Is Downtown L.A.'s Art Scene Already Doomed?

Is Downtown L.A.'s Art Scene Already Doomed?
John W. Tomac

Before vacating his downtown gallery, Ibid Projects, Magnus Edensvard decided he’d dismantle the space his own way. He titled the final exhibit “Tree House Down,” and, at the suggestion of artist Amir Mogharabi, invited a trained archer to shoot arrows into the walls, aiming at targets placed between artworks. Mogharabi poured oil on the floor in one of the gallery’s smaller rooms, and two other artists cut pieces out of the drywall. A surveillance camera installed in the rafters recorded everything and fed live footage to the gallery’s website. Online viewers might catch a glimpse of the visitors who’d begun coming by to ask about the property more often than the art. “Recently, I’ve felt more like an involuntary ambassador for the DTLA property scene,” Edensvard said, halfway through his final show’s run. The plan had been to keep the live feed going to the bitter end, as the gallerist oversaw disassembly of the walls he’d built and moved out. But Edensvard, who’d kept negotiating with his corporate landlord for more time, lost his Internet connection before leaving at the end of October, three months after receiving a 30-day eviction notice. So the live stream ended before the show did.

The situation was all too familiar to Edensvard, who’d opened a gallery in East London’s Hoxton Square five years earlier. In 2013, rising rents and increasing high-end development prompted Edensvard to relocate to a Central London apartment. But at least it had taken a few years for developers to pounce on his Hoxton Square building. Now, only one year after opening an L.A. satellite in a gorgeous 1910 warehouse on South Santa Fe, he’d already lost a space he’d carefully renovated. His neighbor, gallerist Harmony Murphy thoroughly renovated her 1949 building, too — and she also received an eviction notice. Their landlords, the Beverly Hills–based Bolour Associates, plan to tear down both buildings and replace them with a residential complex built from the ground up.

For a short time Edensvard and Murphy’s galleries, with their adjoining outdoor courtyards, had created a charming niche in the growing downtown gallery scene (they also were among the subjects in an April L.A. Weekly cover story about the city’s explosive growth of galleries). Theirs is an accelerated version of the age-old story: An art scene moves in, developers follow, gentrification ensues, and the scene is forced out. But it’s also a story that focuses attention on an ongoing struggle between Arts District neighborhood organizations, developers and the city over regulations that might determine how long east downtown retains the industrial character that attracted artists and galleries to begin with.

In 2013, the first big galleries, Night and Ghebaly, opened in what was still an industrial no man’s land. That same year Bolour Associates purchased the lots that Murphy and Edensvard would later lease. Bolour continued revising plans for lofts that the previous owners had begun. They would call their development AMP Lofts because the auto parts company American Moving Parts had long occupied that site — though, of course, no original buildings would survive.

Magnus Edensvard assumed he'd be able to keep his downtown gallery, Ibid Projects, around for a few years — and run autonomous programs without interference from a manager.
Magnus Edensvard assumed he'd be able to keep his downtown gallery, Ibid Projects, around for a few years — and run autonomous programs without interference from a manager.
Danny Liao

The initial design had retail on the first floor and six stories of boxy live/work spaces. Arts District community members argued that its aesthetic was too imposing, and, in 2014, Bolour proposed a new design with more green space — and more units. That proposal was met with backlash, too. The units were too small — some were just 525 square feet — for real artists to comfortably work and live in. Members of the Arts District Community Council and Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association decided to draft their own version of a live-work ordinance to regulate ground-up construction in their neighborhood. They were sticklers for details like units’ exact square footage and the distance buildings should be from the street; in just three years they had seen rent of industrial buildings skyrocket from 30 cents per square foot to $2 to $4 per square foot.

They had also seen investment groups based in Beverly Hills, in Orange County and overseas descend upon the neighborhood, with little apparent concern for its character. “The city has done nothing to stop the speculation,” says Laura Velkei, a community activist and Arts District resident. Velkei cites the ties Councilman José Huizar, who represents the Arts District, has to developers.

Gloria Molina, who ran against him in the 2015 council race, argued in a debate that Huizar, the incumbent, was “so busy working with developers and talking about density” that he ignored “basic issues” about the Arts District’s character. When Molina, who had never lost a race in this city, was beaten by Huizar, pundits suggested she should have harped more on the $200,000 the city shelled out for a sexual assault lawsuit filed against Huizar or the $185,000 taxpayers spent on his recent car crash. Ultimately, Huizar raised more money than Molina: He had about $1.2 million at his disposal, and four of his nine biggest donors had real estate interests downtown.

