LACMA: The Sky’s the Limit • Commentary by Greg Goldin


[Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.]

 

LACMA: The Sky’s the Limit

Commentary by Greg Goldin

[Editor’s note: Last month, LACMA Director Michael Govan announced a proposal to build what he hopes will be a Frank Gehry designed skyscraper on Wilshire, across from the museum’s campus. This project would serve as a sort of exclamation point to LACMA’s plan to bridge Wilshire with a new museum designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.]

It may be another decade or so before the Purple Line extension is complete, and riders emerge from the subway stop at Orange Grove and Wilshire, but the oncoming train is already changing the landscape at the west end of the Miracle Mile. If the money can be found, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will inflate a glass kidney bean off the backside of the former May Co. building and LACMA’s oil-slick-inspired $650 million-and-counting blob will ooze its way out of Hancock Park to bridge Wilshire and occupy their Spaulding parking lot. Just added to complete the troika of architectural razzle-dazzle could be the city’s tallest skyscraper, rising above the Wilshire/Orange Grove subway portal.

The hotel and condominium tower, presumably designed by Frank Gehry, would also have LACMA galleries, with a new architecture and design museum, as well as Gehry’s own archives. LACMA head Michael Govan told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m jealous that New York has a Gehry tower [left] and we don’t. My dream is some beautiful piece of architecture with an architecture and design museum at the base, which would add to Museum Row.”  Never mind that much of Museum Row is being decimated in no small part owing to LACMA’s maneuvering the subway portal onto the very block where buildings housing the A+D Architecture and Design museum and two other private art galleries must now be demolished to make way for subway construction.

LACMA owns approximately one-quarter of the 350-foot frontage on the south side of Wilshire between Orange Grove and Ogden, and hopes to forge a development deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority [Metro], Millennium Partners, and landowner Alan Sieroty before the subway construction site is reconfigured as yet another relentlessly dull Transit Oriented Development.

The LACMA chieftain’s instincts may be right – nobody wants another badly-designed building above another badly-designed subway portal – but Govan’s not taking any chances by trying to sell architecture solely on its own merits. Instead, he put a politically correct spin on the proposal. Once Metro opens the block for development, he said, “We know that density is the key to urban living and to the maximization of mass transit — and key to the environment. And so for all the right reasons, this is the right place” for a high-rise.

Thus, Govan shrewdly positions his “dream” as a civic virtue. No one believes this more than LACMA itself, which, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, would become a major real estate developer. The reassuring urban planning rhetoric is meant to neutralize any opposition by making naysayers into nabobs opposed to leveraging a multi-billion investment in public transportation.

While no one doubts that some kind of building will rise once Metro pulls its construction trailers and tunnel boring machinery off the site, LACMA’s ambition is as naked as it is vainglorious. A Frank Gehry skyscraper, looming directly across the street from LACMA’s main galleries, would be, like Trajan’s Column in Rome [right], a triumphal commemoration of the museum’s self-conceived importance not just in the surrounding neighborhood or city – but in the global marketplace of art.

By adding Gehry to the list of Pritzker Prize winning names on the museum’s all-star roster (Renzo Piano and Peter Zumthor being the other two), the museum will have clothed itself in the raiment of “great buildings.”  Who, indeed, will ever again question the eminent stature of a cultural institution that once made the mistake of building an unfashionably dated and decidedly Hollywood version of the Kennedy Center and dared to call it a landmark destination.

The William Pereira designed LACMA campus, circa 1965.

This, indeed, is an essay into the ways in which the rich and powerful need to express the glories of so much accumulated money and power. Culture is the playground of the moneyed classes – whose wallets, and egos, are the ripe targets of the monument builders. What better way to supply a secular crown than with a building, by a world-renown architect, which bears your name?Nothing new, actually, is happening here with this proposed skyscraper.  From infancy LACMA has regarded itself as not only separate, but also above the status it retains as a publicly funded and owned art institution.  Embossed in the public record is the dirty secret that when the County Museum of Art spun itself off from its parent, the Natural History Museum, the new museum’s board of trustees first aim was to leave Exposition Park for the greener (as in, the color of money) environs of the Miracle Mile, then quaintly situated on the Westside – which nowadays, along with the money, has moved much further west.

