Tar Pits Threatened by LACMA Expansion; MMRA Approves Motion to Preserve Green Space in Hancock Park

PREFACE: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA] touts the new Zumthor plan for the museum as a “proposal.” Their stated goal is to gather feedback on this re-design, but they frequently defer criticism by countering that it is only a proposal – a work in progress. It is a sophisticated strategy employed to ensnare commentators into semantics and make their remarks appear premature. Hence, the museum presents a moving target in order to exhaust critics. Whether it is a plan or a proposal, it is obviously a clear vision of what they would like the museum to be. LACMA’s proposal might be malleable, but their intentions are not.

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Model of Zumthor design for LACMA. Image courtesy of Museum Associates.

A lively debate has erupted on the potential impact of the Peter Zumthor re-design of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus. On September 24 representatives of the Page Museum and LACMA appeared before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to address concerns that the sprawling Zumthor building could severely affect the La Brea Tar Pits.

The Miracle Mile Residential Association [MMRA], too, is concerned that LACMA’s plans will not only have an adverse impact on the tar pits but also reduce green space at Hancock Park. At the August 29, 2013 MMRA Board of Director’s meeting a motion was adopted opposing LACMA’s expansion into Hancock Park.

Since its arrival in the early 1960s, LACMA has been steadily encroaching on Hancock Park – the largest public park in the Miracle Mile. The park’s green space provides a sense of well-being to our community and enhances our quality of life. It is where our residents go for an impromptu picnic, to jog, take a leisurely stroll, or to teach their child how to ride a bike.

But LACMA tends to view the park as their backyard. This attitude is evident in the expanding footprint of the new design for the museum – which boldly ignores several County Board of Supervisor’s resolutions limiting LACMA to 6 acres of the original 23-acre park.

The Miracle Mile is one of the most densely populated areas in Los Angeles. Since 2005 over 1200 new apartments have been constructed along Wilshire Boulevard corridor between La Brea Avenue and Fairfax Avenue – and many more are under construction or in the planning stages. The advent of the Purple Line subway extension will bring large Transit-Oriented-Density mixed-use buildings at both the La Brea Avenue and Orange Grove Avenue subway portals – and add thousands of new residents to the Miracle Mile.

Los Angeles lags all the major cities in California in parks per capita and ranks 17th among major U.S. cities. The paucity of parkland in Los Angeles and the ever-increasing population of the Miracle Mile emphasizes the critical importance of the Hancock Park to our community.

Hancock Park is a Swiss Army knife, so to speak – a multi-functional tool. It is most notable for being the site of the La Brea Tar Pits, the largest repository of Ice Age fossils in the world. It is also the home of the Page Museum, LACMA, and the soon-to-be Academy Museum – which will draw an additional one million visitors a year and create yet another strain on the park grounds.

The proposed Zumthor design consists of a single floor building – the approximate size of two football fields – floating thirty feet above grade. This encroachment into the park would upset the delicate balance of Hancock Park by overwhelming its original purpose to preserve and promote the history of the La Brea Tar Pits and, by reducing its green space, demoting its critical function as a public park.

Wealthy oilman G. Allan Hancock gave the land to Los Angeles County to “protect and preserve the La Brea Tar Pits.” The 1924 deed specified that the donation was “for Public Park purposes.”

When LACMA attempted to expand into Hancock Park in 1969 County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn introduced a motion – that was unanimously adopted – stating that: “The possibility of using more of the land for Art Museum facilities has been suggested. To do so would be a mistake. The park is one of the few public open spaces left in the area. Also, the Museum of Natural History is still exploring the tar pits for prehistoric material and it must be able to do this without fear of encroachment.”

History is repeating itself with LACMA’s new plans for expansion into Hancock Park, but the MMRA feels that what was true in 1969 is still true today: to do so would be a mistake.

LACMA Tar Pits overlay

MMRA Position on Subway Construction Work Hours Supported by Mid City West Community Council

Wilshire:La Brea Station map (Metro)

At the September 10, 2013 meeting of the Mid City West Community Council [MCWCC] a large majority of its board of directors voted against a motion granting Metro blanket exemptions from work hours rules and ordinances for the construction of the Purple Line subway extension in the Miracle Mile. The Los Angeles Police Commission issues work hours exemptions and Metro sought the endorsement of MCWCC in order to persuade the commission that all of the concerns of the residents of the Miracle Mile have been addressed – which is far from the case.