In June 2015, the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, chaired by Huizar, introduced the Hybrid Industrial (HI) Live/Work Zone Ordinance, much to the surprise of Arts District stakeholders, including Velkei and architect Yuval Bar-Zemer, who had previously submitted their own ordinance. The concern was that Huizar’s legislation would make ground-up development more appealing than historical preservation and would allow for lower-quality construction and smaller units (750 square feet). Because it applies to the entire city, the ordinance isn’t tailored to the Arts District’s specific character. At a Sept. 22 hearing addressing the HI Live/Work Ordinance, Arts District community members showed up en masse with the following set of pleas: Do not allow units smaller than 1,000 square feet; ensure flexible, sustainable column beam construction; and do not demolish buildings built prior to 1965 without an approved permit. Bar-Zemer begged Huizar to not “take us 50 years backward.”

Lobbyists working on behalf of developers, including Camden Properties Trust and Bolour, showed up in support of the ordinance, which the City Council approved in early October. But now it has to be applied specifically to the Arts District, so there remains a chance for revision. “The question,” says Adrian Fine of the Los Angeles Conservancy, “is whether the Arts District will become a victim of its own success.”

Bolour Associates represent one kind of downtown landlord. “Demand is high, project is certain,” Mark Bolour said via email in October when asked if the demolition of the historic buildings that Murphy and Edensvard’s galleries had occupied was a done deal.

Jack-of-all-trades Julio Hechavarria has been managing properties for Bolour for the past two years. He still hosts pop-up events in the buildings the two gallerists renovated. “They’ve just gotten prettier and prettier,” he says of the spaces. He adds that he initially leased to Murphy and Edensvard, assuming they’d “collaborate” with him, let him host parties on-site or rent their courtyards to film crews. “Inexperience got me,” Hechavarria says. He adds that he didn’t think such “successful” galleries would be so closed to his business approach. For their part, Murphy and Edensvard assumed they’d be able to stay a few years and run autonomous programs without interference from a manager. “I wasn’t looking to bring in elitists,” Hechavarria says. He sees the buildings as ways to generate revenue and make the neighborhood more colorful until Bolour tears them down.

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David Dietch, who loves bow-and-truss warehouses and the fact that industrial is chic right now, represents another kind of landlord. He recently leased one of his family’s buildings to Rosamund Felsen and CB1, two galleries relocating to downtown. He also opened a studio complex called Arts Continuum, where artists pay as little as $375 per month, though they must provide their own toilet paper (artists go through it like nobody’s business, Dietch says). His grandfather first acquired downtown real estate in 1934, when South Santa Fe Avenue was full of machinery dealers. “We’re here out of necessity. We weren’t looking for a hot real estate market,” he says.

There are a number of others like him, quieter, longtime property owners who are resisting the downtown-development boom, or at least waiting to see exactly what happens.

Dietch continues, “I’ve never seen a neighborhood change this fast.” The “speculated overpricing” particularly concerns him. Since any growth downtown benefits his family, he prefers to keep rents reasonably low: “At least we will have helped move the market in the right way.”

When Harmony Murphy began searching for a new space after leaving Santa Fe, she initially continued to look at downtown properties. Not all landlords were as sympathetic as Dietch; some treated her as if she was robbing them if she proposed to pay less than $3 per square foot. “It feels like they’re selling you futures,” she says. “Everyone’s plan is contingent upon everyone else’s plan.” Landlords frequently talk about what’s coming: Soho House or Elon Musk. They don’t mention how many vacant buildings still populate downtown.

In late October, Murphy and Edensvard found a building on Anderson, toward Boyle Heights, where galleries began moving after Santa Fe became too expensive. They’d planned to share the space; Edensvard would occupy the larger area and sublease a smaller area to Murphy. But then, to Murphy’s surprise, Edensvard decided against subleasing, to avoid what he describes as the “frictions or complications …. that many of these relationships in DTLA seems to bring forth.”

The day I spoke with Murphy she had just received a phone call from a New York Times style section writer who was working on a piece about Boyle Heights being the hot new art epicenter. “That kind of story belongs in the style section,” she says. “It looks so glossy and cool. But then when you’re in it, it’s a hot mess. It’s like the settlers in the Wild West down there.”

She has since started looking for a building in Hollywood, near Highland. That neighborhood had been out of her price range just two years ago but is now more affordable than downtown, and more stable. “I want to deal with adults now,” she says.

Harmony Murphy lost her downtown gallery about a year after moving in; the 1949 building she renovated is targeted for demolition to make way for lofts.
Harmony Murphy lost her downtown gallery about a year after moving in; the 1949 building she renovated is targeted for demolition to make way for lofts.
Danny Liao

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