When County Supervisor John Anson Ford offered the newly separated art museum a downtown plot of land – speculation is that the site was atop Bunker Hill, where the Catholic Cathedral now sits – LACMA’s board rejected the plan. “[I]t was recognized…that the location…would not attract the enthusiasm of potential donors from the west side.”

This quote, from the board minutes of January 21, 1958, was the sort of blunt comment made by civic leaders before the present era of milquetoast public relations statements. The museum’s leaders could not fathom leaving Exposition Park – and its surrounding black ghetto – only to be thrust into a downtown neighborhood populated by the city’s poor and elderly and black and Native American citizens. Westside money was hardly going to flow toward a location redolent of the city’s intractable underclass.

And, so, the museum spent several years lobbying G. Allan Hancock [right], the wealthy oilman who’d given the county the park that bears his name and contains the La Brea Tar Pits. Repeatedly, they tried to convince him to cede a piece of the 23 acres for their art museum, although it had been Hancock’s express wish to build a “fossil museum” dedicated to displaying the park’s unique Ice Age finds. In 1959, Hancock finally relented, agreeing to give the art museum 7 acres, and no more. The moment the plans for the new museum were unveiled – the William Pereira designed complex that is now destined to be demolished – LACMA began its long effort to aggrandize pieces of the park.

Time and again, LACMA sought to nibble away at the park that Hancock deemed should be permanently set aside for public enjoyment and scientific exploration. In the late-1960s, an attempt by the museum to expand further into Hancock Park met with a global protest. From Kenya, Louis Leakey, the world’s most famous paleoanthropologist and archaeologist, urged the museum to halt its plan, saying that no one would consider building atop a site where the first evidence of mankind was discovered, so why would they build atop the largest outcropping of Ice Age life anywhere on the face of the Earth? That effort flopped, but 20 years later the Bruce Goff designed Pavilion for Japanese Art was completed, taking another bite out of the park.

By then memories had faded, along with the county assurances that Hancock’s final wishes would never be violated. But LACMA never stopped eyeing the park. The first iteration of Zumthor’s modern design for a new museum covered – literally – several of the tar pits themselves. Only when the Natural History Museum, which administers Hancock Park, strenuously objected did LACMA retreat and come up with this latest version spanning Wilshire Boulevard.

In a sense, all of this is prologue, evidence that from the moment LACMA left Exposition Park to the present, an arrogant self-regard has been the chief characteristic of the museum’s stance. Now, in projecting its skyward dreams in the form of a Gehry tower, LACMA demonstrates all of its inherited insouciance, that blithe unconcern that comes with believing your own message and knowing that when you’ve got the money and the power to back it up the sky’s the limit – or maybe not. Actually, there are no height limits along Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile.

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Greg Goldin is the coauthor of Never Built Los Angeles and a curator at the A+D Museum. From 1999 to 2012, he was the architecture critic at Los Angeles Magazine. He is a longtime resident of the Miracle Mile and was featured in the MMRA Channel’s YouTube presentation: The Miracle Mile in Three Tenses: Past, Present, and Future.”

For additional information:Los Angeles Times:
LACMA, Metro Discussing New Museum Tower on Wilshire Blvd.

•••

LACMA Wants to Bridge Wilshire

LACMA Wants to Bridge Wilshire with Revamped Museum Design

 

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has revised his “ink blot” design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA]. The original design received a great deal of criticism for overshadowing the La Brea Tar Pits. The Miracle Mile Residential Association objected to the earlier plan for encroaching on the tar pits and on valuable green space at Hancock Park.

The revised design avoids impinging on the tar pits by spanning Wilshire Boulevard to an anchoring pavilion located on a LACMA owned parking lot on the south side of Wilshire at Spaulding Avenue. This new design retains the original 400,000 square foot single-floor concept, which will be elevated 30-feet above street level.

Although bridging Wilshire would eliminate impact on the tar pits and help to reduce LACMA’s expansion into Hancock Park, the reconfigured plan raises a slew of new questions and concerns for the community.

New York Times article on the revised design explained: “The museum receives about a third of its $70 million annual operating budget from Los Angeles County and uses county buildings on county land. The City of Los Angeles must approve construction within its limits and air rights above Wilshire Boulevard. Mayor Garcetti and county supervisors were among the first apprised of the design change, suggesting how much this project depends on the support of politicians and governmental agencies.”