The Miracle Mile Residential Association [MMRA] opposes giving Metro a free pass on work hours rules that would allow them to engage in construction 24-hours-per-day/seven days a week, during rush hour traffic periods, and over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. MMRA President James O’Sullivan and Vice President Ken Hixon attended the MCWCC board meeting and encouraged the board not to give Metro a blank check that would be cashed at the expense of the residents of the Miracle Mile.

As the site of two Wilshire subway portals at La Brea and Orange Grove and four construction staging sites extending well into densely populated residential areas the Miracle Mile will endure the full brunt of the subway extension project. Construction is estimated to take at least nine years. Given the immense scale of the work involved the disturbance and disruption to the surrounding community will be substantial.

The MMRA feels that it is premature for Metro to seek these exemptions now. Metro has yet to hire contractors for the La Brea and Orange Grove subway stations. These will be design-and-build arrangements where the contractors will be charged with both designing and constructing the stations. Hence, the reason why Metro has been so vague about how they will mitigate the disturbance of nighttime work and the traffic disruption of construction during rush hour periods – because all responsibility to mitigate the impact of subway construction rests solely on these yet-to-be-determined contractors.

The MMRA maintains that any exemption from work hours rules should be a dialogue between the residential and home owner associations directly impacted by subway construction and the contractors – not Metro. Only the contractors can provide the specific information necessary for well-reasoned decisions. The MMRA is willing to consider supporting limited work hours exemptions on a step-by-step basis for each major stage of construction. This would motivate contractors to do their very best to maintain good relationships with the community for fear that they would lose future chances at securing additional exemptions.

But at this time there are too many unanswered questions regarding the full impact of granting work hours exemptions, for example:

  • How will allowing construction during rush hour traffic periods impact the upcoming Wilshire Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] lanes – which reserve curb lanes during rush hour periods for buses only? Will it require that Wilshire be restricted to buses and all other traffic be diverted to 6th and 8th streets?
  • How will subway construction be coordinated with other construction projects in the Miracle Mile? The new Museum Square office building, the Academy Museum, the Desmond’s apartment complex, the proposed demolition of LACMA’s original buildings and the construction of the new museum, the new Shalhevet High School and adjacent mixed-use project will all be under construction during this time period. This extraordinary amount of activity could exponentially magnify the negative impacts of granting exemptions from work hours rules.
  • Museum attendance increases during the holiday season. How will an exemption permitting subway construction during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season affect Museum Row?

Having failed to secure the endorsement of MCWCC, Metro is currently seeking support for blanket work hours exemptions from the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council [GWNC]. La Brea Avenue marks the jurisdictional boundary between MCWCC and GWNC. Although the subway entrance and construction staging sites for the La Brea subway station are west of La Brea Avenue and part of MCWCC, a large part of the underground subway station extends east to into the GWNC area [see graphic at top].

O’Sullivan and Hixon appeared at the September 11, 2013 GWCC meeting to persuade its board not to grant Metro blanket work hours exemptions. The GWCC board referred the matter to their Transportation Committee for study. The MMRA will continue its effort to insure that the residents of the Miracle Mile have a full voice on how subway construction is conducted. We are optimistic that GWCC – like MCWCC – will support our position against granting Metro blanket work hours exemptions.

A Very “Hesitant” Planning Commission Denies Appeal of Petersen Facade

Petersen CDO Wilshire Elevation

The September 10, 2013 Central Area Planning Commission hearing on the appeal of the Planning Director’s approval of the new Petersen Automotive Museum facade had a cliff-hanging ending when two commissioners reluctantly joined the third commissioner and voted to uphold the approval and deny the appeal. Both Commissioner Chanchanit Martorell and Commissioner Samantha Millman – who were visibly uncomfortable when a dizzying set of motions and procedural maneuvers left them with no choice but to vote down the appeal – used the word “hesitant” in explaining their actions.

