that Finegold has pulled. Here are some excerpts….

“REMOVE FULL BATH ON FIRST FLOOR AND CREATE A POWDER ROOM ELSEWHERE ALSO ON FIRST FLOOR. NO CHANGE TO PLOT PLAN.”

“CONVERT A 3 UNIT APARTMENT TO A 4 UNIT APARTMENT WITH INTERIOR ALTERATIONS.”

“ADD NEW BATH; REMOVE AND REPLACE SELECTED WINDOWS; NEW ROOFING; NEW COLOR COAT EXTERIOR PLASTER”

Is it really okay to do all this with a building that’s been designated as an HCM? Was LADBS aware that this is a historic building? Obviously, any structure that’s over 80 years old is going to need some work to comply with current codes, but removing a bathroom? Converting one structure from 3 to 4 units? Remember, Finegold is getting tax breaks under the Mills Act for the work he’s doing, and that means he’s required to follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Historic Resources Group, a widely respected consulting firm, helped Finegold file the Mills Act application. Do they know what’s going on at the Sachs Apartments?

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A view of the Sachs Apartments from Lucile.

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Far corner of the building on Lucile.

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Another view of the building from Lucile.

And to top it all off, now Finegold has applied to convert 5 of the units to a bed and breakfast. That may seem like a small number, but remember, we’re in the middle of a housing crisis. And based on their experiences with Finegold, some of the tenants are worried that he eventually plans to convert the whole complex to a bed and breakfast.

So, will the Department of City Planning (DCP) reward this guy by allowing the change of use? Seems likely. In spite of the fact that City Hall keeps telling us that we don’t have nearly enough housing, the DCP has shown itself to be more than willing to work with owners who want to remove rental units from the market. The DCP has heard all about the tenants’ concerns, and so has Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office. But so far nobody from the City seems willing to stand up and ask what the hell is going on at the Sachs Apartments.

If you think somebody from the City should be asking questions, maybe you could let them know you’re concerned. Send an e-mail to DCP staffer Azeen Khanmalek, and be sure to copy Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.

How about this for a subject line?

Investigate Possible Damage to Historic Sachs Apartments

Azeen Khanmalek, Department of City Planning
Azeen.Khanmalek@lacity.org

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell
councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

Sachs 30 Luc Rising

Help Koreatown Hang On to Liberty Park

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Los Angeles is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to providing public parks for its citizens. In rating 100 US cities on their park systems, The Trust for Public Land put LA at number 74. And while the city as a whole is lacking in public space for recreation, there are some neighborhoods where the need is especially acute.

Like Koreatown. This dense urban community has plenty of asphalt and concrete, but not much green space. So it’s disturbing news when a proposed project threatens to take away one of the few parks available to residents.

Liberty Park was completed in 1967 as part of Beneficial Plaza on Wilshire Blvd.. Designed by Peter Walker, its graceful curves and striking contrasts make it a unique experience. Walker was just starting his career in the 60s, but has since been become an internationally recognized landscape architect.

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A view of the park facing away from Wilshire.

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The park provides much needed green space in Koreatown.

 

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Liberty Park provides a quiet space in the middle of a busy urban area.

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The park sits at the foot of the former Beneficial Plaza.

But even more important than the park’s design is the place it holds in the community. In an area where parks are scarce, this is one of the few places where people can escape to relax on the grass or read in the shade of a tree. It’s also been a gathering place for the community, whether to celebrate Earth Day or to rally behind the South Korean team during World Cup Soccer.

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A tall grove of trees provides much-needed shade.

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Looking through the trees toward the building that now houses Radio Korea.

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The park’s design offers some interesting contrasts.

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Looking up from beneath the trees.

The proposed project is a mixed-use complex rising 30+ stories, and if approved in its current version it would reduce Liberty Park to nothing more than a few scraps of green space. It’s frustrating that the City of LA only required the developers to prepare a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for this new complex, allowing them to get away with a relatively low level of environmental review. It’s even more frustrating that the MND concludes that this project will have no impact on historic resources. This is ridiculous. Beneficial Plaza as a whole holds in important place in the area’s history, and there’s nothing else like Liberty Park in all of LA.

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A view of the park facing Serrano.

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A view of the park from the Oxford side.

But it’s not too late to preserve this beautiful and unique public resource. A group called Save Liberty Park has been working hard to raise awareness, and hopefully they can get City Hall to change course on this. They need your help. Here’s the link if you want to get involved.

Save Liberty Park

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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.

 

LA River Clean-Up: Willow Street Estuary

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Yesterday I went down to Long Beach to take part in the annual LA River Clean-Up, organized by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). The Willow Street Estuary isn’t far from where the river flows into the ocean, and it’s one of the few stretches where the bottom is earth instead of concrete.