The cost of the project is the subject of speculation. LACMA Director Michael Govan has maintained that the razing of the original museum campus and the construction of the new Zumthor structure – along with an endowment fund – would cost around $650 million. Many architects and experts estimate that the price tag would be closer to $1 billion. The cost of this new design – as well as environmental, seismic, and land use issues – will be analyzed in a feasibility study to be completed in spring 2015.

The New York Times article quotes critics of the design who feel “it would be too dark” — “monolithic” or “cavelike” — for a city as sunny as Los Angeles.” It is a criticism that Zumthor feels he has addressed by creating open-air courtyards in the center of the five glass cylinders that would support the main building.

But Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne feels that the revised plan is “perhaps misguided.” Having such a large structure bridging Wilshire had Hawthorne musing on “…what will it be like to walk beneath it? Will it feel like you’re trudging under a freeway overpass? How will the underside of the building be detailed and illuminated?”

It is too early for the MMRA to take an official position on LACMA’s proposal to bridge Wilshire with a new museum. MMRA Vice President Ken Hixon was interviewed on LACMA’s revised plan by The Architect’s Newspaper: “As we’ve painfully learned the devil is in the details. We’re not the design police. We want good design. We want good architecture. But it’s all about the connective tissue.” For now, he [Hixon] points out, such issues — like the museum’s relationship to local housing, available parking, preservation, street life, and, of course, construction—have yet to be specified. An Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project is still far off.”

 

The dotted line shows the original shape of a planned LACMA building, jutting out over a tar pit. The solid line, which stretches over Wilshire Boulevard, is the revised design.

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What is your initial reaction to LACMA’s plan – is it a bridge to the future, a bridge over troubled water, or a bridge too far? Take our survey and let us know. We utilize SurveyMonkey for our polls; it is a secure and simple way to gather your input. Poll participants are completely anonymous and your honesty is welcomed. Just click on this link:

 

LACMA Bridge Over Wilshire Poll

Top and bottom graphics courtesy of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner; middle graphic courtesy of LACMA.

For additional information:

New York Times:
A Contemporary Design Yields to the Demands of Prehistory

Los Angeles Times:
Peter Zumthor’s L.A.-LACMA vision in need of update

The Architect’s Newspaper:
For Neighbors, Jury Still Out on Zumthor’s New LACMA Plan

The Miracle Mile Residential Association:
Tar Pits Threatened by LACMA Expansion; MMRA Approves Motion to Preserve Green Space in Hancock Park

 

Angry Residents Confront Metro Officials at Noise Meeting

Subway Construction Update

Angry Residents Confront Metro Officials at Noise Mitigation Meeting

Grinder

On May 27, Metro held a meeting of the Purple Line Extension advisory group at the Petersen Museum. On the agenda was Metro’s mitigation plan for construction noise and vibration in the Miracle Mile. Metro’s PowerPoint presentation on the topic can be seen here.

The proposed mitigations offered to the community did not pass the “common sense” test with numerous residents in attendance. Nighttime work currently underway for utility relocations at Wilshire/La Brea and Wilshire/Fairfax sparked complaints from residents of the La Brea-Hancock area and from those living on Orange Street near Fairfax.

A mother of young children displayed a smartphone video she made of Metro contractors grinding welds on temporary steel plates covering a trench near La Brea and Wilshire; the late night work woke her children blocks away.

A professional recording engineer living on Orange Street argued that Metro was trying to snow residents by claiming that nighttime subway construction would not exceed nighttime ambient noise levels by more than 5 decibels. He pointed out that while that might seem to be only a slight increase in volume to the uninformed, in fact, a 5 decibel increase would nearly double the perceived nighttime ambient noise levels.

A Windsor Square resident complained that a long promised sound wall surrounding the subway construction yard at Crenshaw and Wilshire had yet to be completed – despite the fact that the utility relocation crews headquartered there began using the site many months ago.

Others inquired why nighttime utility relocation work recently detoured eastbound Wilshire traffic to 8th Street for two nights in a row; a situation that had idling and honking vehicles stacked up at the intersections of Genesee and Ogden late into the night – without traffic control officers present. Even Metro’s 720 bus was diverted to 8th, adding to the traffic noise that disturbed a number of nearby residents.

