Foster the People Mural Was Never Legit, City Officials Say
Despite claims to the contrary by pop act Foster the People and by a street art proponent Daniel Lahoda, a controversial mural commissioned by the band was never approved by the city in any way, L.A. officials say.
The band's claims that the mural had been approved, that it had been the subject of a subsequent take-down order with a deadline of yesterday, and that "permits" had "retroactively been denied" all appear to be false. Foster the People's story, however, has generated big press, a Change.org campaign, and the intervention of L.A's own mayor. Were we all being played here?
Even the band's announcement yesterday that Mayor Eric Garcetti has "decided against repainting the wall" — that he has essentially saved the multistory piece — appears to be overstated:
Mayoral spokesman Jeff Millman told us this today:
Our office just became involved over the weekend, and to cool things off, had a discussion with the property owner, who agreed to not paint over the mural today as had been planned
... We hope this issue can be resolved within L.A.'s mural ordinance rules, which have been a model for facilitating public art.
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Millman said that " ... the city has never issued an order to remove the mural." But Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety Assistant Chief David Lara appeared to have a different set of facts that span the months before the controversy erupted.
Lara told us a take-down order was issued to the owner of the building at 121 E. Sixth St. in late February based on a complaint that the mural represented signage without city approvals.
"It was considered a sign," he told us. "We basically took action because there was no permit for it."
The first step in defending the legitimacy of a mural would be to register it with the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, a process that was started but not completed, a spokesman for the department told us.
Even so, it's not clear if the mural would pass other city standards. Millman said there's a question about the line between the mural's commercial appeal and its artistic aims.
"There is concern," Millman said, " ... that aspects of the mural may cross the line into commercial advertising, which could run afoul of the law. In addition, the building is subject to rules related to historic buildings."
The city overturned its ban on murals one year ago but, in a nod to complaints about "supergraphic" billboards painted on the sides of tall buildings, it also established that such pieces could not double as advertising.
The artwork in question, produced in early January in advance of a free Foster the People show that promoted a forthcoming album, is the centerpiece of the band's "Coming of Age" video. And it essentially comprises the cover artwork for the trio's March album.
Posters of the album-cover art were handed out to fans at the mural site Monday, an event promoted by the band via Twitter.
Building and Safety's take-down order set an April 8 deadline, said Lara. But it was stayed, or put on hold, after the building's owner applied for for that Cultural Heritage mural registration, he said.
As a result, "we stopped moving on enforcement," Lara said.
Permits were never actually issued, and eventually "the owner was going to decide just to take it down on their own," Lara told us.
In fact, a July email to the city from the owner of the site, the Santa Fe Lofts, was forwarded to the Weekly. It seems to show that voluntary removal was indeed planned:
We have come to an agreement with [the mural's organizer] Daniel Lahoda and [band co-founder] Mark Foster that the mural will be removed. Daniel is getting access to the lot as we speak ... It will be removed by July 20th at the latest.
The mural also apparently ran afoul of the city's Cultural Heritage Commission, which discussed it at its May meeting and which was planning to consider it again this month until it was told the owner was taking it down, said Ken Bernstein, manager of L.A.'s Office of Historic Resources.
At issue, he said, was the site of the mural, which is a city Historic-Cultural Monument.
The Kerckhoff Building and Annex, now better known as the Santa Fe Lofts, were built in in 1907 and 1917. The Historic-Cultural Monument status as well as a tax break under the "Mills Act Historical Property Contract Program" translate into strict limits on what can be done to the appearance of the structures, Bernstein explained.
The Mills Act means that government has "entered into contract with owners in which they agree to preserve and rehabilitate property according historic preservation standards, including advance approval of any renovations," he said.
"Any work that would change the appearance" of the building could prompt the city not only to revoke the tax break but to impose a penalty worth 12.5 percent of the property's value, Bernstein said:
This particular mural was put up without permits, did not go through a Cultural Heritage review and did not have conformance with its Mills Act contract. Cultural Heritage commissioners are very concerned.
Artists who produced the mural painted over several windows on the side of the structure.
Bernstein indicated that his department would work with the mayor's office on the matter, but he also said that the commissioners could still bring up the legality of the mural at a future meeting.
The band said in a statement last week that it was told permits were "approved." Downtown mural proponent Lahoda, who has taken credit for painting the piece alongside artists Vyal Reyes and Abel Leba, also told us that "the city had given us approval to produce the mural."
"We were initially working with Cultural Affairs until they brought up the concern that the mural was on a historic building," he said. "And then it was out of their hands and it went to a different department."
Fans of the painting took to Change.org and obtained more than 12,000 digital signatures from people who wanted the city to halt any take-down efforts. The band said Sunday night that the mayor called and offered assurances that it wouldn't be painted over.
It's not the first time a mural with Lahoda's fingerprints on it has made headlines. In May he said a David Choe mural that he believed to be legal was essentially painted over because of city pressure.
However, a city official explained that the matter was really in the hands of the building's owner. The owner decided not to to register the piece with Cultural Affairs, which could have saved it, the official said.
While he posted on Facebook that the mayor's intervention on Sunday would "save" the Foster the People piece, the future of that mural is really still "up in the air," Lahoda admitted to us.
Vicky Curry of the mayor's office acknowledged that this thing must past muster with the Cultural Heritage Commission. "We are working with the property owner to explore options to complete the mural's registration," she said.
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