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It wasn’t hard to find the clean-up.

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Dozens of people beat me down there.

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The people working the registration table were keeping busy.

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Everybody got a pair of gloves and a bag.

There were already plenty of people there when I showed up a little after nine. It took just a few minutes to sign the waiver, grab a trash bag and do the orientation. Then I joined the crowd of people climbing down the bank to the river.

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Heading down the bank to the river.

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Hundreds of people combing the river bed for trash.

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Lots of families showed up.

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Kids were some of the hardest workers.

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It wasn’t all trash.  I found this face staring at me from among the rocks.

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A few guys waded all the way across the river.

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This is just some of the trash that was collected.

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The work wasn’t hard, and it was a great day to be outdoors.

If you don’t know what an estuary is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t either until I looked it up on the net. Generally speaking it’s where a river nears the ocean, and fresh water meets salt water. They’re an important part of the ecosystem, filtering runoff and serving as a breeding ground for fish and birds. Watch this video from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to learn more.

What Is an Estuary?

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The water is placid as it emerges from under the Willow Street Bridge.

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The surface gets a little roiled where the river narrows.

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From the estuary, the river rolls down to meet the ocean.

Aside from organizing the LA River Clean-Up, FOLAR presents events throughout the year. They’ve been working to preserve and restore the river longer than anyone else, and they’ve racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in their 30 year history. If you want to get involved, start by visiting their web site.

FOLAR

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Trashing a Treasure

Norton Entrance a

Well, for a while it looked as though the preservation community might manage to save the two lovely apartment buildings on Norton Avenue that were slated for demolition.  But the developers have some sharp lawyers on their side, and now it appears that Norton Court (424-430 N. Norton Avenue) and Norton Flats (412-420 N. Norton Avenue) will soon be gone.

Members of the community have been working for months to save these beautiful examples of courtyard apartments.  Both buildings were constructed in the 20s, and according to Survey LA, they are among the “few remaining examples in the area that [retain their] original site plan, landscape and hardscape elements, and architectural features.”

Councilmember David Ryu came to the rescue recently with an emergency nomination of the buildings as Historical-Cultural Monuments (HCMs).  But the developers’ lawyers found a way to block the nomination on a technicality.  It seems they’re determined to destroy these buildings at all costs.

Norton Stairs b

This is not the first time the Cohanzads have knocked down a building that could have been protected as an HCM.  Whether they’re operating as Wiseman Residential, or one of the numerous LLCs they’ve created to protect themselves from liability, the Cohanzads have made a practice of knocking down older buildings to put up new ones.  They don’t seem to care how much of LA’s history they’re destroying, or how their projects affect LA’s communities.  They argue that by levelling small buildings and putting up big ones they’re doing us a favor by increasing the supply of housing.  But many of the units they’ve demolished were rent controlled, and the new units they’re creating are way too expensive for someone earning LA’s median income.  Doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me.

And then there’s the loss of treasures like the Norton courtyard apartments.  The number of structures like this is shrinking, and there are few left that are still substantially intact.  But the Cohanzads don’t seem to care.  I guess it’s all about profit for them.

It may be too late to save the Norton apartments, but we can try.  Please e-mail Councilmember David Ryu to thank him for his efforts so far, and to encourage him to maintain his support for preservation of these buildings.

David E. Ryu            david.ryu@lacity.org

Use the subject line, “Demolition of Norton Apartments”.

While you’re at it, copy your own Councilmember on the message.  Or better yet, copy them all.  And don’t forget the Mayor.

Gilbert Cedillo           councilmember.cedillo@lacity.org

Paul Krekorian         councilmember.krekorian@lacity.org

Bob Blumenfield      councilmember.blumenfield@lacity.org

Paul Koretz   paul.koretz@lacity.org

Nury Martinez           councilmember.martinez@lacity.org

Felipe Fuentes         councilmember.fuentes@lacity.org

Marqueece Harris-Dawson            councilmember.harris-dawson@lacity.org

Curren D. Price, Jr.  councilmember.price@lacity.org

Herb J. Wesson, Jr.             councilmember.wesson@lacity.org

Mike Bonin    councilmember.bonin@lacity.org

Mitchell Englander councilmember.englander@lacity.org

Mitch O’Farrell          councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

Jose Huizar   councilmember.huizar@lacity.org

Joe Buscaino           councildistrict15@lacity.org

Eric Garcetti  mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

We may not win this fight, but we can go down swinging.

Norton Lamp c

Waiting for Help, While Demolition Draws Nearer

Squatters have taken over a house in Valley Village.

Squatters have taken over a house in Valley Village.

Six months ago I’d never heard of The Hermitage. Because I follow development issues, I’d been copied on a few e-mails that described an urban farm in Valley Village that was threatened by a proposed residential project. But there are so many communities getting hammered by reckless development, I didn’t pay much attention. Until November, when I finally decided to check it out.