A Metro official admitted that they were having difficulty implementing practices designed to require the various utility relocation contractors to reduce nighttime noise; that it is a challenge for Metro to ensure that every construction vehicle has a low volume back-up alarm; and that, on occasion, a construction worker pulls up to the work site in the middle of the night with their car stereo blaring. This official was also unable to explain why workers were grinding welds at such a late hour, despite Metro’s often-repeated assurances that noisier work would be confined to the earlier hours of the evening.

The experiences of residents enduring the disturbances of nighttime utility relocations serves to reinforce the MMRA’s opposition to permit 24/7 activities at the Miracle Mile subway station construction sites. In their PowerPoint presentation Metro admitted that the greatest amount of noise would be generated at their Wilshire/La Brea yard, which will house a slurry recovery facility and a grout manufacturing plant – as well as serve as the location where all the dirt will be extracted from all of the tunneling from Western to La Cienega.

Once again, it was reiterated at the meeting that the contractor of the subway extension is solely responsible for mitigating noise and vibration. That the mitigations Metro touted at the meeting were only examples of mitigations that might be provided. This is why the Miracle Mile Residential Association maintains that until such time that Metro actually engages a contractor it is pointless to discuss specific noise mitigations for the subway construction sites at Fairfax and La Brea. Time and time again, the MMRA has informed Metro that it will not sign a blank check on work hours exemptions that will be cashed at the expense of the residents of the Miracle Mile.

The only way to guarantee that the neighborhood has a voice in how subway construction is conducted in the Miracle Mile is to sign the online petition opposing nighttime, Sunday, and holiday construction. This petition campaign, which has been underway since last February, has already compelled Metro to ask the Los Angeles Police Commission for a “time out” in considering their application for an exemption from work hours rules at the Miracle Mile subway construction sites.

Subway Petition Lawn Sign

The MMRA’s “no blank check” stance appears to have gained traction with the Police Commission. Recently, the commission began requiring all contractors seeking work hours exemptions in the Miracle Mile to consult with the MMRA before they will consider applications for variances. This is a requirement that the commission didn’t enact before they granted permission to allow nighttime utility relocation work. Obviously, our petition campaign has provoked this policy change and the MMRA is pleased that the commission is being so responsive and respectful towards our community.

The MMRA’s petition campaign has gotten a lot of attention – and some criticism from those who mistakenly believe that we oppose the subway extension. Our objective is to balance the fundamental right of thousands of residents to enjoy the peace and quiet of their own homes with the enormous demands of a massive, decade long, multiple billion-dollar construction project. Neither side is going to get everything they want, but the MMRA will not allow the needs of the residents to be ignored no matter how important or worthy the cause.

SIGN THE ONLINE PETITION

Click here to download the printable petition

We also invite you to visit the Subway Construction page on the MMRA website. It is frequently updated with links to media coverage on our petition campaign, official correspondence, construction fact sheets and reports, YouTube videos of subway construction techniques, and other information.

Petition Drive to Stop Nighttime Subway Construction Going Strong


Hundreds of Miracle Mile Residents Join the Fight
to Stop Nighttime Subway Construction

Last month the Miracle Mile Residential Association [MMRA] launched a petition drive to stop nighttime, Sunday and holiday construction for the Purple Line Subway Extension – which is scheduled to begin major work in August. In January 2014 the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority [Metro] applied to the Los Angeles Police Commission to be exempted from municipal noise ordinances for subway construction in the Miracle Mile.

MMRA members and volunteers from the community have been distributing petitions every Saturday within the boundaries of the MMRA [see map]. So far about 60 % of the area has been canvassed and the remaining blocks should be completed by March 22. The response has far exceeded expectations and the online petition has proved to be a very effective means of collecting signatures.

The Police Commission has not set a date as to when they will render a decision on Metro’s applications to be exempted from noise ordinances, so the petition drive will be an on-going campaign until further notice. The petition effort has also received significant support from residents in neighborhoods adjacent to the Miracle Mile, who will be equally impacted by nighttime, Sunday and holiday construction. The MMRA has received a number of requests to expand the petition campaign beyond our boundaries and this be will taken this under serious consideration once the canvassing of the MMRA area is complete.

The petition campaign has attracted media attention and MMRA President James O’Sullivan and Vice President Ken Hixon have been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times for a story they are preparing about the impact of subway construction on the Miracle Mile. The Times also interviewed the owner of an apartment building located near the Fairfax subway station construction site, as well as a long-time resident on nearby South Orange Grove Avenue.

