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What's Up With Watts
LA's historic Watts Towers may get a few new neighbors.
A $25 million entertainment complex by Jenkins/Gates & Martinez is part of the plan.
Courtesy J/G & M

The Watts Towers have always been an icon of Los Angeles, or, as LA Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) Executive Director Olga Garay says, “a beacon to the power of the individual.” Created over three decades—between 1921 and 1954—this National Register Historic Listed landmark created by untrained artist Simon Rodia may soon have a few new neighbors in its shadow. They include a new skate park, a spruced-up train station, a theater, a shopping center, and a new series of walking paths, helping to turn the neighborhood surrounding the towers into a real destination after years of neglect.

In July DCA announced it would receive a $250,000 Our Town grant, the largest amount available, from the National Endowment for the Arts to design the Watts Historic Train Station Visitors Center and Artist Pathways. DCA partnered with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is already providing initial studies toward conservation efforts for the Towers, and it has reached out to several organizations in the area in the hopes of building a plan for the large swath of the Watts area radiating from 103rd Street.

The Visitor’s Center would convert a 1904 late Victorian single-story wood-frame train station (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) into a LEED-certified exhibition space celebrating the Watts Community. No architect has been named yet. The Pathways would consist of an approximately two-mile “green” walkway designed by Katherine Spitz Associates Landscape Architecture, which will connect the Visitor’s Center to the Towers, a shopping center, and the $25-million, 33,000-square-foot Wattstar Theater and Education Center, which is being designed by local firm Jenkins/Gales & Martinez. Planning for the project should be completed by next March.

Outside of the grant, funds for the projects would come from a variety of partners, said Garay, who mentioned that LA’s Public Works Department Street Services has $1.2 million in design and construction funds to improve the walking environment in Watts, while the Los Angeles Harbor-Watts Economic Development Corporation has $400,000 that it received from the state’s River and Mountains Conservancy. More funding could come from the LA Department of City Planning’s Project Renew.

A proposed skatepark across from the Watts Towers.
Courtesy California Skateparks

Meanwhile WLCAC and DCA will be competing for community attention with the LA Recreation and Parks Department who are considering a $350,000 skate park right across from the Watts Towers. The facility, likely to be designed by a company called California Skateparks, has both received applause and raised concern in the community. Watts Towers lovers fear the repercussions in the relatively tourist-friendly area, while many younger residents are looking forward to a safe, public space where they can play.

“We’re sort of in a holding pattern,” said Miki Vuckovich, Executive Director of the Tony Hawk Foundation. The foundation contributed $80,000 and received a grant from the Annenberg Foundation for $275,000 toward the design and construction of the park, which LA City Council placed solely under the jurisdiction of parks on June 17.

Vuckovich said that the skate park will be built in a plaza style unlike traditional skating bowls. “It’s all at grade or above and low profile. It can be used for public events, festivals and that kind of thing,” he said. There are likely to be many more conversations before any plans for the skate park moves forward. The Tony Hawk Foundation, however, remains hopeful. “We’re committed to bringing the kids at Watts a great skate park that’ll benefit them greatly. Hopefully, that happens much sooner than later.”

Carren Jao