An artist's rendering of the proposed East Fifth Street development. Togawa Smith Martin is the architect.EXPAND
An artist's rendering of the proposed East Fifth Street development. Togawa Smith Martin is the architect.
Courtesy Arts District Development LLC

Artists Out, Chinese Capital in for Proposed $200 Million Arts District Center

Across the Arts District, longtime artist-residents continue to face rent hikes and evictions as developers scour the area for properties to raze or convert into mixed-use havens for upwardly mobile urbanites. Throughout downtown’s steroidal boom, there are pockets of resistance, affordable housing tacked on as consolation or incentive — minor rumblings against a steady flow of investment capital, which these days includes an increasing number of foreign players.

Discord over the future of the Arts District is tidily expressed in the proposed Arts District Center, a $200 million mixed-use development — residential, gallery, hotel, retail — with an “art-inspired” theme. To critics, it is a twisted premonition that replaces people and culture with a slick verisimilitude working artists can’t actually afford. To developer Kevin Chen and his supporters, it’s an attempt to build on history and support the arts; an emblem of the renaissance.

Last week, a protracted battle over 454 Seaton St. — part of the site where Chen intends to erect the arts center — came to a close as longtime artist-resident Michael Parker settled with the developer for an undisclosed amount. Less than a year after launching the Artist Loft Museum (ALMLA) as a means of resisting his own rent increases and eviction — and drawing attention to the broader threat to livable artist workspace in the area – Parker agreed to vacate his 5,000-square-foot loft, which he shares with other artists, by June 30.

Parker declined to comment on the ALMLA and couldn’t discuss the terms of the agreement. “There’s a confidentiality agreement, that’s how we got the settlement,” said his attorney Elena Popp, executive director of the Eviction Defense Network. They would have had leverage at a trial, she said, confident about the negotiation process after beating an injunction to prevent an ALMLA event on premises last year, and what she described as “a sweet chronology” of the landlord’s “retaliatory behavior," culminating in eviction proceedings.

The site for the proposed arts center sits on about an acre of land and includes 10 units spread across three buildings (the Seaton Street Studios, 1129 E. Fifth St. and 445 Colyton St). Tenants in the nine other units, all on a month-to-month basis, support the project, according to Chen, who purchased the property in 2008.

In a letter of support to Councilmember José Huizar dated Feb. 26, Lucy Jensen, an artist who has maintained her studio at the Seaton Street property since 2005, praised the developer for improving maintenance and keeping rents below market rate.

Called for comment, Jensen at first declined to speak about the project and abruptly hung up, but then called back to say: “There is an aspect of Kevin Chen’s project that I think builds on what it was,” she said, referring to the neighborhood. “The other developments are coming in and saying, ‘Hey, great, we’ll make this Greenwich Village of the west,' and killed off the goose that laid the golden egg — which is the artist. But his project is built around the character of the community.”

She cited components such as a proposed affordable housing allocation (11 percent) for low-income artists, and commissioned murals that will adorn the building exterior and rooms of an “art hotel.”

Timothy Keating, board president of the Los Angeles Downtown Arts District Space — which he co-founded with Jensen — and an active player in the area for the past 30 years, is not convinced. “We have a saying in the Arts District: ‘How can you tell a developer is lying? They’re moving their lips.’ Every developer has said really nice things until they get their permit,” said Keating.

Keating recalled meeting Chen when he first proposed the project a few years ago. “I said, 'You need to put affordable housing in.' He said, ‘Why do I need to do that? I’m not going to do that.’ So he’s gone through a couple years trying to change it and sucking up to José Huizar,” Keating said. “But I’m skeptical of Kevin Chen, I don’t trust him, I think he’s arrogant. He’s not an artist.”

Eleven percent, Keating said, is paltry: “I believe you should have commitment for 20 percent affordable artist housing. But that’s not going to happen.”

A promotional video for the project extols individuality for a target audience more corporate “creative” than studio artist: “You’re not 9-to-5; you’re 24/7, constantly blurring the lines of work and play.” And in a keen, meta moment: “That’s the beauty of living in an arts neighborhood; it survives on reinvention.”

Meanwhile, perhaps buoyed by news of the settlement, Chinese media outlets reported on Wednesday, April 11, the formation of a Sino-U.S. partnership to fund the Arts District Center. Reached by phone, Chen said he actually inked that deal last year, that “funding has never been an issue” and the majority is still domestic capital.

The two companies now on board are both state-backed enterprises: the China Building Technique Group Co. Ltd. (which was behind the 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium, the National Aquatic Center, Beijing's International Airport and National Grand Theatre); and the China Academy of Building Research, which will help with things such as green tech and intelligence integration, Chen said.

“They are interested that this project will be providing a campus for the artists globally, that this could be a place for emerging artists to present their masterpieces and creations for this area,” Chen said. “And everyone knows Arts District has a lot of noise but development creating a project to benefit the community, to create a positive energy for this community, it is not easy. So my goal is to ... represent the district — like L.A. Live represents South Park.”

Tom Hsieh, the project’s lead architect, suggested fitting into the neighborhood should include growing with it. “How is the world changing in terms of technology, design, art? How do you integrate art into our everyday life? Art is no longer something you go to a museum to see; it should be something that’s part of our environment. I think everyone on this team, including myself, believes this project would accomplish what the detractors are thinking of — just in a different way,” Hsieh said.

Councilmember Huizar said in a statement that he supports, “in concept,” the live-work units and art focus, including affordable housing, and appreciates capital investment from China, among other countries. “And I appreciate the developer’s willingness to engage with the community and we expect that will continue as the project moves through the city’s review process. There will be ample opportunities for local residents and stakeholders to provide further input and I look forward to hearing their feedback before we act on a final proposal,” he said.

The project is currently in the Draft Environmental Impact Report phase of the approvals process.

All around 454 Seaton St., the story echoes: At 440 Seaton St., the Real Deal just reported a 105-year-old three-story brick warehouse will be converted into office and retail space, while a few blocks away, artist-residents at 800 Traction continue to fight eviction.

Popp is busy these days with cases like Parker’s, including at the Santa Fe Art Colony, in which rent control provisions, either expired or nonexistent, don’t offer protection. She couches their struggle in the broader terms of a rising tenants rights movement happening across the state. “Every significant social and political movement in our country has been started by people who were backed up against a wall and decided to protest or resist unjust laws,” she said.

Keating is focused on increasing space for artists within the new landscape. “There are fewer and fewer artists every day. That’s because there’s no affordable housing. So that’s the warpath I’m on.”

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