Metro is battling our efforts to stop around-the-clock construction by accusing the MMRA of being “against the subway.” This allegation could not be further from the truth. The MMRA whole-heartedly supports the extension of the Purple Line. Our issue with the subway expansion is solely about nine years of constant nighttime, Sunday and holiday construction noise and disturbances.

The Miracle Mile is one of the most densely populated urban corridors in the nation; we must stand together to remind Metro that we are a residential community and not a full-time construction zone.

CLICK HERE TO SIGN THE ONLINE PETITION

On March 3, 2014 the MMRA sent a letter to the Los Angeles Police Commission clarifying our position. The MMRA believes the burden should be on Metro to demonstrate why the residents of the Miracle Mile are unworthy of the protections of a well-established ordinance that protectsall residents of Los Angeles from 24/7 construction activities. We encourage you to read this letter; it makes a concise and strong argument why it is premature for Metro to seek to be exempted from the noise ordinance at this time [click here].

If you would like to help out with the petition campaign please contact us at: petition@MiracleMileLA.com.

Additional information:

MRA Newsletter – February 2014: MMRA Launches Petition Campaign to Stop Nighttime, Sunday, and Holiday Subway Construction at the Fairfax and La Brea Stations

The Subway Construction page on the MMRA website contains a lot of details and information with maps of the Fairfax and La Brea stations and construction staging sites. It also includes YouTube videos of tunnel boring machines in action.

MMRA Endorses Mid City West Trolley Plan

[From the November 2013 edition of the MMRA newsletter:]

preferred trolley

The Mid City West Trolley Plan

[or how to get you husband to leave the car at home…]

Last June billionaire developer Rick Caruso introduced the idea of an extension of the Grove’s fixed rail trolley to connect the popular shopping center with Museum Row at Wilshire and Fairfax. Recently, it was announced that the Los Angeles Museum of Art had teamed with Caruso to study the proposal. The results of an engineering study Caruso commissioned are expected later this month.

But several years before Caruso’s plan, Julie Anne Brame had a problem. Brame, who lives in the Crescent Heights/Melrose area, likes to walk – her husband doesn’t. After work, Brame would often encounter resistance from her husband when she suggested that they walk down to 3rd Street to try one of the many restaurants there. He would usually prefer to drive, even though parking is always difficult. Out of her idle wish that there were some easy way to quickly get around the area – so that she could get her husband out of the house without driving – came an idea: the Mid City West Trolley.

Brame is a resourceful woman and persistent, too. She kicked around the idea with like-minded friends and a plan evolved to have a rubber wheel trolley that would connect Melrose, Fairfax, the Grove, the Miracle Mile, La Brea, 3rd Street, the Beverly Center, and the Cedars-Sinai medical complex. She and her supporters did their homework, studying successful rubber wheel trolley projects across the country.

Trolley map

They took a fresh and modern approach to develop a program that would connect densely populated neighborhoods, existing parking garages, and popular destinations to facilitate circulation and reduce local automobile traffic. Their target riders would be residents, business patrons, employees, students, and tourists.

Their research helped them devise a check list: the trolleys would have to come every 15 minutes, their time of arrival easily monitored via a GPS smart phone app, they would have to provide free wifi access for passengers, and be comfortable and fun. The trolley program would also have to be flexible to allow for route expansion and to navigate around obstacles, like the upcoming subway construction in the Miracle Mile.

They knew that to succeed their trolley would need savvy marketing and promotion and both private and public support. And it would take a lot of outreach. That’s when Brame looked around for a way to learn the ropes and promote her trolley plan. So, in 2011 she got herself elected to the board of Mid City West Community Council [MCWCC]. As she got the lay of the land – how things get done in L.A. – she began to pitch her trolley idea to fellow board members, representatives of homeowner and residential associations, City council members, and anyone else who would listen.

Her skills of persuasion and well thought out approach began to win fans. She did not have to make a hard sell: ever worsening traffic congestion constricts travel and commerce in the area and the advent of the Purple Line subway extension makes “first mile-last mile” transportation from subway stations imperative. And the projected one million visitors a year to the soon-to-be Academy Museum at the former May Company will only exacerbate gridlock along Fairfax. The consensus was clear: something had to be done.