First, let me show you a few photos of what The Hermitage used to look like.

A garden in front of The Hermitage.

A garden in front of The Hermitage.

Chickens roaming freely.

Chickens roaming freely.

Open space inside The Hermitage.

Open space inside The Hermitage.

A cat checking out the garden.

A cat checking out the garden.

Ducks by the pool.

Ducks by the pool.

Another one of the residents of The Hermitage.

Another one of the residents of The Hermitage.

As you can see, it used to be a lovely place, a small collection of rustic buildings that served as a home to chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and bees. A unique urban farm in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. Now let me show you what it looked like when I visited.

This is what the garden out front looks like now.

This is what the garden out front looks like now.

A car left sitting on the property by squatters.

A car left sitting on the property by squatters.

A view of the open space within The Hermitage.

A view of the open space within The Hermitage.

Quite a change. You’re probably asking, “What happened?” Well, a lot of things. The story is so complicated, so twisted, and so disturbing on so many levels, I’m not sure if I can tell it properly. But this story needs to be told, so I’ll do my best.

Let’s start with the former manager, who still resides on the property, though she’s facing eviction. Because of her current situation (which will become clear as you read on), she was nervous about having her name appear in print, so I’ll call her the caretaker. The caretaker has been living at The Hermitage for over 20 years, and has truly taken care of the place. In addition to renting and maintaining the units, she also planted gardens, cared for the animals, and invited groups from the surrounding community to come and learn about nature.

But last year the caretaker’s lawyer informed her that developer Urban Blox was planning to buy the property. She was surprised, since she had an agreement with the owners that gave her the option to purchase The Hermitage if they ever decided to sell.

And this is where it starts getting complicated. Urban Blox did sign an agreement to purchase the property, but it’s not clear whether the owners, two elderly women, signed or not. While their signatures appear to be on a contract for the sale of the property, both women stated in subsequent depositions that they had no recollection of signing the agreement. It may be that a relative arranged the deal without their permission. In October 2014, the grandson of one of the owner’s showed up at the caretaker’s door to deliver a letter stating that she was no longer the manager. But in spite of his claim to be acting on the owners’ authority, their signatures were nowhere to be found on the letter. And in the same depositions referenced above, the owners say they never retained the grandson to represent them.

The caretaker made numerous attempts to contact the owners, without success. After months of uncertainty, having heard nothing from the owners and fearing that they were ready to sell to Urban Blox, the caretaker sued them to enforce her right to buy The Hermitage. In fall of this year, the LLC set up by Urban Blox to develop the property filed a suit against the owners, then amended the complaint to include the caretaker, then dropped the owners from the suit. Both cases are still pending

But that’s just one part of the story. By summer of this year, all the former residents of The Hermitage were gone. And while the legal power plays were unfolding, squatters began moving in to one of the vacant buildings on the property. The first one arrived in early summer, and by September a number of others had moved in. Since the squatters’ arrival, the caretaker reports numerous acts of theft and vandalism. Tools have been stolen from her workshop. Trees have been cut down and plants have been ripped out of the ground. She doesn’t feel safe when she’s at home, but she’s also afraid to leave, for fear of what might happen when she’s gone. And she’s kept a detailed log recounting numerous incidents.

But it’s not just the caretaker who’s been affected. Neighbors started getting nervous when they noticed strange chemical smells emanating from the house occupied by the squatters, and they were more than nervous when they saw visitors coming and going at all hours of the night. And there’s more. One of the squatters has been seen by neighbors walking down the sidewalk with a rifle in hand. This has also been documented in photographs. Since the squatters showed up the neighborhood has seen a rise in burglaries and car break-ins.

I talked to a couple of people who live in the community. The first woman I asked about the squatters told me she was frightened for the caretaker and frightened for the neighborhood. She also asked me to withhold her name for fear of reprisals. She did share her suspicions about the squatters running a drug lab, and told me that one of them had been shot recently. She didn’t feel safe, and wondered why the police weren’t doing more to protect residents. The second woman I spoke to was more angry than frightened, and she didn’t mind giving her name. Fiona Manning confirmed what the first neighbor had reported, and added a few more details. She has seen the squatters sitting out in the open drinking and smoking dope. She’s heard gunshots at night. She recounted an incident where a neighbor asked the squatters to turn down their music, and they responded with threats. Fiona also described an encounter she had with one of the squatters. As she was walking down the street, a young man reeking of pot started following her, and calling out, “I know you, I know you. Are you a friend of my grandmother’s?”

I had a brief exchange with one of the squatters on my first visit to The Hermitage. I don’t claim to be a substance abuse expert, but having lived in Hollywood for 20 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing meth addicts. This glassy-eyed, jacked-up, paranoid kid seemed to show all the signs.

