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New Voices Join the LACMA Re-Design Discussion

As tomorrow’s vote by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors looms on the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the proposed major redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, two major voices have joined the increasingly contentious conversation about the project.

It’s a conversation that has ramped up since the FEIR was released, revealing that the big Peter Zumthor-designed project has been retooled and downsized a bit – yet again – and will now contain about 10% less space than the buildings it’s designed to replace.   This news had several critics – especially in two articles published by the Los Angeles Times – here and here  – shaking their heads and noting that one of the big reasons for the whole effort, originally, was to expand, not reduce, exhibition space for the museum’s vast collections.

Yesterday and today, two more significant voices added their comments to the conversation – the Miracle Mile Residential Association, which represents the neighborhood adjacent to the museum, and LACMA Director Michael Govan himself, who published a lengthy opinion piece in the LA Times yesterday, defending the building project and its place in the museum’s overall expansion strategy.

Miracle Mile Weighs In

First, the MMRA’s  11-page letter, signed by MMRA Senior Vice President Ken Hixon and distributed to LACMA, the Board of Supervisors and a long list of city officials, hews closely to criticisms made by others, focusing on both the project’s currently-proposed design, and the FEIR document itself, which the MMRA calls “fatally flawed.”

At the same time, however, the MMRA is also careful to say:

“…we’d like to make abundantly clear that the MMRA does not oppose LACMA expansion or a new LACMA structure. Indeed, our organization wants to see Wilshire Boulevard blossom to its full potential as a center of art, commerce, and life – as it was envisioned nearly 100 years ago by A.W. Ross. We strongly believe LACMA has a significant place in the future of our neighborhood.”

Design and Land Use

When it comes to the proposed new facility, which will be long and low, flowing across Wilshire Blvd. to museum property on the south side of Wilshire at Spaulding, the MMRA disagrees with Director Govan’s recent contention that horizontal museums are preferable to vertical ones.  The letter also points out that the Miracle Mile along Wilshire is already home to a number of tall buildings, and local zoning can accommodate additional height, so a taller building could be built much more easily, and with fewer community impacts, on the main LACMA property on the north side of Wilshire.  “LACMA Director Michael Govan insists that arts patrons will not climb above the first floor of a museum,” the MMRA letter notes. “That, and only that, has been his rationale for the costly bridge design whose price tag keeps climbing even as the project keeps shrinking.”

But it’s not just the cost of the “bridge design” that concerns the MMRA:

“By bridging Wilshire Boulevard this unusual structure thrusts the museum into a densely populated and historically protected residential area. This building, raised above the ground on enormous pylons and crossing Wilshire with a 150-foot-long by 170-foot-wide bridge, will make future expansion impossible. There will be no way to add onto the building, either up or out. Utilizing concrete to construct gallery walls, as is contemplated by the new plan, will completely inhibit any future rearrangement of exhibition space (which is also shrinking by one-third). LACMA will be a museum locked out of its own future.”

Also, notes the letter:

“This scenario was specifically one LACMA meant to avoid when it first acquired the Spaulding Lot on the south side of Wilshire, where a portion of the new museum will be built. This parcel is an extremely valuable site with no height limit for skyscraper development. LACMA bought the land in the first place as a land bank to cash in on development rights – to build precisely the kind of development the city and county are looking for along this transit-rich corridor. Now LACMA will lose perhaps its greatest resource: Land capable of generating a revenue stream that likely would have added millions annually to LACMA’s coffers, rather than, as the present proposition does, indebt the museum further.”

The MMRA also agreed with other critics about the reduced size of the project:

“The inherent limitations of this design will also compel LACMA to lease five floors of nearby office space at market-rates in order to properly function – not to mention leasing additional off-site locations to serve other key museum activities.”

And then, of course, there are the finance issues.  The MMRA cautions the County against proceeding with the project until LACMA has actually secured more of the cash that has so far been pledged to the project:

“The County will be pledging $425 million of public assets for this project but doing so without Museum Associates possessing all the $650 million they say is necessary to complete the project. According to the County CEO, of the $433 million in pledges that LACMA has solicited to date, only $82 million has been collected. This raises alarms as it seems that – despite their assurances to the County otherwise –LACMA is taking a “shovel in the ground” approach with the intent of returning to the County for additional funds and/or funding guarantees to complete the project or to cover the cost of construction budget overruns.”

The MMRA also urges the Board of Supervisors “to conduct a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of this proposed project as we believe that the rationale for this design is ambiguous and unrealistic, and will permanently damage the function of one of Los Angeles’ greatest cultural resources.”

The association continues:

” The extremely high price of the project is not commensurate with its purported benefits – particularly as it will reduce existing museum space by at least 45,000 square feet (and by some estimates, double that loss). In essence, LACMA will be spending more for less. No major museum in history has embarked upon such a backward mission. It defies logic for the largest encyclopedic art museum west of the Mississippi to purposely shrink not only its exhibition space but to eliminate the office and support space that is part and parcel of the routine operation of a museum.”