Soon, MCWCC endorsed a motion in support of studying the feasibility of Brame’s trolley plan, Councilmember Tom Labonge publicly announced his support at recent meeting of the Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce, and the Miracle Mile Residential Association will consider a motion in support of the project at its upcoming board meeting on November 7th. And even Rick Caruso gave a nod to the Mid City Trolley by asking his engineers to include a review of Brame’s plan in the study of his fixed rail trolley, which many residents strongly oppose on grounds that it would only further clog traffic and present many safety issues.

While Caruso’s fixed rail trolley grabs all the headlines, Brame’s rubber wheel trolley steadily gained traction. Brame is clear that her plan is very much a work in progress and that the current proposed route could and probably will change depending on which parts of the area are most supportive. Hence, the inherent advantage of a rubber wheel trolley – the route can be expanded to meet new demand and include more of the Mid City West area.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation would operate the system, but the financing is complex. It will take a mix of private and public money to get the trolley rolling and, long term, it would take an ongoing financial commitment from the City to sustain it. Although, Brame aspires to follow the example of other successful rubber wheel trolley programs that generate substantial income from advertising revenues.

The initial plan is to begin on weekends to test the concept with service beginning of Fridays from 6 PM to midnight; Saturdays 10 AM to midnight; and Sundays from 11 AM to 10 PM. If this pilot plan succeeds service would be expanded to 7 days per week.

And, perhaps – in a year or so – Brame and her husband (and the twins she is soon expecting) will be able to leave their car at home when they go out for dinner.

[A motion endorsing the Mid City West Trolley Plan was adopted by the Board of Directors of the Miracle Mile Residential Association at our November 7, 2013 meeting.]

MMRA Appeals Petersen Museum Facade

[The following three articles are reprinted from the September 1, 2013 edition of the Miracle Mile Residential Association Newsletter. To see the articles in their original format with accompanying graphics, maps, and links to documents referenced herein click HERE.]

MMRA PRESIDENT APPEALS PETERSEN FACADE

James O’Sullivan, President of the Miracle Mile Residential Association [MMRA], has appealed the Department of Planning’s approval of plans by the Petersen Automotive Museum to erect a new facade on their building on the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

O’Sullivan appealed the decision on grounds that the facade violates the design guidelines of the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay District [CDO] and ignores the CDO mandate that the museum maintain a pedestrian entrance on Wilshire Boulevard during operating hours, allowing the Petersen to continue to turn its back to Museum Row.

Plans for the facade as well as the interior renovations of the museum were officially announced by Petersen officials on August 18 at the Concours d’Elegance classic car show in Pebble Beach – but renderings of the controversial façade were leaked to the media in early July, accompanied by stories that the museum was selling off a substantial portion of its collection.

Alarmed by this situation, the MMRA requested a meeting with representatives of the Petersen. O’Sullivan and MMRA Vice President Ken Hixon met with Terry Karges, Executive Director of the Petersen Museum, and their planning consultant, Melody Kanschat, on July 28. At this meeting O’Sullivan and Hixon were surprised to learn that not only had plans for the facade been already submitted to the Department of Planning – without any notice to the community – but that the plans had been approved by the City ten days earlier, on July 18. They also learned that the decision would become final unless an appeal was filed by August 2.

With only a few days to act – and with no time to call for a Board of Director’s meeting – O’Sullivan filed an individual appeal on behalf of the MMRA. The Central Area Planning Commission will conduct a public hearing on the appeal on September 10.

The MMRA Board of Directors adopted a motion approving O’Sullivan’s appeal at its August meeting. The board is very troubled by the fact that the community was kept in the dark about the Petersen’s plans. The MMRA is committed to community involvement in the decision-making process (this newsletter is an example of that commitment). We are a consensus-based organization – but it is difficult to arrive at consensus if our residents don’t have all the facts in a timely manner.

The MMRA is also gravely concerned that the “jungle gym” design of the Petersen façade will be an attractive nuisance. The ribbon design reaching all the way down to the sidewalk will provide an easy foothold to secure climbers and will tempt young people and graffiti artists to scale the building.

The attractive nuisance doctrine states that a landowner may be held liable for the injuries to minors trespassing on their property who are unable to appreciate the risks posed by an object or condition. By approving this design, the City of Los Angeles – and its taxpayers – could share financial exposure for damages should a minor be injured climbing the Petersen facade.

