Demolish For Progress

Woodbury University’s WUHO Gallery

Who would want to live in a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light? “ -Woody Allen

On the surface, it seems like a stunning blow to LA’s cultural community: The city is removing yet another block of small arts institutions. But this time they may do things a little better than the last time around. The Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID) has plans to tear down the block of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue in Hollywood containing Woodbury University’s WUHO Gallery, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibits (LACE) Gallery, and the Cupcake Theater in favor of a mixed-use housing development.

The department issued a request for proposals for the currently rough-around-the-edges site on July 24, calling for a about 57,000 square feet of housing, retail, and commercial development on land owned by the LA Department of Transportation. The development will make the organizations homeless for at least a year and a half, which is worrisome. But according to the RFP, the arts institutions will have “first right of refusal” to return once the development is completed, and proposals for the site are encouraged to “incorporate a lease structure that allows these tenants to be viable.”

WUHO director Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter was pleasantly surprised to see the institutions written into the RFP, even if it doesn’t yet guarantee they’ll be able to return at an affordable rate. HCID’s George Guillen said developers will be charged with facilitating temporary relocation.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” said Wahlroos-Ritter. “I’m very interested in working with the city in seeing if this becomes a visionary project. They talk about supporting this area as an arts district. One would think since we are the arts district there would be genuine support for this.

“We see them as very valuable to the city. We want them to stay,” said Guillen, of the cultural organizations.

The approach, while yet to prove itself as viable, and certainly presenting a challenge for institutions to find temporary spaces, already stands in contrast to the impending destruction, by Metro, LA County’s transit agency, of a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that contains the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, Edward Cella Art and Architecture, cultural incubator For Your Art, and gallery Steve Turner Contemporary.

That move, necessitated by a new station and staging ground for Metro’s Purple Line extension, contained no pledges to return the existing cultural organizations to the high profile area. That’s not an unusual situation for a subway project, which by its nature needs to raze buildings in favor of transit facilities. But it is unusual given that, according to the LA Times, Metro is now in discussions with LACMA about developing a tower on that site containing LACMA’s own cultural facilities, including possibly an architecture and design collection.

Los Angeles is a city known worldwide for its creative community, but it’s certainly not known as one that steadfastly protects that community’s interests. In forcing developers to compete to find creative solutions to keep cultural institutions where they are the Housing and Community Investment Department is starting to undermine that stereotype. We’ll follow closely to see if they follow up. In collaborating with LACMA to displace small arts institutions in favor of a goliath Metro is reinforcing it.

At their heart, cities are places that need to embrace culture whenever possible, not destroy it. And in a time when physical manifestations of culture are being replaced by virtual ones, we need to protect our smaller cultural spaces all the more. They add a richness, variety, and local spontaneity to the cultural mix that slow moving large entities cannot. Urban renewal can be a tool for wanton destruction, but sometimes it’s ok to tear down sites in the name of progress. But in so doing small cultural players should not be discarded, even if they don’t have the same pull as the more powerful ones.

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