MMRA President James O’Sullivan filed the appeal on the grounds that the Petersen façade was a radical departure from the guidelines and standards of the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay District [CDO]. The CDO was created to preserve the unique historical context of Miracle Mile and approved by the City Council in 2004.

A key objective of the CDO is to create a pedestrian friendly environment in the Miracle Mile. The Petersen Museum has never maintained a pedestrian entrance on Wilshire Boulevard and didn’t include one in the proposal they submitted to renovate their exterior – nor did their proposal even include a sign identifying the museum on the Wilshire side.

In his appeal O’Sullivan hammered the Petersen for continuing to turn their back to Museum Row and criticized the Planning Director for not mandating a Wilshire Boulevard entrance when he approved the façade. O’Sullivan’s point had obviously caused concern within the Planning Department that it would give the commission good cause to uphold the appeal because the lack of a Wilshire entrance and signage is a flagrant violation of the CDO. At the very beginning of the hearing planning staff indicated that – although they were recommending that the appeal by denied – they had additional conditions to add to the Director’s approval. Those conditions turned out to be that a Wilshire entrance and signage be stipulated.

The Petersen representatives maintained that the new façade was a “Twenty-First Century interpretation” of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. This was rebuffed by Commissioner Martorell, “I am very familiar with Art Deco, I appreciate Art Deco, I am passionately in love with Art Deco . . . [This is] Not what I would personally consider Art Deco myself.”

In his presentation to the commission O’Sullivan pointed out that this was the first time in its thirty-year existence that the MMRA has filed an appeal. “We always find a way to compromise on projects,” he stated. “But the Petersen submitted this and got it approved by the City without any community outreach. We were kept in the dark.”

In a brief that O’Sullivan submitted he demonstrated how the Petersen and planning staff had cherry-picked their way though the CDO – stretching certain design guidelines and ignoring others to demonstrate compliance. At the hearing he warned the commission that if they upheld the Director’s Approval it would virtually nullify the CDO by establishing a precedence that would allow other developers and building owners to sue the City if they were forced to strictly comply with the CDO.

“It would have been better if the Petersen had asked for a complete exemption from the CDO or more honorable if they had asked the stakeholders to revise the CDO rather than to twist and torture it to get approval for their project,” said O’Sullivan. “This will cause irreparable harm to the CDO.”

Despite a roster of supporters endorsing the Petersen façade and the Director’s interpretation of the CDO – including a surprise appearance by Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose joviality trivialized the proceeding – everyone in the hearing room was caught by surprise when it came time for the vote.

Commissioner Young Kim introduced a motion denying O’Sullivan’s appeal and supporting the Director’s Approval with the additional conditions regarding the stipulation of a Wilshire entrance and signage – but it did not receive a second. That is when it became apparent that Commissioners Martorell and Millman had been receptive to O’Sullivan’s presentation and had reservations about the façade’s compatibility with the CDO.

Absent a second to the motion some confusion ensued. It was explained that without a second the motion would fail and the appeal would be automatically denied – and the original Director’s approval would stand, which did not stipulate a Wilshire entrance. So, Commissioner Kim re-introduced the motion. Finally, a soft-spoken Commissioner Millman offered: “A very hesitant second.”

When the vote was taken Millman and Kim voted in favor of the motion, but Commissioner Martorell [right] prefaced her vote with: “I have to say that I find the design somewhat problematic and . . . I think that there could be another design that’s more emblematic of this area, and I just have problems, so I just say no. I vote no.”

But then Martorell found herself painted in a procedural corner: the only way the commission could insure that the Petersen would have a Wilshire entrance and signage was to unanimously vote in favor of the motion.

“That [the lack of a Wilshire entrance] would be a loss to the community, irrespective of the design element. This is difficult. I don’t agree with this design,” Martorell said before changing her vote to affirm the motion and deny the appeal.

The MMRA Board of Directors, which endorsed and fully supported O’Sullivan’s appeal, is considering other options to preserve the integrity of the CDO.

MMRA Vice President Ken Hixon, who attending the appeal hearing, remarked, “Jim didn’t win the appeal, but he personally unlocked the Wilshire entrance to the Petersen Museum. That’s something we’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years.”