The MMRA also fears that the Petersen facade will be a magnet for taggers and graffiti artists, who are notorious for the dare-devil risks they assume to prominently place their “tags.” They have been known to precariously hang over speeding traffic in order to tag freeway signs. High visibility is the supreme objective of taggers; the Petersen’s location on a busy intersection at the western gateway to the Miracle Mile presents an ideal canvas for such vandalism.

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WHEN A CIRCLE IS A SQUARE

A geometry lesson from the Los Angeles Planning Department

by James O’Sullivan, President, MMRA

The Los Angeles Planning Department has once again made a mumbo jumbo finding to justify a project it wants to approve. On July 18 the Director of Planning issued an opinion about the proposed new facade of the Petersen Automotive Museum that strains credulity. But this is par for how the City operates. I don’t have anything against the Petersen – I’ve taken many visitors there – but, in my humble opinion, the new facade design is just plain ugly. It reminds me of the psychedelic boarders of an old Grateful Dead poster. It’s definitely “trippy” – and it seems no more relevant to an automotive museum than it does to the Miracle Mile.

There is a Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay [CDO] that many of us worked for years to get approved and it is supposed to make sure that these kinds of designs do not happen in the Miracle Mile. However, the Petersen and the City did not deem it necessary to share this new design with anyone in the Miracle Mile, they just handled it in secret and approved it. And, love it or hate it, it really irks me that the community was shut out of this process. So, on behalf of the MMRA, I appealed the approval of the Petersen’s new facade and look forward to everyone – pro and con – having the opportunity to weigh in on this project when it goes before the Central Planning Commission on September 10.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder – particularly when it comes to modern architecture – but you can read the CDO yourself and see that it contains clear language about horizontal and vertical design elements.

Most people would agree that a circle is not a square and a horizontal line is not the same thing as a vertical line. That is not the case for the Los Angeles Director of Planning. After examining the application from the Petersen, the Director of Planning called horizontal lines vertical. Actually, what he said was that the “facade upgrade consists of installing a series of stainless-steel curvilinear ribbons. . .which provides a new horizontal and vertical rhythm and provides a sense of scale to the facade.”

Horizontal and vertical rhythm? Is he describing the Petersen facade or judging an episode of Dancing with the Stars? That is just plain nonsense. How can you look at the renderings of the facade and reconcile it to what it says in the CDO?

The approval stated, “The project has been reviewed by staff and has been found to be in substantial conformance with the design guidelines.” I have learned over the years that when anyone from the City mentions substantial conformance it means they will deem that a square is a circle if it suits their logic. The guidelines that that City must implement state that plans must conform to the CDO. Either they do or they don’t. There is no such language as “substantial conformance” to be found in the CDO.

The Planning Director admits that the Petersen design doesn’t really fit the Miracle Mile when he says: “Although the facade is very different from the surrounding commercial buildings, the unique facade design as proposed revitalizes the building and at the same time introduces an aesthetic design that enhances the area. It is consistent with the innovative modern architecture design present in the nearby museum uses (my italics).”

Normally, I would take the word “present” to mean LACMA West, the Bing, Hammer, Ahmanson, Broad, or Resnick galleries at LACMA or the A+D museum next door. But he seems to be saying that the Petersen facade is “consistent” to proposed designs that have yet to be approved, let alone built, such as the Zumthor “ink spot” redo of LACMA or the glass bubble theater the Academy Museum plans to build on the north side of the former May Company building.

And, to top it all off, the Planning Department seems completely oblivious to public safety. A child or teenager looking at the façade won’t see “innovative modern architecture” – they’ll see a giant jungle gym. The design screams: “Climb me!” And they will. And there will be injuries and lawsuits. And the taxpayers will find themselves on the hook for a share of the damages because the Planning Department approved a shiny, four-story attractive nuisance.

Although a design like the Petersen facade was never anticipated by those of us on the citizen advisory committee who created the Miracle Mile CDO, it is exactly what we were trying to prevent. The CDO was a product of community input and consensus. The approval of the Petersen facade was a well-executed end run around the community.

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What is the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay District?

In 2004 the Los Angeles City Council approved the creation of the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay Guidelines and Standards [CDO]. The CDO covers all commercially zoned parcels and structures along Wilshire Boulevard between Sycamore Avenue on the east to Fairfax Avenue on the west, with the exception of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Hancock Park.