What makes this even weirder is that the caretaker and her neighbors have called the North Hollywood Division of the LAPD on numerous occasions, and while the police have come by about a dozen times, they’ve taken no action to rein in the squatters. The caretaker and Fiona both report that they’ve been told by officers not to call any more. Apparently the North Hollywood Division has decided the problems have arisen from a landlord/tenant dispute, but that doesn’t begin to explain the numerous issues involved. Whatever’s happening with the property itself, the fact that the neighbors have seen one of the squatters carrying a gun, have heard gunshots, and reported burglaries and car break-ins seems to indicate there’s a little more going on than a tiff between a landlord and a tenant. I was surprised to hear about the North Hollywood Division’s apparent reluctance to take action. The few times I’ve called the LAPD they’ve usually been quick to respond and ready to help. I can’t understand why they haven’t tried harder to address this situation, especially since it seems that some of the squatters are on probation.

Once it became clear that the police weren’t going to take action, Fiona and others tried calling Councilmember Paul Krekorian’s office. Though there were numerous conversations with one of his staffers, and promises of help, nothing ever materialized. Actually, this doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve been in touch with a number of people who live in Krekorian’s district who’ve reported the same thing. His staffers are friendly, they’re always willing to listen, but the conversations never produce any results. A number of Krekorian’s constituents seem to feel that time spent talking to his staff is time wasted. You’d think that a councilmember might be moved to take action if constituents complained they were living in fear because of a group of squatters. Apparently Krekorian doesn’t think it’s a problem.

After receiving no help from Krekorian, the caretaker tried getting in touch with State Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, but nothing came of that. In desperation, she tried contacting every member of the State Assembly. Only Patty López’ office responded. Fiona says, “She was a godsend.” While the neighborhood’s own elected representatives apparently didn’t feel the situation warranted taking action, Patty López organized a meeting with members of the community. About 15 people showed up, and they had plenty to say. While López declined to get involved in problems related to the squatters, she was concerned enough about the project proposed by Urban Blox that she wrote a letter to Nazarian’s office. In it, she lists a number issues raised by the community, including vacating a public street for the developer’s benefit, the loss of green space, the loss of parking and impacts to wildlife.

The City Council's PLUM Committee has approved turning over the west end of Weddington to the developer.

The City Council has approved turning over the west end of Weddington to the developer.

In fact, throughout the approval process people have expressed serious doubts about the project. When it came before the Area Planning Commission, Vice-President Lydia Drew Mather said she wished the Council Office and the Developer had worked more with the community to address potential problems, and added that she felt the project was moving forward too fast. Commissioner Rebecca Beatty voiced concern about the fact that the project would get rid of rent-controlled units. Even City Councilmember José Huizar, Chair of the Planning & Land Use Management Committee, questioned the wisdom of greenlighting a project when the developer’s right to the property was being debated in court.

A rendering of the bland, generic units that Urban Blox wants to build.

A rendering of the bland, generic units that Urban Blox wants to build.

But did that stop the City Council from approving Urban Blox’ plan? Of course not. The Council gave it a thumbs up. They’re apparently okay with bulldozing rent-controlled units, vacating a public street, cutting down trees and displacing wildlife. This is what City Hall does. Our elected officials are happy to hand the developers an entitlement worth millions of dollars so they can get rid of a unique community resource and replace it with high-priced housing.

There’s one more detail I want to add just to throw a little more light on how projects get approved in LA. When a developer comes to the City with a proposed project, California law requires the Department of City Planning to prepare an Initial Study to assess what impacts the project might have. The Initial Study is used to determine what level of environmental review is required. In this case the Initial Study was signed by Planning Assistant Courtney Shum. Does it surprise you to learn that before taking the position at City Planning, Ms. Shum worked as a registered lobbyist for Max Development, LLC (DBA three6ixty), a firm that has received tens of thousands of dollars from its client Urban Blox?

If it was just a matter of the caretaker finding a new place, maybe she could walk away from this mess. But The Hermitage is also home to chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and bees. She is responsible for all of them. So she stays close to her small house and cares for the animals, reluctant to leave for fear of what might happen while she’s gone. And she still hopes that somehow she can hang on to her home.

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If you see a problem with a City Planning Assistant being involved with a project that benefits a client of her former employer’s, you might want to drop a line to Planning Director Vince Bertoni. Here’s his e-mail address.

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Don’t forget to include the case number in the subject line.

ENV-2015-2618-MND

And you could also copy your own Councilmember on the e-mail, just to let them know you’re fed up with the way City Hall does business.

A view of Weddington from The Hermitage before the trouble started.

A view of Weddington from The Hermitage before the trouble started.