EIR specifics

Finally, the MMRA also takes issue with some of the specifics in EIR document itself.

First, the MMRA argues that the report is based on general concept drawings, and not actual plans, so  “the real price for what might be built cannot be determined, nor is there any way to assess the entirety of the project itself.” Also, the fact that no interior plans are included, “makes it difficult to accurately determine how much usable square footage will actually be available for exhibition space or other uses.”

Next, parking is another big issue, according to the MMRA.  For example, the association notes that no county requirements for parking in such projects are provided…and it disagrees with report’s position that no additional parking will be needed for the new facility, citing experience with the museum’s current parking capacity:

“The number of days that “Full” signs are posted outside LACMA’s current parking facilities makes a mockery of the EIR’s assertions that the project, with its shared parking plan with the Academy Museum, has sufficient parking.”

The letter also notes that the existing zoning of the parcels on the south side of Wilshire, at Ogden Dr., does not support use as a parking structure, as the plans propose.  Instead, according to current zoning, the land is reserved for either surface-level parking (its current use) or R-3 multifamily residential housing development – something the city currently needs, but which would be prevented by construction of a parking structure.   (And, as noted above, LACMA would also be foregoing a lucrative opportunity to either sell the land for housing development, or develop the land itself, if it proceeds with current plans.)

Next, the MMRA letter also addresses some specifically local concerns, such as construction fatigue (after many years of subway, Academy Museum and other residential construction).  It says LACMA’s project has the “potential to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” for neighbors, especially without adequate sound mitigation (including 24-foot-high sound walls) and prohibitions on round-the-clock construction, which the LACMA’s contractor has said could be necessary for certain operations such as concrete pours.

And finally, when evaluating potential neighborhood impacts, the MMRA letter requests stronger guarantees that the facility will not host late-night, after-hours events, which could bring late-night noise and traffic issues to the neighborhood for decades after construction is complete.

Michael Govan’s Repsonse to Critics

Meanwhile, as the criticisms have mounted in the last few days, Michel Govan’s opinion piece in the Sunday LA Times addresses the space and finance questions head on, contending that efforts to expand LACMA’s exhibition areas are already well underway, and have been largely addressed by several other new buildings and spaces, which reduce the need for large amounts of space in the proposed Zumthor building:

“Between 2008 and 2010, we added 100,000 square feet of galleries when we opened the Broad Contemporary Art Museum building and the Resnick Pavilion, along with the Smidt Welcome Plaza and Ray’s restaurant and Stark Bar, all designed by Renzo Piano.”

Addressing other recent criticisms that the Zumthor project is too expensive, will be impossible to fund, and will be fatally disruptive to the museum’s operations during construction, Govan goes on to say that:

“Eighty-five percent of the $650-million budget for the Zumthor building has been raised, primarily from private donors. And with the Piano additions in place, LACMA can remain open, with 100,000 square feet of gallery space, during construction of the new building.”

(Ed. note: “money raised” refers to funds that have been pledged so far; according to several sources, between $80 and $90 million of the pledged amount has been collected to date.)

In fact, writes Govan:

“When the new building is finished, we will have increased LACMA’s galleries by nearly 70%, from 130,000 square feet (including the four crumbling buildings and the Japanese Pavilion, which is being renovated, not demolished) to a total of 220,000 square feet since the expansion began. That level of growth meets our master plan for LACMA’s development. All along, we’ve understood that we would replace — not enlarge — the space in the four buildings that must be demolished. Adding space would create significant and expensive environmental impacts, which couldn’t be absorbed within our budget.”

If the Board of Supervisors votes tomorrow to certify the FEIR, LACMA will be able to move forward with its plans for the redevelopment project, including finalizing designs, further fundraising, and beginning the permitting process prior to construction.   It will be another big milestone in a process that has been in motion since at least the mid-2000s, and which has been in high gear since the first version of the Zumthor design was unveiled in 2013.

Update at 2:32 p.m.:  The LA Times‘ Christopher Knight, author of one of the two critical stories linked to above, published an editorial in today’s paper urging the Board of Supervisors to vote a “resounding no” on the project at tomorrow’s meeting.

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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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  1. Hats off to Ken and Jim and the Miracle Mile Residential Association! Thank you for your hard work and watching out for the neighborhood and your neighbors! Your points are excellent and so very important — for all who love art in Los Angeles and for all who love the LACMA collections.

    Thanks, Buzz, for covering and distilling this for us!

  2. The last time they remodeled LACMA, they took a charming presentation and built the monstrosity that sits there now, which is an ugly abomination. This idea is even worse, if that’s possible. Why don’t they get someone to design who has some taste?

  3. So now the MMA is against a low-in-height building that is smaller nd with less shadow impacts, creates more open space, and does not need more parking as it replaces a slightly larger facility, but they would welcome an unlimited height skyscraper literally in their backyards. And they per their letter are experts in neo-liberal logics that equate the success of cultural institutions with real estate deals. I guess they are also experts in multi-height event spaces and getting people up and down elevators. What a bunch of self-serving baloney.


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