The purpose of the CDO is to enhance the physical and aesthetic qualities of this distinctive section of Wilshire Boulevard. It addressed one of the key tenants of the City’s General Plan Framework to “determine the appropriate urban design elements at the neighborhood level” in order to create a more pleasant, pedestrian-oriented environment.

The impetus to create the CDO was sparked by a rash of new construction in the early-2000s that was inconsistent with the pattern of historically significant architecture in the Miracle Mile. Some of these new buildings paid little attention to the design of their Wilshire facades. They did not have open pedestrian entrances on Wilshire Boulevard, their display windows were blacked-out, and their signage was out-of-scale. These new buildings visually degraded the character and unique identity of the community [such as the Smart & Final store].

At that time, the preservation and restoration of the Miracle Mile’s mainly Art Deco historical buildings were also threatened and it became apparent the only way to establish standards for the rehabilitation of these unique historic resources was by means of a CDO. Hence, the CDO created two sets of architectural guidelines, one for new and existing developments and one specific to historic structures that are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, such as the former May Company building.

In its recommendation supporting the creation of the CDO, the Department of Planning wrote that the CDO “will ensure that future development provide a sense of place in terms of design by applying unique architectural guidelines and standards developed for this area, and will help prevent the development of structures with exterior design that is not compatible with the surrounding community.”

A citizen advisory committee was formed to work with the Department of Planning to craft the CDO. The committee consisted of residents and business and property owners, who were charged with making the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard a more pleasant and attractive street and to address issues of urban design, land use compatibility, and quality of life issues. James O’Sullivan, President of the MMRA, served on the committee and Renee Weitzer, Land Use and Planning Deputy for Councilmember Tom Labonge, was in regular attendance.

The CDO that emerged through the hard work of the citizen advisory committee, as approved by the City, mandates in its introduction that “All projects within the boundaries of the Miracle Mile CDO District should comply with the following Design Guidelines and Development Standards.”

Q & A:

Why was the Los Angeles County Museum [LACMA] exempted from the Miracle Mile CDO?

LACMA is a county institution located in Hancock Park, which is a county park. The CDO is under the purview of the City of Los Angeles, whose regulations do not apply to Los Angeles County property.

The MMRA is particularly puzzled by the Planning Department’s approval of the Petersen facade on the grounds that “it is consistent with innovative modern architecture design present in nearby museum uses.” The logic of this statement in ambiguous – it appears to be a reference to LACMA, given that it is the only nearby museum with innovative modern buildings present. But as explained above, LACMA is not legally bound by the guidelines and standards of the Miracle Mile CDO. If, indeed, they are referring to LACMA, then the Planning Department found that the Petersen facade was consistent to the CDO by comparing it to a museum that is exempt from the CDO. This slight of hand ignores the purpose, intent, and spirit of the CDO.

Does the CDO prohibit modern architecture?

No, not at all. The CDO does establish practical guidelines regarding setback, having a Wilshire pedestrian entrance, avoiding garage driveway entrances on Wilshire, etcetera – as well as general design standards regarding massing, architectural elements, and building materials – but it doesn’t require that new projects be constructed in an Art Deco or any other particular style.

Who enforces the CDO?

The Los Angeles City Department of Planning. But – as evidenced by their endorsement of the Petersen facade – it is obvious that anything goes with the Department of Planning.

The MMRA recently requested that our Councilmember, Tom Labonge, reinstate the Miracle Mile CDO citizen advisory board – but he refused. He maintains that the Department of Planning is solely franchised to implement the CDO. It is a Catch 22 situation for the Miracle Mile. The Department of Planning is in charge of implementing guidelines and standards that they feel free to redefine at will – without any public input.

Neither the Department of Planning nor the Petersen Museum did any public outreach before the plan for the new facade was submitted and approved by the City. The MMRA only accidentally learned of the project after it had been signed off on – and only a few days away from the expiration of the appeal process.

Since the filing of an appeal by MMRA President James O’Sullivan, the Petersen has belatedly begun its outreach campaign. And it is only because the appeal was filed that the public will have any input on this project at all.

Obviously, since the Department of Planning has apparently abdicated its responsibility to enforce the CDO, it falls upon the MMRA to fight for its implementation. To some the CDO is an imperfect document, but it was created by consensus to address the concerns of the community. The MMRA fully supports efforts to improve the CDO or to correct any of its defects. But it cannot be casually dismissed; it is the law in the Miracle Mile.

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